Tony Gwynn died Monday at the age of 54. A San Diego icon. A baseball icon.
Gwynn’s page on baseball-reference.com was already sponsored by Monday evening, with this tribute: “Tony Gwynn, 1960-2014; You were a better person than you were a hitter, and you were the best hitter this generation has seen. San Diego will miss you dearly, Mr. Padre. Thank you for the memories.”
Cancer did what few major league pitchers could do. Gwynn never was an easy out. He was what baseball once called a batsman. He practiced what once was called a craft.
Gwynn could strike the ball with his bat and reach base safely. Not with the best of them. Better than the best of them.
Gwynn’s career batting average was .338. Of the 20 players in baseball history who have hit at least .338, 18 finished their careers before 1939.
Since 1950, the players with the best career batting average are Ted Williams .340, Gwynn .338, Stan Musial .331, Wade Boggs .328, Rod Carew .328 and Miguel Cabrera .321. Of the top 50 hitters for average in history, those six are the only post-1950 players.
As baseball has gone more and more to a power game, hitting safely with the frequency of a Tony Gwynn has become less and less an art.
The top 10 active career batting averages are Cabrera .321, Joe Mauer .320, Albert Pujols .319, Ichiro Suzuki .319, Joey Votto .312, Derek Jeter .312, Ryan Braun .311, Robinson Cano .310, Matt Holliday .309 and Victor Martinez .305.
Gwynn won eight National League batting titles. The only player with more league batting championships was Ty Cobb, with 11 or 12, depending on how you rate the disputed 1910 race. The great Honus Wagner also had eight batting titles.
Twenty years ago, Gwynn batted .394. 1994 was the lockout-shortened season that ended without even a World Series. Gwynn was 34 in 1994; he had 165 hits in 419 at-bats when the season ended, with 45 San Diego Padre games remaining on the schedule.
Lots of players had taken gaudy batting averages into August. Few still had them as October approached? Would Gwynn have faltered and falling into the .360 or .370 range? Maybe. It’s also possible that Gwynn could have used those 45 games to raise his batting average six points and made history.
Not since 1941 has Major League Baseball had a .400 hitter – Williams’ .406.
Since 1941, the best single-season batting averages are Gwynn’s .394 in 1994, George Brett’s .390 in 1980, Williams’ .388 in 1957, Carew’s .388 in 1977, Larry Walker’s .379 in 1999, Musial’s .376 in 1948, Nomar Garciaparra’s .372 in 2000, Todd Helton’s .372 in 2000, Ichiro’s .372 in 2004, Gwynn’s .372 in 1997, Andres Galarraga’s .370 in 1993, Gwynn’s .370 in 1987 and Barry Bonds’ .370 in 2002.
So since 1941, 13 times has a hitter hit at least .370. Gwynn has three of those seasons. No other hitter has more than one. Gwynn was a throwback. He was from a different time. Gwynn struck out 434 times in a 21-year career. He was more George Sisler and Eddie Collins. More Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. More Harry Heilmann and Tris Speaker.
Except Gwynn played against ballplayers still playing today. He had a 19th-century batting average, playing in the 21st century.
In general, batting averages are overrated in baseball. But that’s when a guy is hitting .275, or .295. Not when a guy is hitting .394. Or .338 over a 21-year career. Not when a guy gets on base as much as Gwynn did.
The greatest baseball mind of our time, Bill James, wrote in 2001 about the change in the game. James wrote that despite the power explosion, even during the steroid era, no one made a run at Hack Wilson’s single-season RBI record of 191. “Why?” James asked. “Individually, power hitters have had seasons which are as good as any in history — but they don’t drive in as many runs, and their teams do not score as many runs as the great hitting teams of the 1930s. Why? Because nobody is setting the table. We’ve got offenses now that are wall-to-wall power hitters. The only people who aren’t power hitters are the guys who don’t hit anything; there really aren’t any good hitters, other than Tony Gwynn…”
Baseball will miss Tony Gwynn the man. It already has been missing Gwynn the batsman.