Scheduling Major League Baseball

ESPN has a new “30 for 30” short video on the scheduling of Major League Baseball.  In the video, they outline the story of Henry and Holly Stephenson who provided Major League Baseball with its schedule for twenty-five years.  They were eventually supplanted by some people with a computer program.  Those people are Doug Bureman, George Nemhauser, Kelly Easton, and me, doing business as “Sports Scheduling Group”.

It was fascinating to hear the story of the Stephensons, and a little heart-breaking to hear them finally losing a job they obviously loved.  I have never met Henry or Holly, and they have no reason to think good thoughts about me.  But I think an awful lot of them.

I began working on baseball scheduling in 1994, and it took ten years of hard work (first Doug and me, then the four of us) before MLB selected our schedule for play.

Why were we successful in 2004 and not in 1994? At the core, technology changed. The computers we used in 2004 were 1000 times faster than the 1994 computers. And the underlying optimization software was at least 1000 times faster. So technology made us at least one million times faster. And that made all the difference. Since then, computers and algorithms have made us 1000 times faster still.  And, in addition, we learned quite a bit about how to best do complicated sports scheduling problems.

Another way to see this is that in 1994, despite my doctorate and my experience and my techniques, I was 1 millionth of the scheduler that the Stephensons were. Henry and Holly Stephenson are truly scheduling savants, able to see patterns that no other human can see. But eventually technological advances overtook them.

More recently, those advances allowed us to provide the 2013 schedule with interleague play in every time slot (due to the odd number of teams in each league), something not attempted before. I am confident that we are now uniquely placed to provide such intricate schedules. But that does not take away from my admiration of the Stephensons: I am in awe of what they could do.



6 thoughts on “Scheduling Major League Baseball”

  1. I think many of us can see our jobs being overtaken by technology. I hope we all keep the admiration for the craftspeople who used to do these tasks the way you do.

  2. I’m interested in the Mariano Rivera part of the story. It was implied that if the schedule was still hand-made, Rivera would have finished the 2013 season (and his career) at Yankee Stadium. Was it the case that the Yankees asked to finish up at home but you weren’t able to accommodate it?

  3. The issue is not whether they asked or whether we could accommodate (something I won’t talk about in any case). The issue is simply the timing of the decision. Teams need to put in requests for 2013 early in 2012 (as you can tell from when the 2013 schedule is released: far earlier than the end of the 2012 season). Neither the Stephensons nor our group can really predict two years in advance. In the case of the Yankees, Rivera final regular season game is a non-issue if the Yankees make the playoffs. But who can predict that with certainty?

    Lots of “Why did they do that dumb thing?” comes down to “We didn’t know”. Conversely, a lot of “Wow, they were brilliant!” also is not real planning: it just happened to turn out well.

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