In the annals of inaccurate headlines, this one’s hardly going to make the Hall of Fame …
but it’s enough for someone at the New York Times to get a mild reprimand, right? Because if there’s a single word we wouldn’t use to describe Tony Gwynn, it’s slugger. What Tony Gwynn was, was a hitter. When people use the term "pure hitter," they mean someone like Tony Gwynn … except there’s really nobody else like Tony Gwynn, who now seems to have been the last of his kind: an extraordinary hitter who struck out extraordinarily rarely.
There were, some many years ago, a fair number of hitters you just couldn’t strike out. Nellie Fox struck out only 216 times in his whole career. Joe DiMaggio finished his career with nearly as many home runs as strikeouts. Fellow Hall of Famers George Kell and Red Schoendienst both struck out slightly less often, percentage-wise, than Tony Gwynn.
But of course neither Kell nor Schoendienst could hit like Gwynn, and of course both played decades before Gwynn. Since World War II, Gwynn has just the seventh-lowest strikeout rate (4.2 percent) among the 605 major leaguers with at least 5,000 plate appearances. But if we look instead at major leaguers since 1969 - the last time the rules were seriously monkeyed around with - Gwynn has the second-lowest strikeout rate, behind only Felix Millan … who hit only 19 home runs in his career.
"Wait a minute," you might be saying, if the image in your mind’s eye shows Gwynn guiding a single through what he called the 5.5 hole (between the third baseman and the shortstop). "Wasn’t Tony Gwynn a singles hitter, just like Millan?"
No, he wasn’t. Some years, maybe. Especially early in his career. But Gwynn hit 135 home runs in his career. In his 30s, when he gradually put on some weight and lost most of his speed, he also gained some power. In 1997, when he was 37, Gwynn rapped 49 doubles and 17 homers. Oh, and struck out only 28 times while batting .372 to capture his eighth league crown. While in his 30s, Gwynn somehow discovered that he could swing really hard (sometimes) and continue to avoid strikeouts like nobody else around him.
Which is an amazing thing, really.
And is worth remembering when you hear, as you so often will, that the problem with today’s hitters is that they don’t shorten their swing with two strikes.
True enough, perhaps. But people who say that are, whether subconsciously or not, thinking about Tony Gwynn … and (with all due respect to Tony Gwynn Jr.) there’s really been just one Tony Gwynn.
Consider: We’ve got pitch-by-pitch data since 1988, via STATS, Inc. And according to STATS, Inc., Tony Gwynn batted .302 with two strikes. See! Just be more like Tony Gwynn! Except you know who’s second on the list? Wade Boggs. Not so surprising. What’s surprising? Wade Boggs, one of the greatest pure hitters of his or any other generation, batted just .262 (after 1987) with two strikes.
The best pure hitter since Tony Gwynn? You can make a great case for Ichiro Suzuki. Well, Ichiro’s two-strike batting average is .259.
Tony Gwynn was not the greatest hitter of his era. He didn’t draw a great number of walks, or hit for a great deal of power. He wasn’t as great as Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Junior Griffey, nor even as great as Fred McGriff or Rafael Palmeiro or Wade Boggs. But Gwynn was a singular hitter, the sort of hitter we hadn’t seen in a long time and might never see again.
Swinging a little easier with two strikes? Sure, go ahead. It might help a little. But batting .300 with two strikes? If it were easy, everybody would do it.
And to be fair, the Times did change their headline.