To call Tony Gwynn a throwback doesn't really do him justice.
Baseball Reference lists George Sisler, Paul Waner, Heinie Manush, Sam Crawford, Zack Wheat, and Sam Rice among his Top 10 Similar Batters, and while each of those players did their damage prior to color television and World War II, they weren't just your average, run of the mill players from that generation. Those guys were Hall of Famers, the best of their era, a collection of MVPs, batting champs, and all-time greats.
The word 'throwback' carries some sort of connotation that suggests that Gwynn would have fit right into a bygone era, surrounded by a generation of players who did things similarly to comparable avail, and that's simply not the case. He was a superstar in his own time, and would have been a superstar in any other era, too. That makes him more transcendent than throwback, a player with unique skill sets and abilities that managed to excel in an era where people placed focus on other talents and traits.
Gwynn was aware of the exploits of the former stars in baseball's history, and while he was a keen student of Ted Williams, he wasn't the kind of hitter who tried to replicate what had happened before him. Rather, he was the kind of hitter who focused on dominating the pitchers throwing him the ball.
Of the 25 pitchers against whom he had the most career PA, he had a batting average over .302 against 23 of them.
Gwynn died yesterday at age 54 due to complications from oral cancer, which Gwynn himself attributed to years and years of tobacco use.
His career was as unique as it was great. Drafted just a handful of years after the advent of free agency, Gwynn spent each of his 20 years with the San Diego Padres, often re-signing with them for what was perceived to be below market value deals in order to stay with his hometown club.
While he possessed every bit enough power to mash home runs the way players around him did, he never hit more than 17 in a single season, and hit only 135 in his 10,232 career plate appearances. While his 543 career doubles rank 28th all time, he never once led the league in that category, which I find surprising, and only twice did he hit more than 40 in a single season.
He won 8 NL batting titles, 5 overall batting titles, and was an All Star for 15 out of 16 consecutive seasons between 1984 and 1999; the only year in which he wasn't picked for the All Star Game, 1988, he won the NL batting title by hitting .313 and finished 11th in the MVP voting.
Gwynn's Padres resided then, as they do now, in the National League West, and for the first 11 seasons of Gwynn's career that meant that the Cincinnati Reds were a division rival, and that reflects heavily on Gwynn's career stats.
His 1008 PA against the Reds was his most against any team, as were his 919 AB. He hit 17 HR against Reds pitching - which was tied for his most against any team with the Pittsburgh Pirates - and his 141 runs scored against Cincinnati was also tied for his most against any team (with the Houston Astros). In all, he hit .332/.380/.455 against the Reds in his career, which is remarkably only good for a tOPS+ of 97.
The 116 games he played in Riverfront Stadium were the most he played in any away ballpark, and the 10 HR he hit there were also the most he hit in any opposing stadium. Overall, Gwynn mashed to the tune of .355/.400/.489 in his 520 PA in the Reds former home, and he made quick work of many of the Reds stalwart pitchers of the time, too.
He hit .360/.391/.523 with 4 HR in 91 PA against Tom Browning, hit .321 against Danny Jackson, and even touched up Jose Rijo for a .294 average in their contests. Relievers didn't faze him much, either, as he hit .346 against John Franco, .346 against Norm Charlton, and .313 against Rob Dibble.
I know Jeff Brantley will remember him well, too. Gwynn hit .571/.636/.607 against him with 5 walks and just 1 strikeout in 33 PA.
The reactions to Gwynn's death came quickly, and they universally praised the best pure hitter of his generation.
- Jim Caple checked in with many of the current Padres for ESPN's SweetSpot blog.
- Also from ESPN, Jayson Stark took a look at many of the amazing stats that defined Gwynn's historic career.
- Tyler Kepner of the New York Times analyzed exactly what it was that made Gwynn so good.
- SBN's Jon Bois had a wonderful look into the research Gwynn used to study pitchers endlessly.
- Likewise, Grant Brisbee waxed poetic on Gwynn's ability to be 'clutch.'
- SI's Jay Jaffe similarly peered into Gwynn's career and its highlights.
Growing up, it felt like every time we went to Riverfront for a Reds game, the Padres were playing. I don't have any specific memories of watching any non-Gwynn player face a Reds pitcher, and that's because Tony Gwynn was the Padres, and in many ways he always will be.
Rest in peace, Tony.