This article was written by Douglas Jordan
This article was published in Spring 2021 Baseball Research Journal
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
Jim Konstanty of the Philadelphia Phillies receives his 1950 MVP award from Ford Frick, president of the National League. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)
The epigraph from Taleb’s book was written about very low-probability events in financial markets. Taleb compares Australian black swans (that were unknown in Europe for centuries) to rare, violent market movements that are impossible to predict in advance. He argues that these events occur without warning and that investors must be prepared for them in spite of their rarity. But black swan events are not confined to the world of finance. Although the term black swan is not usually associated with baseball, unpredictable and rare events certainly occur on the diamond. The 23 perfect games (27 batters up, 27 batters out) thrown in MLB history are a good example.1
But black swans in baseball are not confined to a single game; an entire season can be considered to be one. For an individual player, a noteworthy season is often referred to as a career year. This kind of season could be called a black swan depending on how far above the norm it is for that player. If the career year is especially noteworthy, it’s possible that the player may merit MVP consideration. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to determine if there have been any black swan MVP seasons. Have there been any players whose performance in previous years gave no indication that they would win an MVP award?
The question then, is how to define that the player gave no such indication. The definition used in this paper is that the player wins an MVP award without having been recognized in a previous season for any aspect of his performance. The player never won, nor even got a vote for, any seasonal award such as Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, or Silver Slugger, and was never on an All-Star team. Pitchers cannot have a previous Cy Young Award to their credit. For purposes of this paper, these definitions are taken to mean that the awards column in the Baseball-Reference.com statistics for the player is empty every year prior to the year that the player wins an MVP. Analysis begins in 1931 when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America started voting for the MVP. All of the data in this article are taken from Baseball-Reference.com.
RESPONSE TO AN OBJECTION
One possible objection to the results of this study is to argue that the player in question should not have won the award at all. This appears to be an easy argument to make if modern metrics such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) are retroactively accounted for. For example, in 2006, Justin Morneau won the AL MVP with a WAR of 4.3. Derek Jeter came in second in the MVP voting that year with a WAR of 5.6 and Johan Santana came in seventh with a WAR of 7.6. An argument could be made that Morneau should not have won, and therefore claiming his season as a black swan is misleading.
This objection is disingenuous. Morneau actually won the award. To say that someone else should have won the award is simply hindsight bias. Bill James argues, “…the fact is that the MVP voting system is awfully well designed, and the right man does win the award the great majority of the time.”2 James goes on to say that the MVP voting represents the best judgment of baseball writers at that time regarding who was the most valuable player. That judgment should not be swept away by asserting that we know better now because we have more advanced statistics. The “we know better now” argument is discussed at length by Anthony Kronman, who writes about the issue in academia, but the core idea is the same. He says, “…we, even with our more enlightened ideals, are human beings, with the same imperfections as our predecessors, bedeviled by the same tendency to overestimate ourselves and confronting the same gap between ideals and reality.”3 We need to be very careful about thinking that we can better judge a player’s abilities because we augment the eye test with complex formulas. The Appendix on page 54 contains the letter sent to MVP voters with their ballots.4 The subjective nature of the process is made clear in the first line of the letter where it says, “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means.”
BLACK SWAN MVP NON-PITCHERS
An MVP-winning season is very special. Not only does the player have to have a historically excellent season, but it has to be a better season than any other great player of his era. Intuition suggests that such an outstanding campaign is highly unlikely to come without warning. It seems almost impossible that a previously mediocre player would be able to improve his performance significantly enough from one year to the next to win an MVP award. And in fact, the vast majority of MVP award-winning seasons have been preceded by being a previous MVP or an All-Star or a Rookie of the Year, getting some votes for MVP or Rookie of the Year, winning a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger, or some combination of the above.
