The Carson Smith Fallacy

Reading the comments on sports blogs is a great way to lose faith one’s fellow occupants of the planet.

Take, for example, the saga of Carson Smith, erstwhile relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Smith was nigh unhittable in the National League in 2015, and Sox General Manager Dave Dombrowski was widely regarded as having pulled off a heist when he acquired the young right-hander in a trade. Smith then promptly hurt his arm and required “Tommy John surgery,” a procedure that requires a full year or more to recover from. Naturally, Dombrowski was blamed for the injury, which nobody could have predicted, and was routinely mocked online by Red Sox fans for making it.

Carson Smith missed most of 2016 but returned to the mound in 2017, showing enough of his former skill to raise the hopes of  fans. In 2018 he looked even better. Then, after a bad outing in which he lost a lead and the game, Smith, disgusted with himself, hurled his glove to the dugout floors. Somehow, the angry gesture dislocated his shoulder, tore a muscle, and required surgery, ending his season, and possibly his career.

Ever since, Red Sox fans in droves have been posting comments online like this one, which I saw today:

“I’m so glad we waited a year or two for Carson Smith. He’s the greatest thing since sliced bread when he’s not accidentally blowing out his own pitching arm. Good grief.  Maybe the bullpen guys should have a new motto: “Try not to do anything stupid”. I guess this works for GM’s, too.”

That’s right: not only is Smith to blame for a freak injury, but so is Dombrowski, for trading for a pitcher who had one unpredictable injury, recovered, then injured himself doing something baseball players at all levels do every day and have been for about a hundred years without incident. Punching walls and water coolers are both stupid for pitchers because those things obviously can injure their arms or hands. So will setting themselves on fire. Throwing a glove to the ground, however, is not such an act. It’s petulant, but not irresponsible. Heck, I threw my glove a few times in my baseball playing days. So far, I haven’t read any explanation of how Carson’s tantrum dislocated his shoulder.  Blaming him is unethical blamecasting at its worst, ignorant, and sadly typical of what too much of the public calls “thinking.”

First, it is hindsight bias. Obviously Carson Smith was stupid to throw his glove, because he injured himself, just as it is obvious that Dombrowski made a stupid trade, because Smith has barely pitched in three years. The fact that there was no reason for Smith to think that throwing his glove, which he has probably done many times, might injure his shoulder doesn’t figure in the “analysis.” This isn’t like chewing glass, driving blindfolded or juggling chainsaws, after all. Throwing a glove suddenly became the equivilent of swallowing razor blades because of what happened to Smith. Now pitchers have some reason to know that throwing a glove in anger might hurt them. Smith didn’t. A but those baseball fans knew all along, because they know now. It’s easy to figure out the right course of action after the results have already occured.

Second, the whole episode is a lesson in moral luck. If the freak injury doesn’t occur, nobody would care whether Smith threw his glove or not. Nobody would have warned him, “Hey kid, don’t do that; you’ll shoot your shoulder out.” Hundreds of thousands of baseball players, from Little League to the Majors, weren’t irresponsible fools to throw their gloves in anger. Only Carson Smith was, because some weird weakness in his shoulder or some flaw in his glove-throwing technique turned a trivial gesture into a catastrophe.

Finally, the dim fans are engaging in consequentialism, the arch-enemy of ethical analysis. They reason that the trade for Smith was stupid because of what happened after the trade, in developments that he had no control over whatsoever. The logic is demented. You judge a decision based on what is known and knowable at the time the decision is made. This would seem to be self-evident, but apparently human beings are wired not to think this way. In other words, they are wired to be irrational, and to learn the wrong lessons from their observations and experience a depressing proportion of the time. Thus it only became stupid for Smith to throw his glove after it resulted in a freak injury.

The Carson Smith Fallacy is one more reason the world doesn’t work.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Carson Smith Fallacy

  1. I got nothing about Smith, but since baseball was mentioned I’ll just note that today is the birthday of both Peter Angelos and George Steinbrenner. American originals both.

  2. Rick McNair

    There were concerns after the Red Sox acquired Smith that his pitching style would eventually result in an elbow issue – usually meaning a Tommy John Surgery. Dombrowski dismissed these concerns, but the results were clear. Bradley Woodburn of MLBTR placed the chances of Smith requiring TJ slightly above average.

    The transaction and that of Tyler Thornburg were both the smart moves with the acquisition of two outstanding relief pitchers in exchange for players who were – at that time – expendable.

    Should DD get any blame? Dombrowski should not be immune from criticism on this issue since both Drew Pomeranz and David Price have faced arm issues. That is four players and that raises a red flag. Bad luck or bad assessment?

    With Smith, he most certainly lost points with his latest injury attempting to place the blame elsewhere – in the lap of Manager Cora for being “overused.” Cora addressed that. Smith was an idiot and being an idiot and costing a team your services over a dugout tantrum is nothing new.

    Unfortunately, the loss of both Smith and Thornburg (maybe) could force Boston to overpay for Craig Kimbrel. A Boston bullpen with a fully functioning Smith and Thornburg would be the best in the league and maybe MLB. DD rolled the dice with the smart move only to have the baseball Gods smite him.

    • Carson’s mild claim that he might have been tired (he didn’t say he was overused) can be excuses 1) because he was getting criticism for throwing his glove, as if that routinely dislocated shoulders and 2) Nobody has explained why his shoulder fell apart. Fatigue seems like a reasonable option. Pomeranz was a case where the Sox were cheated (hence punishment for the GM who witheld information, and Drew’s 2017 season made that issue moot: he was great. Price never had any arm issues before being acquired, so that was just bad luck. (People have said Chris Sale is a candidate for arm trouble too. The fact is, pitching is unnatural. They all are risks.)

      I guarantee that the Sox will not resign Kimbrel.

      • Rick McNair

        I would stay away from Kelly, Pomeranz, and Kimbrel. All three are FA’s and not signing is a real risk. I’d take it. Kimbrel=Jansen. Kelly’ BB/9 is scary.

        The Red Sox have a long – very long – history of questionable medical evaluations. They screwed up on Ellsbury. Pedroia a few years ago went outside the system for advice. So did Price. Now both Wright and Pedroia have continuing knee issues. They revamped their medical staff, physical therapy staff, and strength coach. Maybe time for a revisit?

        • I agree: they won’t sign any of those three, unless they can get a bargain. I won’t blame them for Ellsbury: he’s just one of those guys that doesn’t heal. Pedey is the kind of guy who gets beat up, and a second-baseman to boot. (You recall that Marty Barrett sued the Sox for misdiagnosing HIS knee.) Wright: A victim of John Farrell. He should have been fired for that alone, risking your best starter to pinch-run in a meaningless game.

  3. Other Bill

    Jack, you have time in your day to read sports blogs and (incredibly) the absolutely and assuredly moronic comments thereto? Do you ever sleep? How many hours are there in each of your days? Do you live in some crease in the time space continuum?

  4. Clearly Smith blew out his shoulder because the Red Sox repudiated Yawkey.

  5. I was taught that throwing your glove was bad manners, and was punishable by running laps around the outside of the ballpark. It was considered a sign of bad sportsmanship.

    Not saying it IS: my corner of the world had some other …strange… ideas about proper public behavior.

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