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Monday, June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn: The man could hit

By David Schoenfield

Others who knew Tony Gwynn will tell you better stories. Every writer loved Gwynn, who was always accessible, personable and loved talking baseball. I met him once, when he had just signed on to work with ESPN, at some sort of preseason baseball gathering at a hotel at the Hartford airport. He was as nice as could be to a nobody editor and we spent a few minutes talking about his new job or the Padres or whatever.

What I remember is that he was very apologetic about having to leave and I remember him shuffling off to his room. His suit was way too big and he walked pigeon-toed, and if you didn't know who it was you certainly wouldn't have guessed he was one of the best hitters the game has ever seen.

My other Gwynn memory -- aside from all the hits, of course, and the memorable first pitch with an aging Ted Williams at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston -- is covering spring training one season and being in the Padres' clubhouse when they were conducting their NCAA tournament pool. Gwynn was at his locker and somebody asked if he wanted in. Gwynn dug out the most overstuffed George Costanza wallet you'll ever see -- full of $100 bills. At least I think they were all hundreds. He pulled one out for the pool.

This is heartbreaking. He's too young to be gone. He should be teaching young kids at San Diego State how to go to the opposite field, imparting some of that knowledge that made him an eight-time batting champ.

Gwynn wasn't the best hitter of all time -- he didn't have the power or walks to rank up with the best of the best. He was, however, one of the best hitters ever for average. Seven times he hit above .350, the first time at age 24 in that magical season of 1984 when the Padres reached the World Series, the seventh time at age 37 when he hit .372 in 1997. Gwynn's skill -- put the ball in play -- is largely a lost art. His career high in strikeouts in a season was 40; players do that now in a month.

Since 1950, no batter has matched Gwynn's .338 career average -- not even his idol Williams, who hit .344 for his career overall but just .335 from 1950 on.

Best since 1950:

Gwynn: .338
Williams: .335
Wade Boggs: .328
Rod Carew: .328
Miguel Cabrera: .321
Stan Musial: .321

And Gwynn didn't get to play in Fenway and slap doubles off the Green Monster. (Gwynn hit .343 at home in his career, .334 on the road; Boggs, by comparison, hit .369 at Fenway in his career and .302 on the road. Maybe if Gwynn had played for Boston he would have hit .400.)

Another way to look at Gwynn's career average is he hit .338 during a time when the league average was .262 (via Baseball-Reference.com). Williams hit .344 in his career but the league average was .277. Sure, there's Ty Cobb -- .366 career versus a .273 league mark -- but if you need one base hit, one single, one dying quail to win a game, it's a short list of guys you want up there and Gwynn is on it. In situations classified as "late and close," Gwynn hit a mere .353.

Using slightly different numbers for league average, Lee Sinins calculates Gwynn has 73 points higher than his league average, trailing only Cobb (plus-94), Rogers Hornsby (plus-75) and Williams (plus-75).

How good was Gwynn? He hit .415 against Greg Maddux, .444 against John Smoltz, .469 against Doug Drabek. Those aren't small sample sizes as he faced all three at least 50 times. In fact, he faced Maddux more often than any other pitcher: 107 times. Never hit a home run off him, but drew 11 walks, hit eight doubles.

And get this: Maddux never struck him out.