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.