Remembering Tony Gwynn

Tony Gwynn

For a reasonable man, an evaluation of the fairness of life forces the concession that life is not fair at all. It is, instead, best described as “unfair,” or “so far off the scale of fairness and onto the scale of chaotic disorder that the concept of fairness, or disorder, or anything else means pretty much zilch under the weight of such consideration.” For the same reasonable man, such a thought should bring about a feeling of complete (read: whole, nothing but, or a wide-eyed outburst of “What is even the point of this?”-style) dread. Perhaps the most dreadful idea floating around the brain of a reasonable man is that a good person’s life can end at any time, for any reason. There are no rules. You don’t earn extra time with good deeds. You don’t earn good health. You don’t earn anything. You are living in a universe in which the only truly extant thing is chaos, and your survival depends almost wholly on the ability to reguarly convince yourself otherwise.

Tony Gwynn was a good person; and when he left us this morning at age 54, he became a good person who died young.

First, a few wonderful bits of baseball trivia regarding Tony Gwynn:

  • Gwynn’s career strikeout percentage is 4.2%. