Is there room in today’s baseball for another Tony Gwynn Sr.?
“One of the highlights of my career was striking him out. I struck him out once, and it took three or four of the filthiest pitches I’ve ever thrown, in one at bat.”
– Curt Schilling on Tony Gwynn Sr.
Actually, Schilling struck out Tony Gwynn twice. He faced Gwynn 42 times, and struck him out only twice.
That quote comes from an appreciation of Gwynn, who died last year, in The New York Times. Here’s another, longer bit from that piece by Greg Hanlon:
Before it became commonplace for teams to employ full-time video staffs, Gwynn lugged a Betamax on the road, studying himself and the pitchers he faced. He was an obsessive student of hitting akin to Ted Williams, whose book, “The Science of Hitting,” Gwynn read in college. The two men would become friends, often talking for hours about the art of good contact. “I started to realize,” Gwynn once told an interviewer, “that this thing was more mental than it was physical.”
This may explain Gwynn’s continued success despite the transformation of his physique from lithe (he was an all-conference point guard at San Diego State) to portly. He used superb hand-eye coordination and a tiny 31-ounce bat to hone his stroke to maximum precision: If all went well, he would hit the ball sharply between the shortstop and the third baseman — the “5.5 hole,” he called it. (As a reminder, Gwynn had the words embroidered on his cleats.) Over his career, Gwynn struck out an average of 29 times per 162 games, an astonishing rate. His season high was 40 in 1988. By comparison, Mike Trout, the reigning American League M.V.P., struck out 184 times last season.
Gwynn, with his refined technique, mastered the batter-pitcher confrontation. We may never again see a hitter who so consistently got the best of his adversaries.
I gotta say, I don’t find the comparison to Mike Trout particularly instructive. Trout’s not just the reigning American League MVP; he arguably should have won the last three American League MVP Awards. Tony Gwynn’s highest finish in MVP balloting came in his third year in the majors, when he finished third. That was his only top-five finish. In Gwynn’s defense, he probably should have fared somewhat better. Especially in 1987, when he might well have been the best player in the league but somehow finished eighth in the balloting (oh, those mischievous BBWAA voters).
My point is this: As great as Gwynn was, he was for just a brief moment in his career as productive as Mike Trout’s been in all three of his big seasons. With the exception of that 1987 season, he didn’t draw many walks at all. And until late in his career, he hardly showed any power at all.
It certainly seems possible that Gwynn, if he’d been willing to strike out more often, would also have walked and doubled and homered more often, and probably been a more productive hitter. But gosh, you can hardly hold that against him. He worked exceptionally hard at being the hitter he wanted to be, and the hitter he wanted to be was plenty good.
It’s just that Mike Trout is a different, better sort of hitter. So far, anyway.
Of course, everybody can’t be Mike Trout. Probably nobody else can be Mike Trout. Not today, anyway. My question is, could someone with Tony Gwynn’s talents be Tony Gwynn, today? Might we never again see a hitter like Tony Gwynn because nobody can be Tony Gwynn, or because nobody wants to be?
Gwynn enjoyed a couple of “primes” but the longer one was 1984 through ’89, when he batted .336, could still run really well … and struck out in just five percent of his plate appearances (technically 4.9 percent, but I prefer to round these sorts of numbers unless there’s a good reason not to).
Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, we find Gwynn generating 177 Batter Runs over those six seasons, which was 12th best in the majors. All the players ahead of him hit substantially more home runs, except for Wade Boggs and Tim Raines, and of course Boggs and Raines both drew substantially more walks (and Raines stole substantially more bases). Even Rickey Henderson hit 103 home runs in those six seasons, compared to Gwynn’s paltry 43 (Boggs hit 54, Raines 67).
And if you’ll pardon the editorial aside, this is the problem with describing Gwynn as “the best hitter” of his generation: it’s true only if you define “best hitter” as best hitter for batting average.
Anyway, Gwynn’s 12th on that list of Batter Runs (1984-1989) but he’s essentially tied for 12th with Eddie Murray, Alvin Davis, Jack Clark, and Pedro Guerrero.
So let’s ballpark the question like this: Could we see a hitter today who struck out as rarely as Tony Gwynn, yet still managed to generate enough batting runs to rank among the 10 most productive hitters in the majors?
I’m afraid I don’t really have an answer. Really, I’m just throwing this out there for you to consider. Just looking at what’s been happening in recent seasons, though, I don’t believe we’ll see another Tony Gwynn without a rules change, because of course the Strikeout Scourge is a powerful trend.
The closest we’ve seen to a Tony Gwynn type of player since him has been Ichiro Suzuki. In his first four seasons in the majors, Ichiro batted .339 and struck out more than 8 percent of the time. Alas, even this comparison takes us only so far, because somehow Ichiro ranked just 33rd in Batter Runs over that period. Probably (definitely?) because while Ichiro’s and Gwynn’s numbers are superficially quite similar, the scoring environment had changed so much that all those singles Ichiro was hitting just weren’t nearly as valuable as Gwynn’s singles. Relatively speaking.
But the point remains that Ichiro was trying to play the same game Gwynn played. And as well as he played it, he still struck out significantly more often than Gwynn. And that was with league strikeout rates significantly lower than today’s. Ichiro’s now struck out in nearly 10 percent of his career plate appearances. Gwynn struck out just a bit more than 4 percent in his career … So yes, just in case you’ve really been paying attention, that’s right: Gwynn actually struck out slightly less often after the real peak of his career, even as pitchers were getting bigger and stronger and throwing harder all the time (and, it might be guessed, using more and more performance-enhancing drugs, at least some of them).
It’s today’s pitchers who make me think we’re just not going to see anyone quite like Tony Gwynn again, at least until they lower the mound or something. But of course we might already have a semi-Gwynn in our midst.
In Gwynn’s first great season, he was 24 years old and led his league with 213 hits and a .351 batting average. In 2014, 24-year-old Jose Altuve led his league with 225 hits and a .341 batting average. Of course they’re not perfectly similar. Gwynn stole 33 bases and was caught 18 times; Altuve stole 56 bases and was caught only nine times. More to the point, Gwynn actually drew a lot more unintentional walks than Altuve, 46-29. As rarely as Gwynn walked in his career, Altuve’s actually walked significantly less often in his (short) career. Which suggests that he does lack Gwynn’s preternatural ability to control the strike zone, or at least protect the plate.
Last season, Altuve struck out only 53 times, or 7.5 percent of his plate appearances. He’d never struck out so rarely before, and the season might have been an outlier. On the other hand, at 24 he might just be hitting his stride, just as Gwynn did at the same age. But I think 7.5 percent is about as good as it gets, these days. And I have to mention here that Altuve ranked just 20th in the majors in (adjusted) Batting Runs, right between David Ortíz and Jayson Werth.
The game will change because it always changes, eventually. But the current version of big-time baseball just doesn’t seem to have a room for a hitter like Tony Gwynn to be as great as he was. Relatively speaking. Which does seem a bit of a shame.