It should be noted that although the previous sentence is correct, the standard of a completely empty awards column in a player’s Baseball-Reference.com statistics prior to winning the MVP award is a high bar. There have been a number of players who have only one of the above listed accomplishments in one season (and even more in just two seasons) prior to winning the MVP. For example, Keith Hernandez won the MVP in 1979 (along with Willie Stargell) in his sixth sea- son. His only award prior to that season was a 1978 Gold Glove. Roger Maris won the MVP in 1960 in his fourth season after being an All-Star in 1959. It’s reasonable to argue that these players’ MVP seasons were unexpected, and hence should be included in this analysis. But lines have to be drawn somewhere, and in this paper, it is a completely empty awards column.
That’s why there have been only three non-pitchers who have won an MVP award without receiving any previous awards. Those players are Justin Morneau in 2006, and Steve Garvey and Jeff Burroughs in 1974. Selected data for these players’ MVP seasons and the seasons that preceded them are shown in Table 1.
(Click image to enlarge)
Justin Morneau won the MVP at 25 years old in his fourth season. There was little to suggest he would have such an excellent season in his previous three seasons. He batted only .226 in 106 at bats during his rookie year. He improved his batting average to .271 with 19 home runs and 58 RBIs in 74 games the next year but the totals are low because he didn’t become a full-time player until mid-July. His first full season as a starter was 2005. He played in 141 games, got 117 hits, blasted 22 home runs, and drove in 79 runs. His batting average declined to .239 and his slugging average was .437. With the exception of his batting average, these are good numbers for a season but they certainly aren’t MVP caliber. That said, his performance that year was hindered by a concussion he suffered in the third game of the season when he was hit in the head by a pitch from Seattle’s Ron Villone.5
He didn’t win any awards during those first three seasons. But he had a breakout year his fourth season in 2006. He played in 157 games, had 190 hits, and put 34 balls over the fence. He also drove in 130 runs, batted .321, and slugged .559. His reward for these efforts was 15 out of 28 first-place votes for MVP and a total of 320 MVP points to Derek Jeter’s second place 306 points. Morneau’s play helped the Twins win 96 games and the AL Central division title before getting swept by the A’s in the ALDS. It is also interesting to note that Morneau did not make the All-Star team the year of his MVP campaign. This suggests that the quality of his season was not even apparent during the early portion of that season. Morneau’s MVP season appeared to have come out of nowhere.
Steve Garvey’s inclusion on this list of unexpected MVP seasons is surprising given all he accomplished during his 19-year career. But most of what we remember him for came in the wake of his MVP performance, not before it. After just three at bats as a 20-year-old in September 1969, Garvey played four seasons before his MVP award-winning year in 1974 when he was 25. He played in only 34 games in 1970 and batted .269 in 93 at bats. During 1971 he appeared in 81 games with 225 at bats, seven home runs, and a .227 batting average. He got more playing time in 1972, 96 games, but his home run total only went up to nine even though his batting average increased to .269. His slow increase in playing time continued during 1973 when he appeared in 114 games. During that season he had 349 at bats, 106 hits, 50 RBIs, and eight home runs with a .304 batting average. His performance during 1973 and earlier does not suggest that an MVP season is imminent. He did not win any awards nor was voted to any All-Star teams in any of those five years.
But 1974 was a different story. Garvey played in almost every Dodger game that year (156) and had 642 at bats. He got 200 hits, slammed 21 balls out of the park, and drove in 111 runs. He batted .312 and slugged .469 that year. His reward for these outstanding numbers was the 1974 NL MVP award. In the MVP voting, Garvey got 13 out of 22 first-place votes and a total MVP vote count of 270 points. Lou Brock (who stole a modern-day second-best 118 bases that year) was second with 233 points. Garvey’s efforts contributed to the Dodgers’ 102-win season and their run to the World Series, where they lost in five games to the Oakland A’s (who won the third of three consecutive titles in 1974). Justin like Morneau (I couldn’t resist the pun), Garvey’s MVP season appeared to have come out of nowhere.
