“Playing The Game The Right Way” Usually Just Means “Good”

The phrase “playing the game the right way” has always bothered me. A favorite of commentators across a variety of sports, this phrase’s only purpose is to irritate me. The literalist in me flails angrily when it is told that “Player X plays the game the right way,” because really, no one runs around the bases clockwise or carries the basketball around with them like a rugby player. Everyone plays the game the right way. The analyst in me seethes when it is told that “Team Y play the game the right way,” because this brings absolutely nothing to the table in the way of greater scrutiny or understanding. If anything, this utterance detracts from the discussion. Unfortunately, this expression reared its ugly head three separate times in the last 24 hours, necessitating this post.

Before going to bed last night, I perused Tim Kurkjian’s piece on the Minnesota Twins. Its thesis, much to my dismay, is that the Twins have prospered under manager Ron Gardenhire largely because of the organization’s “doing things/playing the game the right way” mantra. I sighed wistfully, brushed my teeth, and crawled into bed.

I turned on the MLB Network this afternoon. A four-man panel, including Harold Reynolds and former general manager John Hart, were discussing the Baltimore Orioles. In a feeble attempt to diagnose the team’s recent woes, Reynolds said:

“One thing that has been passed down from generation to generation in Baltimore that the Orioles have kind of gotten away from is the idea of ‘Orioles baseball,’ or ‘the Oriole way.’ It hasn’t really been around since Cal Ripken left, the idea of doing things the right way, and that’s been hurting this ball club.”

My jaw stiffened. I bit my lower lip, exhaled deeply, and then ate a slice of pizza.

During the Twins-Yankees Spring Training game later in the afternoon, a discussion of the Twins’ success in spite of their low payroll began. The camera cut to Gardenhire. Play-by-play man Michael Kay admiringly offered “boy, the Twins really do play the game the right way.” I implode.

I have come to the conclusion that “doing things/playing the game the right way” is synonymous with “good.” I believe this for the same reason that I believe a “professional hitter” is synonymous with “white bench player in his mid-30s with no power but some contact”; because whenever I hear someone described as a “professional hitter,” that player is usually a white bench player in his mid-30s with no power but some contact ability. But Fan Interference seeks validate suspicions through research, so it would be negligent for me to draw the “doing things/playing the game the right way” : “good” comparison without backing it up statistically. 

baltimore20oriolesLet’s compare the post-Ripken Orioles (not doing things the right way) to the Gardenhire-led Twins (doing things the right way). Conveniently, both eras began in 2002. Since 2002, the Orioles have ranked:

  • 29th, 23rd, 7th, 17th, 11th, 17th, and 13th in OBP
  • 23rd, 22nd, 15th, 8th, 20th, 19th, and 10th in SLG
  • 20th, 22nd, 20th, 23rd, 29th, 29th, and 29th in ERA
  • 9th, 25th, 23rd, 20th, 25th, 14th, and 18th in Defensive Efficiency

minIn that same span, the Twins have ranked:

  • 16th, 9th, 16th, 21st, 7th, 19th, and 9th in OBP
  • 6th, 9th, 16th, 29th, 17th, 27th, and 20th in SLG
  • 14th, 16th, 6th, 7th, 3rd, 8th, and 13th in ERA
  • 8th, 11th, 22nd, 7th, 17th, 16th, and 19th in Defensive Efficiency

The culmination of these statistics is seasons of 67, 71, 78, 74, 70, 69, and 68 wins for the Orioles; 94, 90, 92, 83, 96, 79, and 88 for the Twins. The Orioles haven’t been bad because they’ve gotten away from whatever the heck “Oriole baseball” is. They’ve been bad because they can’t really hit, they certainly can’t pitch, their defense is lacking, and they play in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox. The Twins haven’t been good because, by golly, they do things the right way. They’ve been good because they hit well enough, pitch their butts off in front of an average defense, and play in a division with no superpowers. That’s it.

I’m convinced, small sample be damned, that this unhelpful phrase is simply a lazy way of describing a good team. Interestingly, all good teams are not described as “doing things the right way.” I’ve never heard the Yankees, Athletics, or Mets described in this way. On the other hand, the Twins, Red Sox, Braves, and Angels are often given this label. And you most certainly never, ever hear of bad teams that “do things the right way” but just can’t compete because of the talent gap. It’s a meaningless and arbitrarily-applied statement, and it does nothing to inform the audience.

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