By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 75: Tony Gwynn

At the All-Star Game in Kansas City in 2012, I did a question and answer event with Tony Gwynn, which was every bit as much fun as you might expect. At some point in the conversation, I asked Gwynn, point blank, if he would have hit .400 in 1994 … that season ended abruptly because of the strike. He ended up hitting .394 in 110 games.

“Yes,’ he said without an instant hesitation.


“Of course,” he said. “Why would I think anything else?”
Gwynn was a magical hitter, and it began with an astonishing hunger to learn everything there was to learn about the swing, the pitchers, the art form. He was famously one of the few who could talk hitting with Ted Williams and keep up. They called Gwynn “Captain Video” because of the way he would pore over the video of his at-bats and take comprehensive and detailed notes. He had an ability to absorb the information he picked up watching video and the perhaps unique ability to use that information when hitting.

This was somewhat new. There have always been students of hitting, but most believed in simplicity, the see-the-ball-hit-the-ball approach to hitting. George Brett, for instance, believed deeply that when in the batter’s box the brain can only think about one thing at a time. He didn’t want other information cluttering up his mind. Every now and again, he might pick up a slight hitch in a pitcher’s delivery that forecast what kind of pitch he would be throwing but Brett said it was rarely of much use to him. He had his way — look for the fastball, adjust to the curve — and any additional layer of complexity clouded things and gummed up the machinery.

Not Gwynn. He simply could not have too much information. He was a terabyte computer in the age of the Commodore 64. He wanted to know the pitcher’s tendencies on every single count. He would pick up the slightest difference in leg kicks or the difference in the slope of a pitch coming from the full windup and the stretch. Mostly, he watched his own swing, looked to see how to better fight off pitches up and in, how to better slice outside pitches into the left-field corner, when he could feel good about turning and driving the ball. And he used all of it.

Beyond the preparation, Gwynn was like Sherlock Holmes at the plate — he noticed the smallest details and could make sweeping and profound conclusions from them. He was all but incapable of hitting below .300. Gwynn was drafted in the third round out of San Diego State in 1981, went to Walla Walla and hit .331 with 12 homers and 17 stolen bases in just 42 games. They got him out of there, sent him to Class AA Amarillo. In 23 games, he hit .462. And he hadn’t really started his video study yet.

In 16 full seasons in the big leagues — 100 games or more — Tony Gwynn never hit less than .309. He won eight batting titles and DID NOT win in 1993, when he hit .358 (Andres Galarraga, playing half his games in gargantuan Mile High Stadium and hit .370 — .402 at home). Batting average has several flaws when used to determine a player’s offensive value, but it’s still a wonderful way to assess a hitter’s artistry. Gwynn and Wade Boggs were the artists of the time, but Boggs had the distinct advantage of Fenway Park, which he played like Yo Yo Ma plays cello. Boggs hit .369 at Fenway Park in his career, pulling that career average skyward. Gwynn hit in the stingier Jack Murphy Stadium (though he managed to hit .343 there in his career).

Road batting averages:

Wade Boggs: .302
Tony Gwynn: .334

Gwynn’s knowledge about hitting, his technical approach, his otherworldly ability to take any pitch and place it between fielders should not overshadow his physical gifts, particularly his hand-eye coordination. Gwynn says he was born with that but he grew up playing basketball — he has said that was really his favorite sport — and there’s something about athletes playing multiple sports developing a certain dexterity. For instance: Gwynn almost never struck out. His strikeout numbers look as if they were pulled right out of the 1920s and 1930s. Since 1975, only two players have had a .300 batting average in a season while striking out out once every 25 or more at-bats. Bill Buckner did it four times, which is pretty remarkable. Gwynn did it eight times. In 1995, Gwynn struck out 15 times all year. In 1992, he struck out 16 times.

The rest of Gwynn’s game was good, but perhaps overrated simply because he was such a wonderful hitter and people wanted to grant him greatness in all realms. He won five Gold Gloves in right field, including one in 1989 when his defensive WAR was minus-2.9. He was a solid fielder, especially in his younger days, who flashed a strong and accurate arm, but he might not have been quite Gold Glove good. He had perhaps an unmatched sense of the strike zone, but he did not walk too much after he got older. His.388 on-base percentage, while fantastic, makes him one of only four men to hit .335 or better but not have a .400 on-base percentage (George Sisler, Nap Lajoie and Bill Terry are the others).

