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 Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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Garret
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Garret

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.