by Tamar Laddy
The World Series started this week and for devotees of the game, it's the high point of the year. But many fans will be watching the games and wondering if next year, finally, their team will be in the series.
Thanks to an algorithm developed by Berkeley researchers, computer savvy fans will be able to track their team's daily standings in next season's pennant races through the World Wide Web.
Any baseball fan will tell you that following the major league season is not just a hobby. It takes dedication, commitment and a somewhat fanatical obsession with numbers.
With 28 teams each playing 162 games a season, determining your favorite team's chances of securing a place in the October playoffs can become a statistical nightmare.
The Baseball Playoff Races site is part of RIOT (Remote Interactive Optimization Testbed), a collection of Web-based algorithm applications created by professors and graduate students from industrial engineering and operations research.
Professors Dorit Hochbaum, Ilan Adler and Ken Goldberg are heading up the project, which is intended to spark the interest of researchers, industry representatives and non-engineers alike.
"The web is a terrific means of communicating very complex and not too exciting-sounding research in a way that is exciting and inspirational," says Hochbaum, whose grant from the Office of Naval Research funds the RIOT project.
"People who think they hate math and are intimidated by engineering find they can deal with this and realize that it's fun, and this attracts them to the sciences and engineering."
The baseball site, up and running since late August, was developed by Hochbaum and Adler, with the help of graduate students Alan Erera and Eli Olinick -- both Red Sox fans.
The group created a software program that analyzes the results of each day's games -- fed into the system nightly via email from the San Jose Mercury News -- and automatically recalculates each team's standings.
As Olinick explains, the algorithm determines the number of games each team must win to guarantee, or "clinch," one of eight playoff spots, as well as the number of wins needed to avoid elimination from the race.
The program also takes into account the schedule of games remaining in the season -- a tactic not used in conventional ranking methods.
"Baseball fans have a love for numbers and statistics," Erera says. "This is just a slightly different set of numbers that will tell them how close their teams are to making the playoffs."
With one season behind them, Erera and Olinick are already toying with ways to make next year's site more interactive and are exploring the potential for linking to other commercial sites.
"It is important to demonstrate to such a huge population -- in this case sports fans -- that engineering research is not only esoteric, but that it has day-to-day value," Hochbaum says. "We wanted to get the so-called man on the street to say, 'Wow, what they're doing at the university in engineering is interesting.'"
Other algorithm applications featured on the RIOT site are more industrial in nature, including an interactive simulation of open-pit mining design and the upcoming Fixture Net, which designs devices for securing parts based on parameters set by the user.