The third position player to win an unexpected MVP award, also in 1974, was Jeff Burroughs. Burroughs won the award at age 23 during his fifth season in the majors. In spite of the fact that Burroughs was a promising power hitter, there’s very little to note about his first three seasons, 1970–72.6 He appeared in a total of 87 games those three years, his best effort being five home runs and a .232 batting average in 1971. Lower back problems limited his playing time in 1972. But unlike Morneau and Garvey, Burroughs had a better than average season the year before winning the MVP award even though he didn’t win any awards for it. In 1973 Burroughs played in 151 games, batted .279 and slugged .487. He collected 147 hits and drove in 85 runs. And he finally exhibited the power he was expected to display when he hit 30 home runs to challenge Reggie Jackson (who hit 32) for the AL home run title. Given this output in 1973, it’s not too surprising that he won the MVP the next year. It’s more surprising that he wasn’t named on any MVP ballots in 1973 in spite of such good numbers.
Burroughs had an outstanding season in 1974. He improved his batting numbers in every category except home runs. He appeared in 152 games, got 167 hits and 33 doubles, while driving in a league-leading 118 RBIs and batting .301. His home run total declined to 25 but that was still fourth best in the league. His slash line of .301/.397/.504 was almost exactly the classic great season of .300/.400/.500. In the MVP voting, Burroughs got 10 of 23 first place votes and a total vote count of 248. Joe Rudi came in second with 161 points. Burroughs’s efforts helped the Rangers to a second-place finish in the AL West, five games behind the A’s.
BLACK SWAN MVP PITCHERS
Despite a school of thought that says pitchers shouldn’t win the MVP because they don’t play every day, there are pitchers who have won the MVP award. But just like other players, the same question can be asked: are there any pitchers who have won an MVP award without ever having won any other award? And just like position players, the answer is yes. There are four pitchers who meet this criterion: Willie Hernandez (1984), Vida Blue (1971), Jim Konstanty (1950), and Carl Hubbell (1933). Selected data for these players are shown in Table 2.
(Click image to enlarge)
Outside of Detroit, Willie Hernandez is not very well remembered three and a half decades after the heroics that won him both the Cy Young and MVP in 1984. There’s a good reason for that. Beside that year, he had a relatively undistinguished 13-year career, primarily with the Cubs and the Tigers, plus one year with the Phillies. Most of his national exposure came from the six games he pitched in during the 1983 and 1984 World Series.
Hernandez got to the big leagues with the Cubs in 1977 at age 22. His rookie season was his best year prior to 1984. Being utilized mostly in relief, he went 8–7 with a 3.03 ERA in 67 games and 110 innings pitched. His ERA+ that year was 145 which means that the league’s average ERA was 45 percent higher than his (ballpark adjusted). This was a fine rookie season, but Hernandez was not able to repeat the performance. Using ERA+ as a guideline, his performance was slightly better or worse than average between 1978 and 1983 with the exception of 1982, when he had an ERA+ of 125. Seven years into his career, Hernandez had done little to suggest that he was anything more than an average pitcher. He hadn’t won any awards during those seven years.
But the story changed when the Phillies traded him to Detroit in 1984. Hernandez became a key contributor to an excellent Tigers team that started the year 35–5 and won the World Series. He had seven saves during that initial 40-game run. His excellent performance continued the rest of that season. Hernandez appeared in almost half the team’s games (a league-leading 80), compiling a 9–3 record with a 1.92 ERA and a season total of 32 saves with only one blown save. His ERA+ of 204 means that his ERA that year was about half of the league average. He lowered his WHIP to 0.94 from 1.22 the year before. This perfect example of a black swan year earned Hernandez 16 out of 28 first place votes in the MVP voting and a total of 306 points. Kent Hrbek was second in the voting with 247 points. Hernandez never again appeared in the Cy Young or MVP voting although he was an All-Star in both 1985 and 1986.
