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By Chuck O’Donnell - Correspondent
WEST ORANGE — Welcome to Bruce Bukiet’s living room in his West Orange home.
This is where a Markov Chain meets the Mendoza Line, where the laws of quadratic reciprocity meet the infield fly rule, where Sir Issac Newton meets Prince Fielder, and, in general, where mathematics meets baseball every March in a torrent of miscellaneous papers, multicolored Post-it notes, dog-eared magazines and crumpled computer printouts strewn from one end of the room to the other.
Bukiet, an associate professor of mathematical sciences and associate dean of the College of Science and Liberal Arts at New Jersey Institute of Technology, spends his spring break each year running through
a series of calculations. By the end of
the week, he comes up with a predicted order of finish in all six Major League Baseball divisions, complete with projected wins and losses figures for the Yankees, Mets and the other 28 teams.
He’ll be posting his predictions again this year online at m.njit.edu/~bukiet/baseball/SeasonProjections2013.html just before the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers play the season opener Sunday, March 31.
While it is fun to sit back each October and see how accurate his picks are, Bukiet does this to show people — including his students — that math can be fun. After all, this is a man whose email tagline decrees that “a day without math is like a day without sunshine.”
“I really get a kick out of … demonstrating you can use math in real-world situations,” Bukiet said. “I think a part of it is also that it has attracted undergrads and high school students to mentor on projects and having sports or gambling related projects can get them excited, and then seeing them gain understanding gets me excited.”
Bukiet bases his predictions on a mathematical model he developed in 2000. One could call it “A Markov Chain Approach to Baseball” — which happens to be the name of a scientific paper he wrote describing his methodology. His model computes the probability of a team winning a game against another team with given hitters, bench players, starting pitchers, relievers and home-field advantage.He might tweak it from time to time, like when he refined his algorithm a few years ago to incorporate a more realistic runner advancement model.
Although it sounds complicated, Bukiet insists it is rather simple.
“The beauty of the method,” shrugs Bukiet, “is that it involves no math beyond high school.”
It is all just addition, multiplication, subtraction and simple probability, but he’s often in the ballpark with his picks. In 2010, he correctly picked six of the eight playoff teams. A sample of 16 baseball experts’ picks that year revealed that only one had picked as many as six correctly. Many experts predicted three correctly, and few echoed his pick of the Tampa Bay Rays going to the playoffs. In 2010 and 2011, he was the postseason prediction champ at baseballPhD.net.
While the math is relatively simple, the work is difficult. Bukiet has to collect the starting lineups, pitching rotations and bench players for all big-league teams —hence the whirlpool of debris in his living room. There are some late nights spent contemplating the back end of the Seattle Mariners’ rotation or the bottom third of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lineup.
“Usually I stay out of his way as he pores over some magazines and websites trying to figure out who should be playing for each team for the upcoming season,” Gail, Bukiet’s wife, said. “Some magazines and newspapers are strewn around the table in our living room and every now and then I’ll walk by and see him diligently at work on it, or staring dazedly at his baseball auto-
graphed by the 1969 world champion Mets — though he claims he is staring at a picture of me and the kids.”
Unfortunately, Bukiet usually is on target with his beloved — and struggling — Mets. Bukiet loved to play second base or shortstop in gym class, but became a lifelong fan when the Miracle Mets unexpectedly blossomed in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He remembers rising and falling on every Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman fastball, on every Tommie Agee or Cleon Jones swing. It was around this time that Bukiet discovered another love: math. Algebra just spoke to him.
“The idea that letters could stand for numbers and so you could solve certain word problems — like Johnny is twice as old as Bob but three years ago he was three times as old as Bob — just wowed me,” he said.
It set him on a lifelong quest to share his love of numbers and equations with anyone who would listen.
At NJIT, he has evolved into a modern-day math pied piper.
When the school received a grant of almost $500,000 from the National Science Foundation in 2006 to train 26 new teachers in math and science at Newark schools, Bukiet was chosen to lead the charge. Then, Bukiet was one of the leaders when NJIT received $3 million to bring eight doctoral students into Newark high schools to share concepts from cutting-edge research and deliver technology-based lessons.
Joya Clark, who has worked closely with Bukiet on these projects to recruit and retain math and science teachers, said, “Because of our work in education, we have had to research many new topics and learn a great deal of new information. For Bruce, this was relatively uncharted territory, but he never seemed daunted by it.”