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?