For most MIT alumni, the right ring finger is reserved for a Brass Rat or Grad Rat class ring. But not John Williams SM ’08. That space is reserved for a flashier piece of jewelry—a World Series Championship ring, which Williams won in November as part of the front office for Major League Baseball’s champion Kansas City Royals.
“If I had to describe it in one word, it would be ‘indescribable,’” Williams say. “It represents the incalculable hours worked by many dedicated staff and players. From leaving spring training to persevering through the ups and downs of the 2015 season and playoffs was unbelievable.”
As the Royals’ director of baseball analytics and player personnel, Williams is part of a five-person group responsible for creating the team’s in-house database that evaluates players and opponents, and provides analytical support for the amateur draft, player transactions, and salary arbitration.
“It’s a special feeling to have a team owner and general manager trust your evaluations,” he says. “Our department’s been very involved at all levels. We’re always looking for avenues that force us to think differently and help us to keep growing.”
Williams took a serendipitous route to joining the Royals. Growing up, he had dueling passions for baseball and meteorology, and he earned a master’s degree in earth and planetary sciences from MIT. After graduation, he hoped for a career in baseball but was unsure how to break into it.
“I took a chance and went to MLB’s winter meetings in Indianapolis,” Williams says. “My goal was simply to meet as many people and learn as much as I could. The Royals were looking for someone with a scientific background in coding and had an internship available. I was lucky to have the right skillset for the right team at the right time.”
Williams joined a Royals team that had lost nearly 60 percent of its games in the previous 10 years—the worst in MLB. The team had recently taken a burgeoning approach to using analytics, or the use of advanced statistics to employ data-driven strategy. Williams was one of its first analytics-focused hires and after the one-year internship, he was named assistant director of baseball analytics.
“The Royals were trying to develop a foothold on analytics in the front office,” he says. “For a time it was only two of us. But now we have a full-time staff of five, and that growth speaks to the character and trust of the people in charge.”
Since the 2010 season, the Royals have increased their winning percentage each year and advanced to the World Series in 2014 and 2015. And Williams is part of a growing number of MIT alumni working in professional sports and one of at least three MIT alumni working in analytics for a MLB team that qualified for the playoffs in 2015. Farhan Zaidi ’98 is the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Mike Fitzgerald ’11 is a quantitative analyst for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Every day at MIT, I was seeing the scientific method in practice,” Williams says. “A lot of research out there doesn’t have scientific merit. I had the experience of seeing research robust enough to be hammered at all angles. That process gave me the mindset to approach baseball research the same way.”
After back-to-back World Series appearances, Williams admittedly hasn’t had much time to reflect on the Royals’ accomplishments. But he does recall one brief moment that encapsulated the magnitude of the team’s success.
“Game 7, 2014 World Series, bottom of the ninth, two out, with the game-winning run at home plate,” Williams says. “We lost the game but the leverage of that moment was absolutely huge. For a second, I looked around and appreciated it. You dream you entire life to be in a situation like that.”