Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan was one of the most popular books of 2008 in the genre that might be called pop math. Taleb’s book is an interesting and accessible study of randomness and unpredictability. Taleb uses the term “black swan” to refer to what are described on Wikipedia as “high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events beyond the realm of normal expectations”.
Throughout the book Taleb quotes, and occasionally misquotes, Yogi Berra to make a point. Taleb is clearly not much of a baseball fan as he refers to Berra as “the great baseball coach.” Berra was, in fact, a coach for a few years, but he was also, of course, a manager, as well as one of the greatest players ever. While these quotations by Berra are illustrative, although somewhat shopworn, Taleb misses a broader and far more relevant point about the great Yankee catcher. Berra himself was a black swan, at least in a baseball sense.
There have been many great baseball players, but only a few true black swans. Baseball’s black swans are players who changed the way the game was played because they either had a skill or combination of skills that had not been seen before. A true black swan, therefore, doesn’t only need to have been a uniquely great player, but also needs to have somehow been associated with a new strategy or approach. Therefore, a black swan needs to have been imitable, and imitated. So, for example, although Nolan Ryan was by any measure a pitcher of extraordinary skill and unprecedented longevity, he was not a black swan because teams did not see Nolan Ryan’s as the key to new winning approaches to the game. Rickey Henderson, although one of the greatest and most unusual players ever, also fails to qualify as a black swan for a similar reason.
Yogi Berra was a baseball black swan because before he began his career there had never been an everyday catcher who was a consistent middle of the order power hitter. Before Berra, the best catchers in baseball had either not hit much, or had hit well with little power, like Mickey Cochrane. Three possible exceptions to this were Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Lombardi but none of them hit with Berra’s power while remaining in the lineup consistently.
One very stark way to see this is that before Yogi Berra no one had ever caught 140 games in a season while slugging .470 or better and having an OPS of .800 or better. Dickey and Hartnett came close, so if the standards are adjusted slightly, they might qualify, but these numbers seem like a reasonable expectation for some one who is playing full time and is a solid power hitter. Berra did this five times, while narrowly missing in several other seasons.
This makes Berra a great player, which we knew before I started writing this article, but not quite a black swan. What makes Berra a black swan is after Berra this became a relatively common occurrence, because Berra had revolutionized how the game was played and understood. Roy Campanella reached these numbers a few times while Berra was still active. More recent catchers to have done this include Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Thurman Munson, Ted Simmons, Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada. Numerous others have come close, including Bill Freehan and Elston Howard who almost reached these numbers during the pitching dominated mid-1960s.
Berra is not, of course, baseball’s only black swan. Cal Ripken Jr., before he became the new ironman, was also a black swan as he radically changed perceptions of what a shortstop could do. Before Ripken nobody had genuinely made a career out of being a power hitting shortstop. Since Ripken we have seen a number of power hitting shortstops such as Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez or Miguel Tejada as well as simply tall shortstops like Derek Jeter. For much of the 20th century the position was dominated by shorter, quicker players who were not expected to hit many home runs, but were usually able to steal a few bases. Even the good hitting shortstops like Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan, Pee Wee Reese and others were never really power hitters. The exception to this was Ernie Banks who, as many have forgotten, played more games at first base than at shortstop during his career.
The most important black swan in baseball history was Babe Ruth. To a great extent baseball history can be divided to before and after Babe Ruth, or more precisely, to before and after Babe Ruth was sent to the Yankees. Ruth dramatically altered the game, moving it out of the dead ball era and demonstrating the value of the home run. Almost all of baseball history since 1920 has been significantly altered by Ruth, the way that everything in American politics and foreign policy since September 11th, 2001 has been influenced by the events of that day. This is the mark of a true black swan.
Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra and Cal Ripken Jr. are all black swans, in one respect or another, because of their ability to hit for power. However, there are no positions left where power hitters are rare so there can be no more black swans who have a similar impact on the game. Nonetheless, we can be certain there will be black swans, players who somehow relatively quickly and radically change how the game is played and understood. Black swans, by definition, are very difficult to predict, but there are some natural areas where we might expect one to emerge.
Somewhere in the nexus of pitching and strategy is the most likely place for a black swan to emerge. It may be a starting pitcher who can pitch on shorter rest, perhaps throw 70 pitches every third day, or 25 pitches every other day, rather than 100-120 every fifth day like most pitchers today. The impact this would have on the strategy of baseball is clear. This is obviously just speculation, but while we cannot predict what the next black swan will be, or when it will occur, baseball history tells us there will be one.