Math Awareness Month — Q&A with Dr. Mike Huber

As part of our Math Awareness Month celebrations we interviewed previous faculty member of the United States Military Academy at West Point and current Associate Professor of Mathematics at Muhlenberg College, Dr. Mike Huber. Although Huber teaches courses ranging from Statistics to Calculus his real passion is sabermetrics, the computerized measurement of baseball statistics. Huber finds that he is able to relate to students most through sabermetrics because he is able to show that what he is teaching in the classroom is relevant to the students’ passion of sports. He is also the author of Mythematics: Solving the Twelve Labors of Hercules

PUP: What sports are you fond of? (including and beyond baseball)

Mike Huber: I am a general sports fan. I regularly follow baseball at the professional and college levels. I also enjoy watching college and pro football, college basketball, and international soccer (the World Cup and European Cup tournaments). My son graduated from a Division I university with major sports programs and I have been following them ever since he was a freshman. I also helped establish a faculty liaison program at Muhlenberg College, where faculty have a habitual relationship with a team, helping the student athletes with academic-related issues, honor societies, being a fan at the matches/games, etc. I did this for 9 years with Army’s baseball team and now I have been with Muhlenberg’s volleyball team for over 2 years. I travel to away matches and root for the Mules.

PUP: Does your career in mathematics influence your appreciation for sports?

Mike Huber: Absolutely. About ten years ago I wanted to model rare events in baseball (hitting for the cycle, pitching a no-hit game, and turning a triple play). Having an understanding of different distributions (Poisson, exponential Weibull, etc.) allowed me to fit the data to a cumulative distribution function and then determine a goodness of fit. It seemed to me that no-hitters followed a Poisson process and may have followed a memoryless criteria, but I was able to “prove” so knowing the mathematics. Most of my sports-related scholarly research has centered around baseball.

PUP: Did you enjoy sports or mathematics first as a child?

Mike Huber: Sports probably came first. Having two brothers very close in age to me, I was always outside. We played Little League baseball, pick-up basketball and baseball games in the back yard and then at the neighborhood field, touch football (then tackle football) and even bowling. Our neighborhood had youth leagues and we played beginning at age 7 or 8.

PUP: How did you become interested in baseball and/or mathematics?

Mike Huber: My father taught me how to read box scores and keep score myself, and I recall memorizing the statistics in the Sunday sports section of the paper when I was about 12. I started showing an aptitude for mathematics in the 6th grade and I remember reading as many books as I could find at the library dealing with baseball players and their statistics. I tried to link mathematics projects to sports while in college and graduate school and I continue to do so now as a professor.

PUP: Do you find yourself using math while watching or playing sports? How?

Mike Huber: Yes; I will often jump on the internet and look up data during a baseball game. Here’s an example: Last season, the New York Yankees opened their new stadium in the Bronx, after having spent LOTS of money in off-season trades. Fans expected an offensive barrage of power and runs. The first homestand of the season was against the Cleveland Indians, and in the second game at the new stadium, the runs arrived. Unfortunately for the Yankees, it was the Indians who won, 22 – 4. I immediately searched online for such occurrences in the past. How often had teams scored 20 or more runs in a game? Since 1901, when the American League joined the National League, there have been just over 172,000 Major League games. In 224 of those games (about 0.13%), a team has scored 20 or more runs in a game. This is a rare event. I then fit an exponential distribution to the data and performed some analysis on the outcomes. Hopefully, I can now make some predictions on future events. I wrote a paper (with a colleague at West Point) and the Annals of Applied Statistics is publishing it soon.

PUP: What can coaches or athletes gain by having an understanding of mathematics?

Mike Huber: Believe it or not, some of the more successful Major League managers have a background in mathematics. Earl Weaver was one of the first managers to keep split statistics on pitcher-batter matchups (in the 1970s). Tony LaRussa keeps a laptop in the dugout. Davey Johnson was a math major in college. The Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) offers many different methods to evaluate or compare players. All teams have statisticians or public affairs individuals who make data available to coaches. Athletes are keenly aware of their stats; their agents are probably even more aware of them.

PUP: How has your interest in sports and math translated in the classroom?

Mike Huber: By conducting research and publishing scholarly books and articles, the students see that what I’m teaching in the classroom is relevant to their passion of sports. I’ve been fortunate to meet former ballplayers, including members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I’ve brought them to campus to meet the students; or, I’ve taken students to meet ballplayers. I regularly collaborate with the Bart Giamatti Library staff at the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I involve students in my research. I hope to continue involving students in sports-related research in the future.

PUP: Any interesting anecdotes about your work involving sports?

Mike Huber: Several years ago, I met Mr. Tony Morante, the director of tours at Yankee Stadium. He asked me to investigate a story surrounding Mickey Mantle. On May 22nd, 1963, the New York Yankees hosted the Kansas City Athletics in a night game at Yankee Stadium, before a crowd of 9,727. According to John Drebinger of The New York Times, “Mickey Mantle belted one of the most powerful home run drives of his spectacular career.” In the next paragraph, Drebinger continues, “First up in the last of the 11th with a score deadlocked at 7-all and a count of two balls and two strikes, the famed Switcher leaned into one of Carl [note: Fischer’s first name was Bill] Fischer’s fast ones and sent the ball soaring. It crashed against the upper façade of the right-field stand, which towers 108 feet above the playing field.” Mr Morante wanted to know, “How far would Mantle’s mighty smash have traveled, had it not smacked the upper façade?” Factoring in the wind, drag, Magnus force, humidity, assumed bat speed, trajectory of the ball, and other factors, I was able to develop a model for the distance traveled. The New York Times for May 23 provided weather records for the night before: the temperature at 11 PM was 61 degrees, with 39% humidity, winds blowing from the west at 8 miles per hour, and a steady barometer of 30.05 inches. Combining this with Magnus force charts found in Robert K. Adair’s The Physics of Baseball, I determined a maximum predicted distance for Mantle’s mammoth drive of 536 feet. Mr. Morante incorporated that information into his tours. Coincidentally, the great Mickey Mantel hit 536 career home runs, so his home run would have traveled one foot for each career home run!