Tony Gwynn Was Always in Control

It’s rare that a player becomes synonymous with his team. Tony Gwynn was one such player. He is literally known as Mr. Padre. The address of Petco Park is 19 Tony Gwynn Drive. When John Moores owned the team, he even paid for a new stadium at Gwynn’s alma mater, and it was named Tony Gwynn Stadium. Today however, we lose the opportunity to speak of Gwynn in the present tense, as he has unfortunately passed away at the age of 54.

The records that Gwynn holds in Padres history are essentially all of them. He holds the top nine single-season batting averages in team history. Cumulatively, his .338 career average is 24 points higher than the next man on that list, Mark Loretta. That is made all the more remarkable when you consider how long Gwynn wore the San Diego uniform — he played nearly twice as many games as the next player on the list, Garry Templeton. And he did rack up more than double the at-bats and plate appearances than did Templeton. Gwynn retired with an even 65.0 WAR. No other Padres player has even 30. Among active players, Chase Headley is the leader, but at 19.6 WAR and very close to free agency, he’s not going to sniff Gwynn any time soon. In fact, it’s probably not hyperbole to say that the player most equipped to surpass Gwynn isn’t on the Padres right now.

Of course, it’s not just Padres lore that Gwynn dominates. Gwynn had, as the title of this article suggests, control over every at-bat. It’s hard to rack up as many plate appearances as he did — 10,232 to be precise — and strike out as little as he did. For his career, he only struck out 434 times. I thought I’d take a stroll the Baseball-Reference Play Index to see just how rare this was. The default minimum playing time on the Play Index is 3,000 plate appearances, so I started there. The search returned 684 results. Of them, 362 walked more times than they struck out in their careers, but just 18 of them played in Gwynn’s era (1980-present). And of those 18, two are active — Dustin Pedroia and Alberto Callaspo — and given their small margins (+15 and +1, respectively), there’s a good chance that they’ll vanish from the list when their careers conclude.

Pretty impressive, but I wanted to go a step further. Upping the threshold to 5,000 plate appearances gives us a list of 219 players. Much better. But upping the threshold to the upper bound of the Play Index, 9,999 plate appearances, knocks the list down to nine players:

9,999 or more PA & fewer than 500 strikeouts, 1901-present
Player SO PA From To
Eddie Collins 468 12044 1906 1930
Tris Speaker 394 11992 1907 1928
Sam Rice 275 10251 1915 1934
Frankie Frisch 272 10099 1919 1937
Charlie Gehringer 372 10244 1924 1942
Paul Waner 376 10766 1926 1945
Nellie Fox 216 10351 1947 1965
Bill Buckner 453 10037 1969 1990
Tony Gwynn 434 10232 1982 2001

That’s not just impressive. That’s impossible. Only Buckner was even sort of a contemporary, but Gwynn did something that simply never happens anymore. Since 1980, there have been 25 other hitters to amass at least 9,999 plate appearances. They all had at least 745 strikeouts, and 24 of them had at least 966, which is more than double Gwynn’s total. The leader in strikeouts among that group, Jim Thome, piled up 2,548 strikeouts in his time — nearly six times as many strikeouts as Gwynn. That is, in a word, insane.

Also insane is Gwynn’s stretch of .300 or better seasons, which spanned basically his whole career. In his first taste of big league ball in 1982, Gwynn hit .289 across a third of a season of work. That was the last and only time he hit under .300. For the next 19 seasons, he hit at least .309. Using 100 plate appearances as the baseline, since Gwynn just barely crossed that threshold in his final two seasons, we find that the only player with more .300 seasons was Ty Cobb, and he did it during a time when he wasn’t facing all of the best players he could have, since he played before the color barrier was broken.

Yes, Gwynn stayed a great hitter even into his final seasons. At age 37, he posted a 153 wRC+ and 4.2 WAR, making him just one of 27 position players all-time to post 4.0 WAR or more in an age-37 season. That 153 wRC+ was even more rare. There have been 138 qualified position player seasons from age 35 on, and of them, Gwynn’s is just one of 11 with a 150 wRC+ or better. If you lower the threshold to 300 plate appearances, the number of seasons increases to 262, but the number of 150 wRC+ seasons increases by just one to 12.

Through it all, Gwynn was universally regarded as one of the greatest gentlemen the game has ever seen. Me personally, I didn’t get to watch too much of Gwynn. Growing up in New England, we didn’t get to watch a lot of NL West action. I knew how good Gwynn was, but never really got to watch it much. My favorite Gwynn memory actually came from his son, Tony Gwynn Jr., or Little T. It was when Little T torpedoed Big T’s Padres in the final days of the 2007 season (seriously, do yourself a favor and read that article — bonus points if you can do without tearing up). When he did so, no one was more excited than Big T, even though it meant extremely bad news for his beloved Padres. In the days after, Big T would predict that Little T would receive quite the standing ovation in Colorado the next season. I am happy to report that he did indeed receive a thunderous ovation, though I can’t find the video to prove it. Tony Gwynn Jr. has not developed into the hitter his dad was, but then doing so would have essentially been impossible, because there really hasn’t been a hitter like him for more than half a century, if ever.

