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Thanks to Johns Hopkins Students, Minor League Baseball May Be Scheduled by Computer for the First Time

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

If you had to come up with an example of a mind-boggling mathematical optimization challenge, you probably wouldn’t start with “minor league baseball schedules.”

But it turns out that sorting the details of the SmallTown Whatevers’ next season is a problem that has so far stumped the mighty power of computer algorithms: The 15 or so leagues that make up the official minor-league system affiliated with Major League Baseball are all, to this day, scheduled by human beings, working by hand.

That may change in the months ahead. When Donniell Fishkind, an associate research professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, learned what a knotty problem this could be, he concluded that it might be of interest to optimization-oriented students.

“Baseball,” he tells me, “is sexy.”

By the standards of potential computer-math challenges, this is undoubtedly true. The upshot is that a bunch of Johns Hopkins students have been working on a range of computer-abetted solutions to scheduling for various minor leagues — and one of these is under serious consideration for the 2015 season.

Fishkind tells me that one underlying challenge entails dealing with what’s sometimes called the traveling salesman problem: Basically, trying to sort out the optimum travel route for visiting X number of cities in the most efficient possible manner becomes exponentially more complex the more cities are added, because each new variable amps up the mathematical complexity. Pretty quickly, Fishkind says (echoing what seems to be a schedulers’ cliché) the number of outcomes exceeds “the number of variables in the universe.”

Some of this is easy enough to imagine: balancing out various team travel schedules with holidays and competing stadium commitments, and so on.

But it turns out that the major leagues have in fact moved to a computer-aided scheduling system. Why can’t this solution simply be ported over to the minors?

Tony Dahbura, who is both affiliated with Johns Hopkins and a minority owner of the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns (part of the Nationals’ system) informs me that it’s not that easy.

“Each [minor] league is completely different,” he says. “Different formats, different business philosophies. You can’t just turn off certain major-league parameters and apply it to the minors. It’s a different type of crossword puzzle.”

Fishkind said much the same. Some leagues insist on bus travel. Some demand a particular balance in divisional match-ups. Some have strict parameters about how long the team can be on the road. Some frown on weekend travel altogether. One league may be enthusiastic about a five-game series — while another might consider that out of the question.

The upshot is that students working with Fishkind have been tinkering with computer-aided solutions tailored to seven leagues’ distinct scheduling demands. “I would not even want to try for ‘one size fits all,’ ” Fishkind says.

And in one league’s case, he continues, students have run enough variable tests that there is genuine interest. Sometime around June, this league’s governing body will vote on the matter, but it sounds like there’s a decent chance it will adopt a computer-driven scheduling solution devised by Fishkind’s students for the 2015 season.

Seems to me like it’s about time. Baseball, the “game of inches,” has always been tied up in stats and math. Why shouldn’t the numbers help not just the game, but also the game’s schedule?

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