Vida Blue’s relatively short path to the Cy Young and MVP awards he won in 1971 at age 21 was very different from the long route taken by Hernandez. Blue had started a grand total of ten games, with a combined record of 3–1, over his initial two big-league seasons before winning the awards in his first full season. But Blue’s award-winning season was foreshadowed by the no-hitter he threw as a September call-up in 1970.7 This performance, combined with a one-hitter in another start that month, led to great expectations for 1971. It’s hard to believe that he exceeded those expectations.
Blue’s accomplishments over the first half of 1971 were truly remarkable. After giving up four runs (only one of them earned) in 12⁄3 innings, and taking the loss in his first start of the year, he didn’t get a decision in just two of his next 21 starts. He won 17 of those 21 games and had a 17–3 record at the All-Star break. Most astoundingly by today’s standards, he pitched nine innings in 16 of his first 22 starts and 11 shutout innings in another. Ironically, the 11-inning shutout was one of his two non-decisions. The A’s eventually won that game (July 9 versus the Angels) 1–0 in the bottom of the 20th inning.
Blue’s numbers for the whole season are very impressive too. He started 39 games, compiling a 24–8 record with 24 complete games and 8 shutouts in 312 innings. He struck out 301 batters. He led the league in ERA (1.82), shutouts (8), WHIP (0.952), hits per nine innings (6.0), and strikeouts per nine innings (8.7). These efforts earned him 14 out of 24 first-place votes in the MVP voting and a total of 268 points. His teammate, Sal Bando, was second in the voting with 182 points.
The year 1950 was a long time ago. So you may not be familiar with the name Jim Konstanty. As with Hernandez, there are good reasons for that. Konstanty had an almost completely undistinguished 11-year pitching career between 1944 and 1956. But the word “almost” is needed because Konstanty managed to put a classic black swan season together in 1950 when he became the first relief pitcher to win an MVP award. He’s the only man on this list who has a clear awards column both before and after his MVP season.
Konstanty was a relief pitcher for the Philadelphia “Whiz Kids” Phillies who won the NL pennant in 1950 before getting swept by the Yankees (who were in the midst of winning a record five consecutive titles) in the World Series. Usually pitching in long relief, Konstanty went 16–7 with a 2.66 ERA. He led both leagues in games (74), games finished (62), and saves (22). Konstanty was an ironman in relief that year, throwing 152 innings while giving up 108 hits and just 45 earned runs.8 This body of work earned him 18 out of 24 first-place votes in the MVP voting and a total of 286 points. Stan Musial was second with 158 points. But Konstanty was unable to repeat this excellent performance. The next year his ERA jumped to 4.05 and he won only four games against 11 losses.
Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell won the MVP award in 1933 as a 30-year-old in his sixth season. He started 45 games, completed 22 of them, and compiled a 23–12 record with a 1.66 ERA. He led the league in wins (23), ERA (1.66), shutouts (10), innings pitched (308.2), ERA+ (193), and WHIP (0.982). With these impressive numbers he won the MVP vote with 77 vote points to Chuck Klein’s 48 vote points. His Baseball-Reference.com awards column is empty for the first five years of his career.
Therefore, according to the definition in this paper, this is a black swan season. But like Ichiro Suzuki (discussed in the next section) it’s arguable that this season does not really qualify as a black swan. In 1932 Hubbell went 18–11 with a 2.50 ERA and he led MLB in WHIP at 1.056. These numbers are better than Bob Brown put up that year (14–7, 3.30 ERA) and got ten MVP award vote points and better than Dizzy Dean’s numbers (18–15, 3.30 ERA) and got four MVP award vote points. Hubbell should have gotten some votes for MVP in 1932; leading baseball in WHIP the previous year means that his excellent campaign in 1933 was not completely unexpected. In addition, Hubbell was more likely to have a clear Awards column prior to 1933 because there were no All-Star games before that year, and the Cy Young and Gold Glove awards didn’t start until 1956 and 1957 respectively.
