Yet Another Consequentialism Lesson From Baseball

It's for your own good, kid.

It’s for your own good, kid.

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.

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Sources: CBS Sports, Washington Post

Graphic: Washington Post

3 thoughts on “Yet Another Consequentialism Lesson From Baseball

  1. This is exactly right. I have no idea about sports. I don’t follow any sport, but the underlying ethics point is exactly right about every part of life including spiritual, physical, moral, mental, social and every other.

  2. You’re completely correct, of course. Axsia’s commentary is inane, illogical, pompous, and petulant. I predict a great future for him in sportswriting. :p

    Even in purely pragmatic terms:
    1. The chances that Harper would have gotten a hit when Frandsen didn’t are perhaps 10%.
    2. Sending a message to your star player that being lazy won’t be tolerated is likely to win the team more games in the future because
    2a. Harper will likely play harder
    2b. The rest of the team will realize that if Harper can get benched, they sure as hell can, and maybe they’d better put in some effort if they want to keep playing.

    It’s also noteworthy that sportswriters as a group are incapable of even understanding ethical decision-making. Witness (for example) the chorus of shocked mumbles when Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio suspended his best player before the Rose Bowl game this year. And then when that player’s replacement made the game-saving tackle in the biggest game of the year… lots of hoopla about Kyler Elsworth (the replacement), but still not a word about Dantonio’s decision having been justified. (N.B. it still would have been justified had Elsworth missed the key tackle and the team lost the game because of it, but if you’re going to be consequentialist, at least be consistent about it.)

    (I wrote about the Michigan State case in January.)

  3. I never in over 20 years saw Pete Rose do what Harper did.

    I wonder what Pete would say (or have said) to Harper, and what Rose would do if he had been the manager. One could get all mean toward Rose, and speculate that Pete might have told Harper while benching him, “Now you’ve f***ed up my bet on a late-inning comeback!” or somesuch. But maybe all this is just my hindsight bias.

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