My friend’s father once spent an afternoon explaining to me the Black Swan theory, and how it relates to sports. Surprisingly, it has little to do with Natalie Portman and much more to do with Roger Maris.
Maris was a decent hitter, he explained, but never a great one and certainly not the person you would peg for an all-time power-hitting season. His 61 homers in 1961 was an aberration in the same way Brady Anderson hit 50 homers in 1996 or even Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001. Those home run totals were so out of whack that they have almost nothing to do with the player’s past or future performance.
Think of it this way: if you see a black swan swimming amidst a flock of white swans, does that mean that there are more black swans on the way? Or is he the only one of his kind?
With that brain buster in mind, I wanted to take a look at some MLB players who are having black swan seasons either heading into free agency or right after earning a big contract.
Should MLB executives pay the guys who are about to hit the open market based on how they have done in the past, or how they will do in the future, or a blend of both? And which guys are rewarding or punishing the GMs who paid them the big bucks last winter?
First Year of New Contract
Bautista is on another planet at the moment. He is coming off his huge year last year in Toronto leading the league in home runs and earning a fat new contract. He was the leading vote getter for the All-Star game, and I cannot wait to see him in the home run derby. After a crazy .617 slugging percentage last year, Bautista is slugging more than .680 and getting on base at a ridiculous .470 clip – Bondsian numbers, in an era of stringent steroid testing.
Black Swan? Absolutely.
At the moment, this is the textbook (uh, my friend’s dad) definition of a black swan season. This season sticks out like crazy, and there is no indication from his track record that Bautista’s production will continue. But on the other hand, he could be a case of a player who found his power later in his career. Hey, there are exceptions to every rule.
Bautista seems like a good guy and certainly no one wants him to lose it, except of course for the pitchers who have to face him every day. The average and OBP will have to come down at some point, and the league may figure him out one day. So for now, he is a black swan.
Dunn has been the picture of consistency for his entire career: his HR totals from age 24-30 are 46, 40, 40, 40, 40, 38, 38. That’s while playing for three different teams, with home and away splits of 193/168 in HRs and .901/.878 in OPS. The Chicago White Sox looked at Dunn hitting free agency at age 31 and figured they were in line for a slash line of about .250/.375/.510, with 35-40 homers. Pretty outstanding numbers and more than worth the $66 million they gave him.
Of course, Dunn is hitting .165/.301/.302 at the moment, with just 7 homers and more than 100 strikeouts in less than 250 at-bats. He is on pace for a historically bad season – maybe the worst hitting season ever.
Black Swan? Probably.
There is very little historical comparison for a such a dependable guy suddenly losing it all. The black swan has struck twice this year for power hitters – Dan Uggla is having a similarly miserable time down in Atlanta coming off a big contract. Of course, Dunn has a much better track record than Uggla. Tom Verducci speculated that Dunn is feeling the pressure from his first big time contract but for Ozzie Guillen’s sake, Dunn had better work his demons out fast.
This contract looked bad from the minute the ink dried, and Jeter has not disappointed the legions of Yankee haters by posting the worst season of his career. No matter how much you hate the Yankees, it is hard to hate Derek Jeter. Yes, he dates hotter women than you. Yes, he is a remarkably overrated defender. But he is so much less insufferable than Alex Rodriguez and Paul O’Neill and Roger Clemens and a host of other Yankee jerks from the last two decades.
Black Swan? Sadly, no.
The cruel nature of baseball is that a superstar’s decline is rarely sudden – it occurs over several seasons. Fans watch players decay before their eyes, as in the case of Ken Griffey Jr and Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. Jeter is almost certainly in the twilight of his career, but we all must suffer the agony (or glee) of watching him lose it all before our eyes to the tune of at least two more years and $33 million.
Can you believe that the Red Sox are paying just $5.5 million for Gonzalez’s .352/.407/.593 right now? And that they locked him up for about $21 million a year through his age 38 season, AKA the same age the Yankees will be paying A-Rod $25 million, with $60 million more to go?
