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.