In the era of modern statistical analysis, we are blessed and cursed. Although we’ve got a wealth of information that allows us to better understand, predict, and, for many of us, enjoy the game of baseball, we’re burdened with the knowledge that, when we look back at the “things we know” about baseball, much of what we believe will be challenged.
To that end, when we look back on some of our favorite players as kids, we’re going to find out some unfortunate truths. (Case in ugly, ugly point: Joe Morgan was, indeed, the far superior player to Ryne Sandberg. It pains me.) Some players, however, were so damn good that their excellence transcends whatever stats on which you might lean to evaluate a player.
Our memory tells us that Tony Gwynn was an incredible hitter. One of the best ever.
Thankfully, a look back at his career through a modern lens confirms that, yeah, Tony Gwynn really was damn good. Although Gwynn didn’t walk much – 7.7% – he more than offset that by striking out never. His K rate was an obscenely small 4.2% for his career. Gwynn also didn’t hit for much pop – .120 career ISO – but he more than offset that by hitting out of his mind. Gwynn’s career .338 batting average is a testament to his ability to not only make contact, but to square the ball up consistently. Even when the speed of his youth had left him, Gwynn was still consistently posting a BABIP in the .360 range (for his career, he landed at .341). You don’t do that if you’re not hitting the ball hard.
It is a persistent oversimplification to say that batting average doesn’t matter. No, it isn’t the all-important stat that we once thought it was, but it remains the foundation for the slash line, and hits remain the most common way a player does the thing that even sabermetrics say is the most important thing he can do: don’t make an out. It just happens that very few players hit SO much that batting average, and batting average, alone, can make them into a supremely valuable player. Gwynn was just such a player.
Tony Gwynn passed away today at the age of 54. Having played his entire career with the Padres, Gwynn was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007. He was incredible on the field, and genuinely connected with folks off of it. Just try not to hear Gwynn laughing right now. You can’t do it. And try not to picture that gorgeous swing. You can’t do it.
Gwynn battled cancer for years, following an initial diagnosis in 2009. He, himself, attributed the cancer to years of a chewing tobacco habit. It’s uncomfortable to use this kind of premature death to grandstand for any cause, but I’m sure Gwynn would offer the reminder now if he could: don’t do it. It’s not worth it. Gwynn was just 54-years-old.