Unfinished World Series Ethics Business

Today the victorious Boston Red Sox took their now traditional duck boat parade through Boston and down the Charles River, so even for the Sox, the 2018 season is officially done.  My job isn’t however, because there were two striking examples of moral luck and consequentialism during the World Series, and apparently I was the only one who noticed.

I. The “Bad News Bears” moment.

When Red Sox Game 4 starter Eduardo Rodriguez surrendered what seemed at the time to be a decisive three-run homer to Yasiel Puig, putting the Sox behind in the 6th inning 4-0, he angrily hurled his glove to the mound. Commentators joked about how he resembled the Bad New Bears’ combative, potty-mouthed shortstop Tanner in the Little League classic, but other than the ribbing, nobody criticized “E-Rod.” Indeed, his manager, Alex Cora, exonerated him for the home run, saying that he, the manager, screwed up by letting his tiring pitcher face the dangerous Puig.

Yet earlier this season, Boston reliever Carson Smith, regarded as an important member of the Red Sox relief squad, threw his glove in the dugout after giving up a home run, and partially dislocated his shoulder. He was lost for the season, and both team officials and Boston sportswriters blamed Smith for his injury. He injured himself you see. It was stupid and selfish, and showed him to be unprofessional and untrustworthy. Many thought Smith should be fined, or even released. Yet it was a completely freak injury. It wasn’t as if Smith had punched a wall or a water cooler. Baseball players throw their gloves all the time, and I’ve never seen it injure anyone. So why was Carson Smith treated as a pariah for throwing his glove, but Eddie Rodriguez doing the same thing shrugged off? The only reason is that Smith’s angry gesture happened to injure him , which nobody, including Smith, could have predicted. In fact, Rodriquez was more, much more, irresponsible than Smith, because he knew throwing a glove could cause an injury. He knew, because it happened to Smith.

It was pure moral luck that Smith was hurt and Rodriguez wasn’t, and illogical consequentialism to make Carson a villain for a result he couldn’t have foreseen and didn’t intend.

II. Ignoring the lessons of history.

On a day that will live in infamy, the 1986 Boston Red Sox needed the New York Mats to make three outs to complete Boston’s first World Series victory in 68 years. It was Game 6, and as the Mets’ last at bats loomed, Sox manager John MacNamara sent Bill Buckner out to play first base. Buckner. who was hobbled by leg injuries, had been crucial to the Red Sox pennant with his clutch hits, and his manager wanted him to be on the  field when the team’s two-run lead became final. All season long, the manager had sent out defensive whiz Dave Stapleton to replace Buckner when the team had a lead in the ninth. This time, for sentimental reasons, he left the weaker fielder in.

It needn’t have made any difference. It just did, that’s all. The young Red Sox closer choked, the catcher let a catchable pitch get by, and suddenly a weak bouncer hit by Mookie Wilson rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs, allowing the Mets to win the game. Buckner and his manager were villified for years after the Red Sox lost Game 7 and the Series.

MacNamara deserved to be villified. If he knew that improving the defense at first base was important in every other game, he was a fool to ignore what he knew in this most important of all games, and for a sentimental reason. It was a management botch that could be taught in business schools.

Flash forward to Game 5 of the 2018 Series. It is the bottom of the 9th, and the Boston Red Sox had a four run lead knowing that a victory would make them World Champions. Maximizing his team’s defense, rookie manager Alex Cora replaced his best hitter, J.D. Martinez, in the outfield with Gold Glove-level center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. Cora also had a major defensive upgrade to install at first: Mitch Moreland, who often entered the game in such situations to replace Steve Pearce, a decidedly inferior glove man.

Cora proved himself to be a detail-oriented, aggressive manager during the Series, play-offs and regular season, far more pro-active and strategically sound than John MacNamara. Nonetheless, Cora made exactly the same mistake as his 1986 predecessor! Pearce had been the offensive hero of the game with two homers, and Cora decided to let him be on the field when the final out was made.

