I had a piece planned on fantasy baseball, but when I heard of the passing of Tony Gwynn, I decided I would put that piece aside for another day and try to put into words what sort of player Tony Gwynn was. There will be tributes penned by sports writers who are much more eloquent than I am. There will be tear-jerking tributes from those who knew Tony personally. Major League Baseball would be wise to take time and pause to remember a man who not only was the best pure hitter of his generation, but was also, by all accounts, a great man.
Growing up I loved baseball. I loved baseball cards. I loved to play baseball. I loved to watch baseball. I would spend afternoons watching Chicago Cubs games with my grandfather on WGN (this was before the days when the Cubs had lights at Wrigley and all their games were afternoon games). I got to see Tony Gwynn in all his pure hitting glory when the Cubs played the Padres.
I knew Tony Gwynn was a great hitter when I was a kid. My dad had seen Ted Williams and said he was the greatest hitter he had ever seen, but even my dad had to admit that Gwynn was great. It was not until I was older and playing baseball at a higher level that I realized how great someone like Tony Gwynn really was.
I took a look at some of his numbers, and they still make my eyes pop.
Career batting average: .338
Career hits: 3,141
First half batting average: .342
Second half batting average: .334
8 NL batting titles
20 seasons with the same team
Hall of Fame voting percentage: 97.6%
Gwynn was the model of consistency. In his 20 seasons he hit under .300 once, in 1982 (his first run in the majors) when he appeared in 54 games. BTW, he hit .289 that year. He went on to hit over .300 for the next 19 years. He never batted lower than .309, which he did twice in his career.
His career monthly batting average splits (from Baseball-Reference) are remarkably consistent:
It didn’t matter where he was placed in the lineup, he still hit. Don’t throw him a first pitch ball, Gwynn was a .380 hitter with 1-0 counts. If he happened to work a count full, no problem, he was a .351 hitter. Gwynn got better when he saw a pitcher more often during the game. First time around he hit .310. Second at-bat, his average went up to .332. Third at-bat, a robust .360. And, if the pitcher stuck around longer (which they did 684 times), Gwynn hit a mere .367 off them. Want to talk clutch? Gwynn hit .354 and stuck out only 40 times in 672 at-bats in the ninth inning!
Beyond the diamond, Gwynn was one of the more humble players of his generation. He actually thought he would not make the Hall of Fame because he did not hit enough homers (135) or drive in enough runs (1,138). While he played in 2 World Series, he never won a title. Of course voters saw it differently.
Take a moment to consider the hitting greatness of Tony Gwynn. Even the current crop of great hitters do not compare. Ichiro hit over .300 for 10 MLB seasons, and has as recently as last season batted under .275. Miguel Cabrera, perhaps the best hitter in baseball right now, has hit over .300 for 6 consecutive seasons. Albert Pujols had 10 straight .300 seasons. Gwynn’s contemporary Wade Boggs hit .300 for 10 straight seasons and in 15 out of 18 seasons. You have to mention names like Cobb, Ruth, Williams, Wagner and Musial when talking about Gwynn.
Baseball lost a legend, but hopefully his legend continues, both on and off the field.