As I wrote last year about this time, the baseball play-offs make us unethical. Managers make decisions that either work or back-fire, and feed the toxic human tendency toward consequentialism thusly: when they work, the decisions werecorrect; when they don’t, the manager was an idiot, and the choicee were obviously wrong. As with judging the ethics of an act, what happens after a baseball decision is made is irrelevant to whether it was a good decision when it was made. This is almost impossible to keep firmly in mind. Our logic rebels at the idea that an ethical act can have horrendous consequences, or that the right tactical decision can result in defeat. But that’s life, as my father was fond of saying.
Hindsight bias further pushes us to confuse the making of a decision with its consequences. It is, not surprisingly, much easier to make a strong case that a decision was the wrong one after all the results are in. This, of course, is unfair to the decision-maker, who didn’t have the data the critics do when he or she acted. On the other hand, sometimes the reason the decision was the wrong one is that it was wrong, and the fact that the results were bad just support that verdict.
This morning, indeed since last night, Washington D.C. baseball fans and sportswriters have been wrestling this conundrum. The Washington Nationals, widely believed to be the strongest National League team in the post season, and quite possibly the favorites to win the World Series, find themselves down 0-2 in the best of five National League Division Series after a grueling, 18 inning loss to the San Francisco Giants, who didn’t even win their own division. The way the game went into extra innings will be debated for months if the Nats fail to rally and win the series. Nats starting pitcher Justin Zimmermann, who had pitched a no-hitter in his last outing, had been almost as good this time, pitching his team within one out of a 1-0 win that would have evened the series. He had dominated Giants hitters in every way, and had not shown any signs of weakening or, as they say in the game, “losing his stuff.” In the old days, that is, as recently as 20 years ago, a pitcher on a run like this would finish the game unless he had a stroke on the mound. Now, MLB managers are trained to be ready to go to their ninth inning specialist, the so-called closer, at any hint of trouble or even without it, and they almost always do.
As a reflex action, it makes no sense a lot of the time, other than “everybody does it.” A pitcher whom you know is pitching well is a known quantity, while a pitcher newly arrived to the game, whatever his skills, is not. If the choice is between a starter who is not just doing OK but rather mowing down batters like Samson jaw-boning the Philistines, and bringing in a new arm, logic would dictate that the latter is the greater risk.
Nats manager Matt Williams acknowledged that Zimmerman was “in the zone” by not lifting him to begin the ninth, and was rewarded with two quick outs. When he walked his first batter of the game, however, on his magic 100th pitch (they count pitches now, and 100 is the number at which pitchers supposedly turn into pumpkins), and Williams lifted him, calling on closer Drew Storen.
In the stands, in front of TV sets, baseball fans breathed a collective, “Oh-oh.” Zimmerman didn’t look tired. He had given up just three hits the whole game. Storen, though he had been excellent lately, is still remembered as the relief pitcher whose failure lost the crucial game the last time the Nats were in the play-offs two years ago.
Was it the right decision? Well, this is exactly what Williams has done in similar situations all season, presumably because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. His team won its division with him using his pitchers this way. If it’s the right tactic, it’s the right tactic, whether the game is an important one, like a play-off game, or not. Essentially, Williams, having made the decision to remove the starter, is at the mercy of events beyond his control….moral luck. If Storen comes in and gets the final out, well, the manager was “right.” If the closer blows the game, the manager must have been wrong, or, as my sister termed it last night, “an idiot.”
Storen gave up two hits to let the player Zimmerman walked score the tying run, sending the game to extra innings, and a devastating, season-threatening loss.
So Williams is an idiot, and everyone on Facebook, the Washington Post and elsewhere is saying so. Williams is legitimately wondering: if this was such a bad way to handle pitchers this season, why didn’t I hear about it before?
That’s simple, Matt: because it didn’t lead to a horrible, disappointing, six-and-a-half hour loss before. Hey, I would have told you, if you asked, that automatically taking out a successful starter because of an arbitrary pitch count and because closers are the current fad in baseball is lazy, risky and dumb, but you didn’t ask. Now you’re in the maw of hindsight bias. Sorry.
Over at the Post, the most over-rated baseball writer in the world made a jaw-dropping argument against Williams’ move, refreshing that it did not relay on consequentialism, outrageous because it was, well, stupid. I’ll let Thomas Boswell explain:
“There is strategy and there is theater. As strategy, there is some justification for taking out Zimmermann, who had just thrown his 100th pitch — a ball four to Joe Panik. Perhaps a fresh arm — a right-hander Storen with his 1.18 ERA this season, was a proper by-the-book move. But, sometimes, there is also context and theater — and even the danger of messing with the lower-case but still haughty baseball gods….Why do we revere sport in this culture? Why do we pass stories down through generations? Surely, at some level, it is about seeing the best-of-the-best test each other in the supreme moments of their sport. Nobody, it’s said, comes to ballgames to watch the umpires. To a lesser degree, that applies to managers. There are times, and Saturday night was one of them, when we don’t come to see them.What we arrive to see, then stay to the end to witness, is performances like Zimmermann’s…”
1. There are no “baseball gods,’ Tom.
2. Williams’ job is to do what is most likely to win the game, not what will make the best movie.
3. There is no time, ever, when avoiding what would normally be the best strategy should be ignored in the interests of creating more compelling drama. The best drama ends with a happy ending.
Unfortunately, there is no way for a manager, like Williams, to make the “right decision” from the outset the way most people evaluate such things. You can only know the right decision after all the incalculable, chaos-driven and random events have delivered a final result. This is an illogical, unfair and ultimately destructive way to think, basing your comprehension of right on the vagueries of moral luck, but that’s how we are wired, and to some extent, that’s why we have such a hard time understanding right from wrong.