Gwynn adjusted to his changing body as well as anybody. He could really run in his younger days. He stole 56 bases one season, hit as many as 13 triples, and he scored 100 runs twice. In his later years, he turned on the ball more, hit with more power. In 1997, as a 37-year-old, he hit .372, slugged .547 and drove in 117 runs. It was probably his second-best offensive season.

And, of course, in 1994 he was hitting .394 when they shut the game down. Do I think Gwynn would have hit .400 that year. Yes. I do. He was 34, yes, but at the peak of his hitting powers, at the perfect place where his athletic talents were still very much intact and his knowledge of hitting was peaking. If Gwynn had played his home games at Fenway or Coors Field, I think he would hit .400 more than once in his career. So, yes, I think Gwynn would have hit .400 in 1994. Plus, as he says, what’s the point in thinking anything else?

37 Responses to No. 75: Tony Gwynn

  1. tombando says:

    His ’94 season gets lost whenever the what ifs of that yr are discussed…great player period. Even if watching him play rf at the end was like watching Cannon running a 100m dash…

  2. Pat says:

    Mr. Padre!

  3. James Smyth says:

    Gwynn’s possible .400 is one of so many what ifs with that 1994 season. The Expos of course had the best record in baseball, they could have won it all and maybe kept the team together and in Montreal. The best team in the AL was the Yankees, Don Mattingly would have ended his postseason drought one year earlier and maybe he gets a ring. If they win it all, does Buck Showalter get fired for Joe Torre? The Rangers led the AL West at 52-62 and would have had to finish 29-19 just to avoid being the first sub-.500 playoff team. Matt Williams was on pace for 60 homers, with Griffey right behind at 58. Chuck Knoblauch was on pace for 64 doubles, maybe he makes a run at Earl Webb’s record of 67. Fred McGriff likely hits seven more home runs that year, which puts him at 500 for his career and probably in Cooperstown. Cal Ripken breaks Gehrig’s record in June of ’95 not September. Or what if he gets hurt in ’94 and never reaches 2,130?

    • Cathead says:

      1994 was the first year of the three-division-per-league-with-wildcard format in MLB. I have wondered — If the Rangers or some other AL West division winner had finished out the year well below .500, would the new playoff format have been scrapped?

  4. Will3pin says:

    My biggest 1994 “what if’s?”

    1. Expos Pennant
    2. 60 HRs for Junior
    3. Gwynn .403
    4. Jimmy Key Cy Young

    • johnq11 says:

      I don’t follow the “Jimmy Key Cy Young?” David Cone was the best pitcher in the A.L. that year and he won the award and then Clemens was right behind.

      Matt Williams was the the player on pace for 60.

  5. J Hench says:

    Can you imagine if Gwynn had been hitting .402 or something when the strike started, though? Talk about your asterisks and controversy. I can just imagine the talking heads– Does it count? Does it really count? What does Ted Williams think? If he did it in ’95, would that count?

  6. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Gwynn was a joy to watch hit.

    For my No. 75, I would put Eddie Plank.

  7. Kris says:

    I seem to remember Gwynn being known for having a not-particularly strong arm, which announcers always made sure to qualify by noting that he made up for it with accuracy and knowing where to throw.

  8. Michael Green says:

    I’ll never forget watching an interview with Williams and Gwynn in which Gwynn was collapsing in laughter as Mr. Ballgame kept yelling at him that if he would lose weight, he could get the bat around his gut faster. Joe, I think Jim Murray captured him perfectly (as he did everything else) when he said that Tony Gwynn in a batter’s box looks like he’s trying to get comfortable in a bobbing canoe:,1118962

  9. johnq11 says:

    Tony Gwynn was an overrated player. It’s kind of amazing that he led the league in batting average 8 times yet only led the league in on-base percentage once.

    He has roughly the same value as a player as Tim Raines #88 or Edgar Martinez who didn’t even make the top 100.

    I think Joe is widely underrated pitchers on this list. All those pitchers listed were better than Gwynn.

    How is Paul Waner #94 and Gwynn #75?? Larry Walker was better than Gwynn and he probably didn’t make the top 100.