This was a classic case of paying for a blend of past results and future performance, a luxury afforded only to teams who can afford the luxury tax. If you have the money and prospects to get a consistent guy like Gonzalez, you do it every time.
Black Swan? No way.
In fact, he may get even better over the next 3 or 4 years before beginning a decline. This was a classic case of right player, right team, and right ballpark – similar to the rival Yankees getting Mark Teixeira a few years back, and the exact opposite of the Mets signing Mo Vaughn at age 34 for $40+ million. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Looking for a New Contract
Pitching is definitely harder to predict than hitting. Pitchers have black swan seasons all the time: Eric Gagne was unhittable for two or three years, then absolutely disappeared. Cliff Lee was a struggling journeyman, then suddenly figured it out and won a Cy Young. But Lee’s former teammate CC is the one about to hit the free agent market, at an advanced age and looking for big bucks. (Note: this is assuming Sabathia exercises the option to terminate his contract early)
Black Swan? As it stands, no.
CC is a guy who won 17 games at age 20, albeit with a high ERA and walk total. Since then, the wins have pinballed around but the important stats like walk total, innings pitched, and strikeouts have stayed consistent or improved. He is in the middle of his prime, but his whole career sort of looks like a prime if you go by the numbers. There is really no indication that CC will lose it in the next few years except for his age and the 2,000+ innings under his considerable belt.
This weekend during the Subway Series, Reyes tweaked his hammy, and it looks like he may miss some time. But that does not take away from the crazy good season Reyes is putting together. Maybe the most telling stat is that he is slugging .527 with only three homers, thanks to his 15 triples. Of course, this comes after two seasons where Reyes played in only 169 out of a possible 324 games, hit around .280, and barely got on base. Those two down years followed four outstanding years where Reyes played almost every game possible. You simply never know how Reyes’ body will hold up.
Black Swan? Nope.
Reyes has put it all together before and he’ll do it again, for whomever gives him Monopoly money next year. The problem for a seven year deal with a guy who spends his life running full speed, diving into bases head first, and having guys crash into his legs at second base is, not surprisingly, health. With Reyes, you pay for past results with the understanding that he is one bad turn at second away from the disabled list.
Maybe the toughest to predict on this whole list. Fielder has had a pretty terrific career so far, and his career OPS of .927 is a testament to the way he can flat out hit. This season has been even better than his last, and it comes as Prince makes a contract push with agent Scott Boras allegedly looking for a $200 million contract for his client.
Of course, his weight is comfortably in the three bills (he is listed at 275, which is like listing David Eckstein at 7’3″) and he plays the field in a way that makes you think he forgot to wipe the burger grease off his hands. A poor body and bad defensive skills lead one to believe he will have a breakdown at some point in the near future, especially if he lets his body go even further after earning a big contract.
Black Swan? Most pundits would say yes, but I say no – power hitting just runs in the family.
Papa Cecil hit 51 homers at age 26, but son Prince eclipsed 50 at age 23 and is well on his way again this year. Dad’s last big home run year was at age 32, but Prince is already a better all-around hitter than his father was, and given that he is rarely injured, there’s no reason to believe he is headed for any sort of breakdown. Just keep him away from the post game spread.
The best hitter in the game is struggling through a rare off-year, not at all the way you would expect Pujols to respond with his next contract set to break the bank this winter. Of course, an off-year Pujols is still slugging .500 with 17 homers before hitting the disabled list last month.
Black Swan? Oh yeah.
Look, even Babe Ruth lost a whole season to Chlamydia once. Pujols is allowed to have a down year thanks to some accumulated injuries. Remember, this is a guy who played a whole season with a torn elbow and still mashed the ball. If anyone is poised for a rebound, it’s him, and he will get paid accordingly.
* – Adam Dunn photo credit: Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images via SI.com