Despite all of the accolades, Gwynn’s significance is probably downplayed quite a bit by WAR and sabermetrics in general. His 65.0 WAR ranks just 34th among outfielders, and some of those ahead of him — like Tim Raines and Dwight Evans — aren’t yet in the Hall of Fame. In addition to his ridiculous plate discipline, Gwynn posted positive career baserunning and fielding numbers as well. Even in his later years, when he wasn’t exactly the definition of svelte, Gwynn managed to be at least a scratch baserunner in eight of his nine final seasons. Gwynn knew what he could do and what he couldn’t do on the baseball field, and made sure to contribute to the utmost of his ability throughout. That’s not as easy as it sounds, and something that is probably not adequately captured by any metric. Simply put, as a baseball player, Gwynn was always in control.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

47 Responses to “Tony Gwynn Was Always in Control”

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  1. Garret says:

    Growing up in San Diego Tony was the man. I wasn’t a Padres fan but it was always a treat to head to the Murph and catch Gwynn and crew. Absolutely terrific player.

    One of my all-time favorite memories was going to a baseball camp with Tony Gwynn and Alan Trammell as the MLB guys. They both showed up for a few hours for a few days. It was absolutely amazing for a 12 year old boy to get a few minutes of advice from two amazing men.

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  2. JV says:

    Gwynn was so great for the game. The first game I ever attended was at Busch and featured Mr. Padre. Big T was an awesome announcer, great coach at San Diego State and Hall of Fame Player and Person!

    RIP Tony. You will be missed

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  3. tz says:

    Can’t believe he’s passed away. He was Ichiro before Ichiro came to play on our shores.

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  4. Yinzer says:

    I love you, Tony. Best hitter I ever regularly saw. But I’ll never forgive you for making me a Padre fan.

    I’m guessing you were done in by watching the current Padre lineup. But just in case I’m wrong, Kids, don’t use chewing tobacco.

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  5. Hurtlocker says:

    RIP Tony. Such a great hitter, I met him once at a baseball card show and he was really a nice guy too.

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  6. Mike B. says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I had the opportunity to watch Big T play many games on TV (including several during his amazing ’94 season), and also caught him a few times at the ballpark for interleague games versus the Mariners. Always a joy to watch him at the plate–some of the most incredible discipline I’d ever seen.

    When I was growing up he was one of my favorite players, and when I visited San Diego in 2010 the #1 thing on my to-do list was visit Petco and have my photo taken at his statue. Thanks for all the memories, Big T.

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  7. Lars says:

    Career K%: 4.2% The greatest contact hitter ever. Unlike other great contact hitters from the early 1900’s, Gwynn faced many different types of pitches, and more fresh relievers and lefty specialists. San Diego may have never had a no-hitter, but they had the great Tony Gwynn.

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  8. Reggie Cleveland says:

    I remember a story about Gwynn getting beaned while at the plate one day. Next AB, he screamed a liner right back at the pitcher. I think it actually was the pitcher that was telling the story. He couldn’t say for certain, but he was fairly sure Gwynn did that on purpose. He was indeed in control.

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    • Manny says:

      People love this guy and get mad at me?

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      • Paul says:

        Right? Why would fans resent a player who gives up on his team so that he can be traded away while being paid $20 million to play a sport for a living?

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        • AA says:

          Gives up? Do you realize how well Manny was hitting when traded?

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        • Paul says:

          He hit .299/.398/.529 before the trade in the hitter’s paradise that is Fenway and .396/.489/.743 after in the pitcher’s park that is Dodger Stadium. Regardless, he often was lackadaisical on defense, took himself out of the lineup when he felt like it, contradicted team rules, and said stupid stuff to force the Red Sox to trade him such as “The Red Sox don’t deserve me.”

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  9. David says:

    By my quick calculations from the B-ref play tracker, Gwynn faced 28 Cy Young award pitchers in his career.
    In 1,122 ABs and 1,208 PAs, he posted a career .334/373/438 line against them.
    He struck out 57 times in those 1,208 plate appearances.
    He walked 75 times.
    He finished with a career average >=.400 against 10 of them.
    He finished with a career average >=.300 against 18 of them.
    THREE of them – Randy Johnson in 18 plate appearances, Tom Seaver in 14 and Fergie Jenkins in one at-bat – held him <.270 OBP.

    That's ridiculous.

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    • cubsfanraysaddict says:

      Thanks for sharing that. Gwynn is easily my only favorite player from the 90’s that still is untouched in hindsight. (Sosa and Conseco were bad choices, but what kid doesn’t love the power/speed combo?

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    • David says:

      I f’ed this up a bit by accidentally including his career stats against Kevin Brown, who obviously didn’t win the Cy Young. The rates drop only the tiniest bit to .331/.371/.437 when corrected.

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  10. David says:

    In related news, Gwynn faced 11 Hall of Fame pitchers in his career. He hit .323/.361/.404 against them with more walks (24) than strikeouts (17) in 379 plate appearances.

