There are some Baseball Reference pages that make you wonder if what you’re looking at is simply a collection of random numbers strung together. They are so incredible and seemingly impossible that they couldn’t possibly be real. Sandy Koufax has one. Barry Bonds has another.
Tony Gwynn, who passed away Monday at age 54 after a long battle with cancer, is a Hall of Famer who boasted such a career page, although his is one that may require just a little more attention and appreciation than the others.
Baseball fans, certainly, and everyone who grew up within shouting distance of a San Diego zip code, knows well of Gwynn’s incredible exploits, but let’s look at the numbers — and other career highlights and milestones — to better understand the pure genius and joy that was Gwynn holding a bat within his two hands:
• Tony Gwynn never struck out more than 40 times in a season — Gwynn thrived on the heels of an era that celebrated sluggers like Reggie Jackson and Dave Kingman, hitters who usually produced only two true outcomes (dingers and strikeouts). Gwynn rarely whiffed or homered. Gwynn’s career high in strikeouts came in 1988, when he fanned 40 times on 578 plate appearances.
Incredibly, in 1986, Gwynn had his career high in plate appearances (701) and actually struck out five times fewer(35).
• Gwynn’s career intentional walks were 50 percent higher than his career home runs. There are two instances where you’d figure to be intentionally walked a lot: as a No. 8 hitter in the National League (which Gwynn was not) or as a power hitter no one wants to face (which Gwynn certainly was not). Gwynn hit only 135 homers over 20 seasons, but he was intentionally walked 203 times.
It wasn’t the prospect of Gwynn getting a home run that scared opposing managers. It was the chance of him getting any hit whatsoever.
• Gwynn’s season-best in home runs was only 17, which came in 1997. He also hit .372 that year for his eighth career batting title, racked up a league-best 220 hits and drove in 119 runs, the only time he ever topped 100 RBIs in a season.
He was 37 years old.
• Gwynn’s best finish in MVP voting came in 1984, when he was third behind Keith Hernandez and winner Ryne Sandberg.
• Gwynn’s 1,000th career hit came in April 1988 off of Nolan Ryan.
• His 2,000th career hit came in August 1993.
• His 3,000th career hit came in August 1999.
• Gwynn’s most career plate appearances (107, regular season and postseason combined) came against soon-to-be Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. Gwynn hit .415 and did not strike out. Not once.
• For someone who was decidedly not skinny, Gwynn was deceptively fast, compiling 85 triples and 319 career steals. (He also won five Gold Glove awards.)
There are other ways to slice the numbers, but Gwynn’s career remains a neverending source for oddities and astonishment. Parsing them all is what makes baseball fun, but above all, we’ll always remember that sweet, sweet swing.