    • OPS+ (which adjusts for ballpark) shows Gwynn to be a much better hitter than Raines: 132 to 123, even though Raines had more walks. Raines in his career led his league in nine different positive categories (steals four times), Gwynn led his league in seventeen positive categories (eight of them batting average). Even with the walks lead, Gwynn has a higher career OBP (.388 to .385) and much higher slugging percentage. Gwynn had OPS+ of 105 or higher every one of his 20 seasons; Raines had a couple of off years in there. Raines’ best offensive year had an OPS+ of 151; Gwynn had three years better than that. Give Raines his significant advantage on the base paths (not that Gwynn was bad, but Raines is in the discussion as the best ever) but you also have to give Gwynn being a better fielder at a more important position, I have zero objection to ranking Gwynn above Raines, even though I would be happy to see Raines voted in to the HOF. Gwynn must have hit your cat with his car or something.

    • Dave says:

      What are you talking about?! Tony Gwynn overrated? That statement alone shows how little you know.

  10. Rick R says:

    Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Ichiro, and Derek Jeter were all high average hitters who liked hitting the ball to the opposite field. They stayed back and went with the pitch, and as a result hit a lot of singles. I enjoyed watching these guys hit, but the sabermetric crowd frowns upon them for their lack of power and their lack of walks (though Boggs will probably rate far higher on this list for his unique ability to accumulate hits and walks). It will be interesting to see which 50 or so players Joe rates as better hitters than 8 time batting champ Tony Gwynn (and since Gwynn could hold his own on the field and on the basepaths, it will be their contributions at the plate that will make up the difference).

    My only knock on Gwynn: I loved Tony Gwynn as a player, but found him distinctly dull as an announcer. He might be able to talk hitting with Ted Williams, but that didn’t come through on the broadcasts. Perhaps he was too nice a guy to criticize a player, or thought that the intricacies of an at-bat were inappropriate for a general audience, but for someone so renowned as a hitting guru, he had remarkably little to say on the subject, at least on tv.

  11. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    Apparently, Boggs is going to come in above Gwynn, but I don’t see it, unless maybe he’s next. Their career OPS+ are virtually identical (Gwynn leads by 001), but Boggs was pretty much done after age 33, while Gwynn remained productive for some years after that. Gwynn, unlike Boggs, never had a seasonal OPS+ below 100. I would agree that Boggs had a better peak, but I don’t think it was so much better that it leapfrogs him over Gwynn.

    As for Larry Walker (and Boggs, too, for that matter), it seems possible to me that we don’t necessarily capture all the bias in home park effects by normalizing them. It seems likely that there are some players who are particularly well situated to take advantage of a park’s unique features. That is clearly true for Boggs (on the road, he was basically Al Oliver); harder to say for Walker, who was actually quite a good player on the road.

    • Boggs done after 33? .342/.433/.489 at 35; .324/.412/.422 at 36; after age 33 to end of career .300/.382/.396, including two years in his 40s. Not “done” by any means, though Gwynn after age 33 was an amazing .356/.400/.500.

    • Josh L says:

      You’re wrong about their peaks. Boggs has a seven year peak of 56.0 bWAR, while Gwynn’s is only 41.1. That’s a difference of 2.1 bWAR per season over their peaks, which is staggering. And for all your protestations, you missed Boggs’ main offensive advantage: His career .415 OBP dwarfs Gwynn’s .388. If you prefer wOBA to normalize park effects, Boggs holds a .381 to .370 advantage. And if you want to look at road OBPs, Boggs’ was .387 and Gwynn’s was .369. Plus, Boggs scores much better defensively than Gwynn.

      Their career totals aren’t close either:

      Boggs has a career bWAR of 90.9 and a career fWAR of 88.3
      Gwynn has a career bWAR of 68.9 and a career fWAR of 65.0

    • I remarked above Gwynn less his league 17 times in positive things? Boggs did 22 times, and I’m not counting plate appearances (which reflects batting leadoff in a higher offensive context). Gwynn kills Boggs in speed, byt bRef’s dWAR gives Boggs almost all of his substantial WAR advantage over Gwynn, and that’s with two fewer seasons in the majors. I would not be bothered if Boggs was 2-3 above Gwynn, or even 15-20 spots above Gwynn. It’s just one list. But a WAR of 90.9 is pretty darned good for Boggs,22 WARmore than Gwynn.

  12. buddaley says:

    I don’t note this in rebuttal but rather to suggest we may not be looking at all the data. According to BB-Ref, Gwynn’s career WAR is 68.9 while Boggs’s is 90.9. And from age 34-41, Boggs recorded WARs of 2.2, 4.2, 4.5, 4.2, 3.4, 2.0, 1.4, -.2. Gwynn’s were 4.2, 2.3, 2.2, 4.3, 1.5, 1.8, .4, .6. That does not suggest that “Boggs was pretty much done after age 33” or that Gwynn was more productive in those years.