    There are four more guys (Johnson, Smoltz, Pedro and Pettite) who he faced who might reach the Hall. If you include them, his totals against the 15 pitchers he faced who are considered among the best ever to play the game are:
    .334/.367/.435 in 512 career plate appearances.

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    • David says:

      Just to underscore that last line…

      Over the course of his career, he had the equivalent of what would amount to a career year for nearly everyone who has ever played the game, against his contemporaries who reached the Hall of Fame.

      And he was still a better person than he was a hitter.
      RIP Tony.

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  11. Randy says:

    Great article. Curious how Gwynn’s contemporary, Wade Boggs, isn’t on this list. He seems to have the qualifications. Am I missing some criteria?

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    • Rrr says:

      Classy classy classy. Besides his absolute precision and dedication to craft, he helped usher in modern video analysis with his financial support and his evangelism from the player pulpit.

      Not only that, he resisted the greed and agent steerage by staying in SD for what became far less than market value. He realized that his legacy there would be more valuable than winning a title with a team that wasnt yours, or making a deserved cash grab like everyone else. I hope SD canonizes him, because he truly was a legend and the last of his kind.

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  12. Randy says:

    745 Ks. Just answered my own question.

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  13. Nathaniel Dawson says:

    I’m still amazed by that unbelievable five year run in his mid-thirties. At an age when even most great players are declining and blending back into the pack, Gwynn was at his peak, averaging .365 from ages 33-37. A .365 average from a guy in his thirties? You got to be kidding me.

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  14. Yeah says:

    He was a legend and an icon and he’ll be missed by many.

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  15. jpg says:

    Tony Gwynn struck out 434 times in his 19 year career.

    In 2009 and 2010 combined, Mark Reynolds struck out…434 times

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  16. James says:

    This is really hard. After the loss of Jerry Coleman, a legend maybe moreso off the field than on, another remarkable San Diego baseball person, gone. What I loved so much when I could stomach watching Padres games when he was announcing was that he TAUGHT you something. He tried to educate the viewer. He gave you a glimpse into his mind as a hitter, what he was trying to do in that same given situation, what that pitcher likes to throw, his history against that pitcher. His mind was so focused on baseball. A remarkable, gentle soul. He’ll never be replaced

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  17. Go Nats says:

    Sad he is gone! RIP Tony

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  18. John Elway says:

    NBA Finals MVP Kahwi Leonard was #7 on San Diego State’s all-time rebounding list.

    #1 on SDSU’s all-time assist list: Tony Gwynn.

    The whole sports world has lost a great one. RIP.

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    • Joe Montana says:

      You’re using an article remembering the recently deceased Tony Gwynn in order to celebrate the NBA Finals? That’s pretty NEIGHHHHHING low, man.

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      • Yeah says:

        What? No he’s not. He’s just using it as an opportunity to show what a multidimensional talent Gwyn was.

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  19. Bat says:

    He was always in control…except he wasn’t able to control his tobacco use.

    Unfortunately that stuff is the most addictive legal substance – far more addictive than alcohol or anything else.

    Tobacco has wreaked devastating havoc on so many lives.

    RIP Tony.

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  20. shthar says:

    Wait till Tony Gwynn III shows up!

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  21. Andrew says:

    Gwynn’s career line against Maddux (107 PA): .415/476/.521 11 BB 0 SO!!!

    Maddux never struck Gwynn out in 107 PA

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  22. hmk says:

    tony gwynn was amazing, this is a sad day for baseball. if we are talking about generational hitters, though, where is the love for wade boggs? he seems to be criminally underated, he has 88 career WAR!

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    • pft says:

      Corner OF’rs get killed with the positional adjustment. If he was a SS it would be over 100

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      • YABooble says:

        They should do a different adjustment for RF than they do for LF to account for the better arms and often range for RFs.

        And it looks like San Diego has a bad impact on the defensive stats. Alomar also was a lot better fielder than his defensive WAR says.

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      • hmk says:

        definitely true, i hadn’t fully considered the fact that gwynn’s WAR was hurt by him playing corner OF. however, as he aged and lost his athleticism, the only place to put him would’ve been first base, so either way he was going to penalized for being either a poor fielder or at an easy fielding position, and perhaps that is justified.

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    • Cheech says:

      Tony Gwynn passed away bozo. This is a commemorative post. Boggs gets plenty of love, especially here on FG. But this post is not the time or the place to bring up Wade Fucking Boggs, asshole. This is all about Gwynn. Give him that. Jerk.

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  23. pft says:

    Gwynn’s career spanned 2 eras, finishing his career in the juiced era. His peak HR years were 1997/1998 at age 37/38 supporting the contention it was the ball that was juiced. Everyone got a HR and BABIP boost after 93. From 1994-2001 Gwynns BABIP jumoed to 350 from the 337 it was in 1982-1993

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  24. Spunky says:

    Great tribute to a great player and the greatest gentleman. Thank you, Paul. We will miss you, Tony Gwynn.

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