Ethics Quote Of The Week: Sportswriter Joe Posnanski

Picked off first, Kolton Wong curses the fates...

Picked off first, Kolten Wong curses the fates…

Just as baseball’s post season was starting, I wrote a post about how U.S. society’s flawed use of consequentialism to judge merit, wisdom and ethics is encouraged by our sporting events. The example I used was an old one, from the 1968 World Series, which I consider to be a classic and extreme example. This morning, the great sports essayist Joe Posnanski addressed the same issue, focusing on an event in last night’s weird World Series game, which ended like none other in post season history. With two outs and the potential tying run at the plate, Boston relief pitcher Koji Uehara picked off St.Louis pinch-runner Kolten Wong to end the game and stop the Cardinals’ most dangerous sluggers from batting with a chance to tie or win the game. Posnanski marvels at how what he considers a foolish decision to station the first baseman near the base for a pick-off throw had good results, and how hard it is for us to focus on process rather than results. He is, of course, talking about the appeal of consequentialism, and the way baseball encourages it. I beat him to it by almost a month, but Posnanski amplifies the point nicely. Here’s Joe:

“In the ninth inning, the Red Sox led the game by two runs. With one out, that man Allen Craig singled off closer Koji Uehara and limped to first base. It would have been a double for just about anyone with two functional legs. Uehara is almost unhittable, except by Allen Craig — he must have some Kojinite or something. Anyway, Craig was replaced a pinch runner by Kolten Wong, a 23-year old rookie who was born in Hawaii. Wong had been in the big leagues long enough to get 62 plate appearances — he hit .153/.194/.169, so that wasn’t why he was on the World Series roster. He was there to pinch-run and play some late-inning defense.

“Wong did not represent the tying run, of course, so he did not figure to be an important part of the story. The Cardinals were sending up two of their best hitters — Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran — so the focus was on home plate. Uehara had the lowest WHIP in baseball history (for pitchers with 50-plus innings pitched). Carpenter had a legitimate MVP season. Beltran has an amazing postseason history. This was going to be good.

“But something really weird was happening in the background. The Red Sox were holding Wong on at first. This was hard to figure. It might have made just a little bit of sense when Matt Carpenter was hitting because there was only one out and pinning Wong at first base kept the double play in order. But let’s be real here: In that situation, almost any other team would concede the double play rather than give up the giant hole on the left side of the infield with a talented left-handed hitter like Matt Carpenter up there. Red Sox manager John Farrell has proven that he dances to his own tune. Anyway, when Carpenter hit an infield pop-up for the second out of the inning that double-play reason was gone.

“And still the Red Sox held on Kolten Wong at first base — even with dead-pull hitter Carlos Beltran up next.

“Everyone, these days, seems to be talking a lot about the difference between process and results. The discussion is based around the superficially simple idea that you really want to focus on how you do things rather than how they turn out. This can be frustrating, though. Sometimes, a thing done well ends up badly. You might leave an hour early for an important meeting, buy your client’s favorite coffee on the way, then have someone carelessly sideswipe your car, delaying you so long that you show up late with the coffee cold enough to make the client spit it out. You lose the contract. You get demoted. The process was right — leaving an hour early, buying the coffee. But the result was bad.

“And, just as frustrating, you might do things COMPLETELY wrong and have them turn out well. You might leave 20 minutes late for that same meeting, catch every light, have the client and your boss stuck in traffic, and have a friendly co-worker give you the client’s favorite coffee at the last possible second, which wins you the contract.

“The temptation, of course, is to judge things by the results — and we usually do. The boss in the first scenario might be angry enough to demote you and to give you a giant raise in the second. In reality, the first process is much better than the second and should work much more often. But it’s hard to judge things that way. You wouldn’t give the first guy a raise for losing the client. You would demote the second guy for winning the contract. This is luck. This is randomness. This is life.

“The process of holding on Kolten Wong on first base seems to me hopelessly flawed. It seems exponentially more likely that Carlos Beltran would whack a hit through the gaping hole in the infield than anything good happening because you held the runner.

“But … the result was shockingly good for Boston.”

And everyone is saying, “See? The Red Sox played it right! John Farrell, the Red Sox manager, is a genius!” So I will repeat my conclusion from the previous post:

“As a result, he made our culture just a little bit more unethical. Don’t bet against another managerial decision this October doing the same.”

3 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Sportswriter Joe Posnanski

  1. Perhaps Farrell simply weighed the odds of Beltran taking advantage of the gaping hole in the infield versus a jittery rookie pinch runner tripping over his feet, and played accordingly. No more unethical than intentionally walking power hitters, or the ’46 Williams outfield shift.

    • The tactic isn’t unethical. What the result over process flawed reasoning does, however, is rationalize unethical conduct—or, as in this case, poor judgment. Much as I enjoy Tim McCarver being made to look foolish, he was right: the positioning was risky and made no sense. Wong shouldn’t have been vulnerable to a pick-off, and he had been ordered not to steal unless he was conceded the base.

  2. It did my heart (and my aching, ever slower legs) good last night, to see David Ortiz make it to first on a safe hit that was fielded by the 2nd baseman, who was playing a Williams Shift on Ortiz. It was not exactly an infield hit, but an outfield hit that was fielded by an infielder whose throw the (slow) runner still beat to first. Tempts me to come out of retirement to play a little softball…nah. I’ll stick with playing catch with the grandkids.

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