When the world’s most talented people pass away, we celebrate their life’s work. Steve Jobs had the personal computer, Thomas Edison the light bulb, Albert Einstein the theory of relativity, and Tony Gwynn the mechanically efficient swing. Publicly appreciating that which they were most passionate about and proud of is among the best ways to honor their legacies.
From Mark Twain:
"The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why."
The most spectacularly gifted human beings seem to find out early why they graced this earth. Tony Gwynn was here to hit. His mission was one part physical, the other cerebral.
Mark Loretta, long time Padre and now member of the SD front office, shared with me in a text, “He took the emotion out of hitting. He always said he boiled it down to a game of percentages. He knew that if he could hit the ball hard 7-8 times out of 10, he’d get at least 3.5 hits. He was really able to take a positive out of a hard out."
Gwynn was a sabermetrician when the rest of the world was still mind-numbingly focused on batting average (ironic, given his eight batting titles). We are just now discussing line drive percentage and referencing hard hit balls. Gwynn inadvertently showed us how to better measure a baseball player simply by shifting the focus from the result to what he could control.
It sounds simple, but this mindset is very difficult to achieve during a long season of baseball’s wild ups and downs. I had the opportunity to study Kevin Youkilis closely when we played together. Youk was a very productive offensive player. He would nearly have a coronary when he lined out. I’ve shared the dugout space with All-Stars and Hall of Famers who would lose it whenever they crushed a baseball right into the gloves of perfectly positioned fielders.
Tony was unusual in this regard. I don’t remember him ever having a fit and fighting a bat rack after a crisply hit two-hopper to the shortstop. His mental toughness has been well publicized, and rightly so. Receiving less attention, but perhaps more unique is his mechanical makeup.
During my career I tinkered endlessly. I toyed with huge leg kicks, no stride at all, and various toe taps. Gwynn used none of these, preferring a simple, small stride.
Ryan Parker, Baseball Prospectus swing expert shared this:
“Tony Gwynn’s swing was a marvel for its simplicity and efficiency. Wasted motion? There was absolutely none. Everything Tony did in his swing served a purpose. Big leg kicks and bat waggles may help hitters feel better but Tony knew he didn’t need them to hit. All of Tony’s movements were calculated and precise.”
When we think about precision with a baseball bat, our minds immediately conjure images of the greatest right-handed hitter of our generation — Miguel Cabrera.
Pay close attention to how Miggy and Tony get into near identical positions at foot strike, essentially the moment the stride foot makes solid contact with the earth.
Parker breaks it down:
“While the position itself is important, how they get there has its own merit. Both move the hands down slightly before pulling the hands up and back to shoulder height. This is a small, controlled movement designed to get their hands in the optimal position to launch their swing. Watch how this movement is also synchronized with the stride. When the foot moves, their hands move. This helps establish rhythm in a swing and is an easy timing pattern to repeat.”
That front foot and leg, however, is a spark plug, not the engine. The power and driving force comes from the hips and back leg.
Regardless of stride, hitters must move their front hip forward while simultaneously turning it slightly inward. This all must occur before the front heel gets planted into the ground.
As we continued to breakdown the tape, Parker illuminated Tony’s hips by focusing on his belt loops. The front hip moves forward and the belt rotates towards the catcher just slightly.
As hitters, we can feel that front hip turn. Focusing our attention on this “coil” in our tee work ensures an authoritative response from our core.
Speaking of authority, Giancarlo Stanton’s stride would certainly be Tony Gwynn approved.
The back leg is no spectator during Stanton’s stride. The angle of the back leg (foot to knee to hip) actually steepens before the right knee begins to fire. Pay close attention to the trailing kneecap. It’s driving forward before the front heel strikes the earth.
I fully comprehended the value of fewer moving parts in my swing, even as I experimented with adding and subtracted movements. Gwynn had a ridiculously fluid and uncomplicated set of actions at the plate. He optimized everything for bat accuracy and was rewarded by almost never striking out.
Gwynn wasn’t simply accurate. He had power as well, evidenced by his ranking 28th on the all-time doubles list. He could put on a show in batting practice, but like his swing, everything he did had a purpose.
“Yes he did (have power) when he wanted to, but he took BP with a specific purpose," former teammate Gary Matthews Jr. told me. “He would wear out that 5.5 hole in BP. He would then call out the locations of his line drives (before the pitch was thrown) for his last two rounds of BP. It was ridiculous.”
Gwynn accomplished what few five o’clock mashers can do. He translated that identical approach into the game.
“When it’s time to actually launch the bat, Tony does so in a textbook fashion,” Parker says. “He turns the bat behind him without letting his hands leak forward. He is able to build bat speed and begin to align his bat into the hitting zone without his hands getting far out in front of his body.”
The bigger, more powerful version of this movement is Josh Hamilton.
These textbook mechanics and amazing consistency made Tony great.
We often speak of a pitcher’s ability to repeat his delivery. This allows him to consistently command the baseball. Tony did just this with his stroke. His ability to launch the bat into and through the hitting zone over and over in the same fashion enabled him to avoid prolonged slumps.
Countless superstars share individual traits with Gwynn, but the control of his body and barrel manipulation truly stand alone. Creative is an adjective rarely used to describe a major leaguer’s swing, but here, Gwynn was a painter and the bat was his brush.
“Tony could align his body in a seemingly infinite number of ways to ensure that his barrel was squaring up the baseball,” says Parker.
And that he did, roughly seven or eight times out of every 10.
A gigantic thank you goes out to Ryan Parker for his leadership and insight while breaking down swings with me for this piece.