He was, too. Sox pitcher Chris Sale struck out the side; no ball ever got close to Pearce. Nonetheless, Cora’s decision not to place his best defensive team on the field to ensure the last three outs was exactly as foolish was the same decision by MacNamara—worse, in fact, because Cora knows what happened to Buckner and the 1986 Sox. (Who doesn’t?) Cora was lucky; MacNamara wasn’t. Cora’s now regarded as a managerial genius, and John MacNamara occupies the crowded Boston Red Sox Hall Of Bad Managers along with Joe McCarthy, Don Zimmer, Joe Kerrigan, Butch Hobson and Grady Little.

And it’s all consequentialism and moral luck.


5 thoughts on “Unfinished World Series Ethics Business

  1. 2. The tradeoff defensively is simply not that significant either via metrics, traditional, or eyeball measurement. If you do UZR/150 it is 0.4 to 5.2 – edge Moreland. As for Cora during the regular season, he would often insert Moreland in the late innings for defensive purposes. But the real issue is Moreland’s hamstring injury. Moreland was questionable for the entire playoff run. Is his mobility hampered? My assumption is it was of concern and may have dictated situational decisions by Cora. Against NY and Houston Moreland was used almost exclusively off the bench and this was dictated by his questionable health. And for Pearce, we have seen some exceptional play during the playoffs including a rather interesting stretch for a ball in game four of the ALDS.

    Cora made the right defensive moves in this game and throughout the three series. In LA his constant maneuvering of the outfield was excellent to “hide” the defensive limitations of JDM.

  2. Used a clip from one of your posts to teach my kids last night: Game 1 of 1988 World Series last at bat.

    The mental aspect of Baseball was NEVER more apparent than in that at bat. The names and teams are irrelevant. Dangerous runner at first as the tying run, two outs, bottom of the ninth inning. Crippled power hitter is substituted to bat for the bottom of the lineout, in hopes of a base hit.

    Pitcher, a professional at the top of his game, has not allowed a home run since late August: a powerful matchup indeed!

    First two pitches are fouled away. Pitcher starts messing with the batter by throwing to first (where there was no chance of an out.) Two more foul balls and the count is still 0-2. Pitcher continues to throw to first, where the runner is taking progressively larger leads.

    Batter hits almost a bunt down the first base line: foul. However, we see how badly the batter is hurt: he is almost limping and could never reach first base on an infield hit. Indeed, he is so banged up he did not take the field during the warm ups: a sign that the manager never expected to play him. (One suspects that a pinch runner would be used, should a base hit occur)

    The mental game continues with the pitcher, way ahead in the count, throwing hard-to-hit pitches in an attempt to make the batter strike out. The batter gets a hold of a pitch: foul ball. Pitcher throws outside again. Now the count is 2-2. More throws to first, and the runner is a legitimate threat to steal second as the count evens up.

    The pitcher throws way outside, and the runner steals second, getting into scoring position. Now the count is 3-2, and the advantage goes to the batter: a base hit can tie the game!

    The batter hands some of the crap back to the pitcher: calls time out just as the pitcher has his mental focus for the deciding pitch. The batter takes his stance, and HIS focus is unshaken: you can see it in his stance, how he holds his head, how he holds his bat, everything. This man suddenly exudes confidence, and the pitcher can see it. Everyone in the ballpark can see it!

    Sometimes, in Baseball, a thing is meant to be. I cannot explain it, but there are moments where you know you are about to see greatness, where all of the little factors are lining up to produce a great play. There is a feeling in the air at such times, and it is palatable even on video and across decades of time. For those who worship at the altar of Baseball, these are the moments that make the game great.

    Pitcher throws a low slider (betting on a junk pitch!) and as a result, hangs out what Baseball fans affectionately call ‘red meat’ for the batter, who gets EVERY BIT OF THAT PITCH AND SENDS IT ON A TOUR OF THE RIGHT FIELD BLEACHERS!

    Game over.

  3. I saw the pitcher fling his glove down in disgust, but I wasn’t aware of the Red Sox history this season of glove flinging. I don’t recall the announcers even commenting on it, which mildly surprised me.

    If I’d known what had happened to Smith earlier this season I certainly would have expected the announcers to know about it and to highlight that. That, after all, is part of the background information I expect playoff announcers (and especially for the World Series) to have at their fingertips.

    Shame on them for not knowing. Shame on the Red Sox for not making it an issue if they’d made it a big issue earlier in the year.

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