Consequentialism is the ethical fallacy of judging an action right or wrong according to its ultimate effects, which are unknowable at the time the decision is made. This is, essentially, the equivalent of a “the ends justify the means” philosophy applied as a backward-looking tautology: if the end result turns out to be desirable, then it justifies the means and the act was ethical. If the ends are undesirable, then the conduct was wrong unethical. People do tend to think to think this way, which is why decisions that don’t work out are frequently called mistakes. Conduct is not a mistake, however, if it was the best possible decision at the time, arrived at logically and according to sound principles.
Sports, and particularly baseball, reinforce the adoption of consequentialism, which is one way sports can make people stupid….especially sportswriters, who love to second-guess managers, players and coaches by using hindsight bias: it’s easy to pronounce a decision a mistake once you already know its results. Easy, and unfair.
On Saturday afternoon, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams punished his 21-year-old star outfielder Bryce Harper for not running hard to first base on a ground ball tapper back to the pitcher in the top of the sixth inning. The punishment Williams levied was Old School: Williams benched the young player—just like Joe Cronin did to Ted Williams in 1939 and 1940–sending the message that either you hustle and play hard, or you don’t play, no matter how good you are. This is his duty as a manager, a leader, a mentor and a teacher, and it makes a vital statement to the entire team.
By random chance, Harper’s lineup spot came up again in the ninth inning, with the Nats losing and the tying run in scoring position, awaiting a clutch hit. It wasn’t the star Harper at bat however, but his hustling, less-talented replacement Kevin Frandsen, who grounded out as Washington eventually lost the game 4-3. Naturally, writers , bloggers and fans opined that Williams had cost his team the game by lifting Harper.
Williams placed the responsibility for Harper’s unavailability on the shoulders of Harper himself, telling the press, saying,
“Regardless of situation, regardless of what’s happening to you personally, we have to play the game a certain way to give ourselves the best chance to win. And it’s too bad that it came down to that situation in the ninth inning, when he could have been at the plate. For the sake of his teammates, and the sake of the organization, he needs to play with aggression and the way he plays.”
CBS sportswiter Mike Axisa argued that Williams was placing blame on Harper for the consequences of his own managerial decision, but Williams got it right: if a player fails to hustle and it is allowed to stand, then the team’s culture is at risk, and its values are undermined. Harper made himself unavailable by behaving unprofessionally, and every Nats player now knows that playing baseball the right way is more important to this manager than keeping his best players on the field. For Williams to do other than what he did because of Harper’s superior ability would have applied the toxic Star Syndrome to his team, suggesting that the best players get to make their own rules. That is likely to have far worse consequences over the long-term than the potential loss of a single game.
Nobody would criticize the benching of Harper if the Nationals rallied to win the game, or if Frandsen had knocked in the tying run. Once the decision to sit Harper was made, however, the time to judge its fairness and wisdom was over. But because of the unpredictable results of a well-reasoned managerial decision, the decision is now controversial in Washington, D.C. That’s the power of consequentialism. People just can’t help themselves.
Graphic: Washington Post