THE SPECIAL CASE OF ROY AND MVP
Almost by definition, rookies are not expected to win an MVP award. That’s why only two men have managed to win the MVP in their rookie year. Select data for those two players are shown in Table 1. The first man to do it was Fred Lynn in 1975. Although Lynn played in 15 games in 1974, he still was officially a 23-year-old rookie in 1975 when he had one of the best rookie seasons of all time, and paced the Red Sox to a 95-win season and an appearance in a thrilling seven-game World Series. He played in 145 games, batted .331, hit 21 home runs, and drove in 105 runs. He led the league in runs scored (103), doubles (47), slugging average (.566), and OPS (.967). In the MVP voting, he got 22 out of 24 first place votes and a total of 326 points. John Mayberry of the Royals was second with 157 points. Although Lynn showed some promise in AAA in 1974 (he batted .282 and hit 21 homers in 124 games9) that’s not enough to expect an MVP type season the next year. Lynn’s MVP season in 1975 is clearly a black swan event.
The second man to win ROY and MVP in the same season was 27-year-old Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. But even though Ichiro (he is usually referred to by his first name) was technically an MLB rookie that year, he was far from a typical first-year player. Before coming to Seattle in 2001, he had already played for nine years in the Japan Pacific League, where he appeared in 951 games and compiled a Japanese lifetime batting average of .353. Ichiro was a superstar in Japan but he wanted to compete in the US.10
When he got that chance in 2001, he excelled. He appeared in 157 games, scored 127 runs, and hit 34 doubles. He led the American League in plate appearances (738), at bats (692), stolen bases (56), and batting average (.350). And, in addition to all of that, he got an amazing 242 hits (ninth best all-time at the time). The MVP vote was very close. Ichiro got 11 first-place votes and 289 MVP vote points total. Jason Giambi got eight first-place votes and 281 points. But even though Ichiro technically meets the definition in this paper, it’s hard to argue that his 2001 season actually belongs in the black swan season camp. Given his Japanese performance, it’s not surprising he had a noteworthy inaugural campaign.
Of the nine players discussed in this article who had black swan MVP seasons, only Konstanty didn’t win at least one award in the years that followed their MVP season. Therefore, in the context of a complete career, Jim Konstanty’s MVP campaign in 1950 is the best example of a black swan MVP season.
DOUGLAS JORDAN, PhD, is a professor at Sonoma State University in Northern California where he teaches corporate finance and investments. He’s been a regular contributor to BRJ since 2014. He runs marathons when he is not watching or writing about baseball. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My thanks to two anonymous reviewers for taking the time to carefully review the paper and provide feedback. Their comments improved the final product.
- Bill James, The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works, New York: Macmillan, 1994, 74.
- Anthony Kronman, The Assault on American Excellence, New York: The Free Press, 2019, 176.
- Brian Cohn, “Defining MVP—and why it matters for voting,” SB Nation: The Crawfish Boxes, September 13, 2019, accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.crawfishboxes.com/2019/9/13/20862347/defining-most-valuable-player-lemahieu-bregman-trout-mlb-mvp-houstonastros-yankees-angels-voting.
- Eun Jung Decker, “Justin Morneau Biography,” com, 2013, accessed January 25, 2021. https://www.jockbio.com/Bios/Morneau/Morneau_bio.html.
- David Skelton, “Jeff Burroughs,” SABR, 2019, accessed January 25, 2021. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2df1caea.
- Rich Puerzer, “Vida Blue,” SABR, accessed January 25, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/397acf10.
- Paul Rogers III, “Jim Konstanty,” SABR, 2018, accessed January 25, 2021. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ad95bdcc.
- Tom Nahigian, “Fred Lynn,” SABR, 2005, 2014, accessed January 25, 2021. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/7fb674d5.