Monday, June 16, 2014

The Great Tony Gwynn

Gwynn pictured here with his son, Tony Gwynn, Jr. (MSN FoxSports)
With today's passing of Tony Gwynn, the baseball community has lost one of its great all-time hitters. At 54 he was taken from us much too soon.

In a Hall of Fame career that spanned 20 seasons, Gwynn made his mark as one of the game's greatest pure hitters. Not just of his generation, but of all-time.

Though Gwynn's numbers were consistently excellent from start to finish (his OPS+ never fell below 105), his career can be neatly divided into two halves, with four batting titles in each and his age-30 season as the dividing line. In the first half he was like Ichiro Suzuki, winning batting titles, stealing bases, and earning Gold Gloves for his stellar defense in right field. Gwynn's first nine seasons, seven of which were full, match up closely with Ichiro's first seven in the United States.

Gwynn 1982-1990: 5,156 PA  1,531 H  2,021 TB  238 SB .329/.385/.435  38.2 bWAR
Suzuki 2001-2007:  5,180 PA  1,592 H  2,084 TB  272 SB .333/.379/.437  40.9 bWAR

In the second half Gwynn was still a great player, just different. Age, injuries, and an expanding waist-line slowed him down. His speed evaporated, and with it his defense and baserunning prowess. The Gold Gloves stopped coming--he won his fifth and final at 31--and his days of prolific stolen base totals were over.

Gwynn 1991-2001: 5,076 PA  1,610 H  2,238 TB  81 SB .347/.392/.483  30.6 bWAR

His hitting, however, only got better. A career .327/.381/.433 hitter through age 32, he was a .358/.400/.500 hitter over his final nine seasons. He also ramped up his power, more than doubling his home run rate from one dinger every 96.6 at-bats to one every 47.2 at-bats. After hitting more than seven home runs only once in his first dozen seasons, Gwynn did so five times in his last six full seasons. In this regard he was like Paul Molitor, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds--a terrific hitter to the end.

Another way Gwynn improved was by trimming his already anemic strikeout rate. He'd always been difficult to strike out, but fanning him became almost impossible during the second half of his career. Starting at age 30, Gwynn exceeded 20 strikeouts in a season only twice in his final 12 seasons, with 23 in 1990 and a whopping 28 in 1997, the year he set personal bests in doubles, home runs, RBI, and total bases. In his first nine seasons he whiffed a little more than 5.7 percent of the time, but from 1990-2001 he struck out in fewer than 3.9 percent of his at-bats.

Like all true masters of their craft, Gwynn only got better with experience. After his 54 game debut in 1982, Gwynn never again batted below .309, setting a National League record by bettering .300 in 19 consecutive seasons. As a hitter, he peaked in his mid-to-late 30s, when most players are on their way down. Over the five-year period from 1993 through 1997, when Gwynn was between 33 and 37, he had the most hits, highest average and third-most doubles in baseball. Gwynn batted .368/.412/.508, outhitting the next closest player (Mike Piazza) by 31 points as he ripped off four straight batting titles. His strong second act lifted his career average to .338, the highest of any player who debuted after 1940 and tied with Jesse Burkett and Nap Lajoie for 18th on the all-time list.

Gwynn, like Pete Rose and Rod Carew before him, made up for his lack of power with superb bat control and a knack for finding holes in the defense (or, in the words of Wee Willie Keeler, hitting 'em where they ain't). An elite contact hitter, he was an artist with the bat. His eight batting championships--only Ty Cobb won more--are a testament to that. He topped .370 three times, going as high as .394 in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, and eclipsed .350 four other times. He collected 3,141 hits over his 20 seasons, 19th most all-time, and led the league seven times (surpassed only by Cobb's eight hit titles).

Though Gwynn never won a Most Valuable Player award or a World Series ring, he was not at a loss for hardware. A 15-time All-Star, the lifelong San Diego Padre (and greatest player in franchise history, I might add) represented the National League every year but one from 1984 through 1999. He received seven Silver Sluggers despite never hitting more than 17 home runs in any season. Like Wade Boggs, he was not a good defender when he first started, but worked hard to turn himself into an above average fielder. People noticed, and rewarded his efforts with five Gold Gloves.

Incredibly popular, Gwynn sailed into the Hall of Fame in 2007 alongside Cal Ripken Jr. with 97.6 percent of the vote, polling better than other all-time greats such as Rickey Henderson, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Mike Schmidt, and even the great Willie Mays. That goes to show just how well-liked and appreciated Gwynn was. Captain Video was more studious and serious about the craft of hitting than any player except Ted Williams, but unlike Williams knew where to draw the line. Gwynn was one of the nicest guys in the game and a true class act: friendly, jovial, always smiling.

So as tragic as Gwynn's premature passing from cancer is, it gives us reason to pause and reflect on his truly remarkable career. Given how highly respected he was during life, I have no doubts that Gwynn will continue to be appreciated and remembered fondly in death. Rest in Peace, Tony.

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