Math Awareness Month — Q & A with Mason Alexander Porter

As a part of our Math Awareness Month celebrations we talked with Dr. Mason Porter about how his initial interest in baseball led him into a career in Mathematics.  Porter received his doctorate from Cornell University in 2002 and currently teaches courses in applied mathematics at the University of Oxford.

PUP: What sports are you fond of?

Mason Porter: Baseball!!!

Well, I also like playings things like ping pong and frisbee, but baseball was my first love—and I’m not referring only to sports.  I’ve been fanatically following the Dodgers for 30 years, and I’m only 34. 🙂

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

Mason Porter: Not really. However, my appreciation for sports has occasionally influenced my mathematics;  it is true that my mathematical knowledge makes it pretty easy to understand what the sabermetricians are doing.

I recently coauthored a paper on baseball networks, in which pitchers and batters give a bipartite graph of what can be viewed as mutually-antagonistic interactions.  I have also worked with collaborators on a ranking system for college football, and I wrote a book review (on a book that aims to teach statistics using baseball) for the AMS Notices this year for their Mathematical Awareness Month issue.

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

Mason Porter: I enjoyed sports first, but baseball statistics are actually one of the things (along with fractals and, more generally, pretty pictures that could be better understood and appreciated with the help of mathematics) that first got me into mathematics.  I learned a few things early that way, and I also would snail-mail baseball card companies when the stats were wrong to see whether it was a reporting error or a calculation error.  Nowadays, I’d look such things up online, but then it required more effort to find an extra source.

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

Mason Porter: I probably just caught part of a game on tv, and I was hooked.  It certainly helped that early on (1981) the Dodgers won the World Series, and we had players like Fernando Valenzuela and personalities like Tommy Lasorda (and announcer Vin Scully) that were wonderful.

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

Mason Porter: I use some simple on-the-fly statistics when watching baseball games because most announcers often say asinine things. I’m also into sabermetrics, which creeps into broadcasts more these days.

I do use some of this when playing fantasy games as well, though my track record isn’t all that great.  However, I did do well enough once to get an autographed Nolan Ryan baseball.

When playing, it makes a lot more sense to use physics rather than math!  Although they are obviously (to me… I’m sure pure mathematicians would yell at me for this) two sides of the same coin, it’s more sensible to think in terms of physics when it comes to the action.  I have definitely thought in those terms when playing ping pong, pool, and Frisbee.  I have more skill at those than at baseball, though I do like to play.  For ping pong, the magnus force is really important—and, embarrassingly, I only found out that that was what was going on there after messing up the relevant physics on a project concerning vortices in Bose-Einstein condensates.

Also, putting various types of spin in pool shots, and of course angles in pool, ping pong, and Frisbee.  For baseball, I would say I just try to make up for lack of natural ability by baseball knowledge rather than science.  For example, I am an opposite-field hitter, which is exceptionally rare in softball—but the right fielders are usually very poor fielders in softball, so I have developed my batting stance to hit things there naturally.

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

Mason Porter: I’m not sure what athletes can gain.  Coaches could certainly make use of statistics that correlate more strongly with winning.  As a trivial example, on base percentage is much more important than batting average, yet there are still many examples of so-called 300 hitters who get lots of playing time even though they don’t get on base via walks, don’t hit for power, and aren’t good fielders.  The magic .300 still blinds a lot of people.  And then there are more sophisticated quantities (RUE,etc.) that can also help in making decisions about personnel and playing time.  Also, keep in mind that it’s not just coaches who should use such considerations—others are deciding who the organization drafts, what free agents are signed, etc.