    Looking at the raw offensive numbers, it does seem that Gwynn was far superior, although Boggs had some very solid seasons at ages 36 (.342/.433/.489) and 37 (.324/.412/.422) as well as two other pretty good ones. True, they were in fewer plate appearances than in earlier years, but except for his age 37 season, so were Gwynn’s.

    In any case, there is some, albeit not conclusive, evidence that Boggs had the better career, not just the better peak.

  13. I always thought the knock on Gwynn was that he seemed to care more about getting hits, and was happy if he had his hits, even if the team lost. That said, being a “team guy” in baseball is less important in baseball, which doesn’t require much team play from an outfielder except throwing to the right base and hitting the cutoff man. But he had some challenges, at times, in the clubhouse with his alleged “me first, focus on getting mine” attitude. He got called out publicly for it more than once. His saving grace was that he was a fan favorite, so fans tended to take his side.

  14. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    Fair points made by both bellweather22 and buddaley. It’s not fair to say that Boggs was “done” at 33, though, except for one season, OPS+ isn’t much impressed with him after that. And I am still not sure I know yet what to make of WAR. I mean, I’m on board with the concept, but calculations differ, results vary, and some of the results seem seriously at variance with everything that came before. (I know we could have said the same thing about Bill James’ early work, but that has clearly stood the test of time.) Plus, I’m not sure anyone has a good handle on defense yet. I could be wrong, of course, but for now I’ll remain a skeptic.

    Other than WAR, I suppose it’s fair to say that they’re awfully close as long as you’re convinced that we’ve accurately controlled for Fenway. For what it’s worth, Bill James has Gwynn several slots above Boggs in the Top 100 players section of the 2002 Historical Abstract. (Has he weighed in since?)

    I’ll also cop to being a Padres fan, which could introduce some bias into my assessment, though I am trying to be dispassionate. (Enzo Hernandez was a Padres shortstop of the 1970s who compensated for his subpar fielding with Mendoza-line hitting.)

    One of the things I like about this site is how almost everyone in the comments section debates issues in a respectful, evidence-driven way. I wish we had more of that at other sites.

  15. johnq11 says:

    Boggs was a much better player than Gwynn.

    One of the big differences between the two is that Boggs drew walks. Gwynn led the league in batting average but only led the league in on base percentage once. Boggs led the league in batting average 5 times but led the league in on base percentage 6 times. Boggs also played a more difficult position (3b) and played it well. Gwynn was actually a very good right fielder during the first half of his career but then was actually kind of lousy during the second half when he gained all that weight.

    Gwynn Lifetime: .338/.388/.459
    Boggs Lifetime: .328/.415/.443


    Gwynn Lifetime: .346/.397/.468
    Boggs Lifetime: .326/.413/.440

    Boggs Career War: (90.9), Best 7 Seasons (56.0), Combined /2 or Jaws: (73.4)
    Gwynn Career War: (68.9), Best 7 Seasons (41.1), Combined /2 or Jaws: (55.0)

    Boggs (By Career WAR rank): 3rd among Third basemen, 29th among position player, 42nd overall.

    Tony Gwynn (By Career WAR Rank): 14th among Right Fielders, 72nd among Position Players, 107th overall.

  16. Donald A. Coffin says:

    Could TG have hit .400 in 1994? It’s plausible, but likely to have been difficult.

    When the season “ended”, he’d played in 110 of SD’s 117 games. At that rate, he would have played in 42 of the 45 games they didn’t get to play. He had 419 AB. At that per-game rate, he would have had about 160 additional AB on the season, for a total of 579. He had 165 hits. To hit .400 in 579 AB, he would have needed 67 additional hits, for a total of 232. So, in those additional 160 AB, he would have to had hit .418. Not easy, but possible. Against this, Gwynn had no 42-game stretch during 1994 in which he hit .418 or better. His best 42-game stretch came fairly early in the season (April 16 – June 1), during which he went 63-for-155, a .4067 batting average. (That’s only 2 hits short of a .418–actually, .419–BA.) (All this data from Baseball Reference.)

    Possible, but even if I were a betting person, I would not bet that he could do it.

  17. Brian Mitchell says:

    It’s been many years, but I remember reading an article discussing Gwynn’s chances of reaching .400 in ’94 being immensely favorable. Over half the games that were cancelled were against teams either with poor pitching (the Rockies, especially and Giants) or were in parks where he hit especially well even for him. I believe he would’ve done it with a little room to spare.

  18. johnq11 says:

    I think it would have been very unlikely that Gwynn would have hit .400 that season. The media scrutiny would have been insane as he went into the month of September. George Brett made it to September 19th hitting .400 and then the media scrutiny become somewhat unbearable. It was probably already unbearable in early September.

    Personally I would have loved to see the way Bret Saberhagen’s season ended. At the strike he had more wins than walks.

    Matt Williams and Ken Griffey jr. chasing the HR record would have been insane.

    A possible Expos WS would have been equally crazy.

  19. Brian Mitchell says:

    1) I believe Gwynn’s personality and routine/video study would’ve held up to the increased attention and that Griffey and Williams home run chase/race would’ve been more the focus of the media than Gwynn (Chicks dig the long ball!). In 1980, Brett’s .400 chase was the only game in town and Brett paid for it much like Maris did in ’61. Also, Brett was only 27 when he was trying to make history while Gwynn was a much more seasoned 34.

  20. mrgjg says:

    The one player that seems to get lost in the 1994 discussion is Jeff Bagwell. I know he broke his hand but he was on a staggering pace, something like 56 HR 160 RBI .368 BA.
    His .750 SLG. was only behind Hornsby’s .752 for the highest in NL history up to that point.
    He was also on pace for a 12 WAR season which has only happened 5 times in history.
    All of this playing in the toughest hitters park in MLB.

  21. NevadaMark says:

    Why did the Padres not draft Gwynn until the 3rd round? And who did they take in the first two rounds? And why did the other teams pass him up before the Padres finally took him?

    Since the major league draft started (1965?), I wonder how many players drafted third round or worse made the Hall of Fame, much less made it his first time on the ballot?

  22. Carl says:

    Hi NevadaMark,
    The Padres actually had a great draft that year. First round selected Kevin McReynolds, who had a solid pro career (12 years, 211 HR’s), Bill Long in the second round who had a 6 year career as a pitcher, and two players in later rounds (Paul Noce and Greg Booker) who also made the show.
    Gwynn likely lasted to the 3rd round as he was alos drafted by the NBA Clippers and was probably considered a “signability risk.”
    As far as your low-round HoFers: Ryan Sandberg was a 20th round selection and is in the Hall. Future HoFers John Smoltz lasted until the 22nd round and Mike Piazza was a 62nd round draft choice.

  23. Gregg says:

    Love Tony Gwynn, and I don’t really care about PEDs. But, because he wasn’t a power hitter, he’s never suspected. However, from 33-41, he hit .356 with a .500 SLG. Compared to .327 and .433 from 22-32. For me, this is worth pointing out, because he highlights the hypocricy around the PED outrage. All anyone really cares about, are the home run records.

  24. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    Gregg, good points on PED hypocrisy. Nobody ever talks about pitchers either, except Clemens, and even he would have gotten by with it if he hadn’t been so arrogant. As for Gwynn, I think there are three additional reasons he’s rarely part of the conversation:

    1. Steroids aren’t supposed to give you *that* kind of body (though, having said that, rumors still swirl around Kirby Puckett).

    2. The offensive context changed radically between the 1980s and 1990s (though that’s in part due to PEDs).

    3. Somewhere around that time, Ted Williams rather publicly challenged Gwynn to turn on the ball more often. Everyone assumed the increase in SLG was a response to that challenge.

    My theory is that if Barry hadn’t hit 73 in 2001, the steroids issue would be far less vexing for fans and writers. Our precious memories of McGwire-Sosa ’98 would still be intact, and the Hammer would still be the HR king. Funny thing is, unlike Sosa and McGwire, Bonds never came close to the Maris record during any other season.

  25. Paul says:

    I remember at one point in the 1990s, around the time of the strike, I read an article which stated that Gwynn had just completed a .400+ season. Unfortunately, that season ran from (something like) July 1 of one year to June 30 of the next.

  26. wogggs says:

    Tony, you will be missed.

  27. […] a b Posnanski, Joe (December 21, 2013). “No. 75: Tony Gwynn”. Archived from the original on June 19, 2014. […]

  28. […] I have ever read about a player’s state of mind comes from the pen of Joe Posnanski in an article recalling how he asked Tony about chasing […]

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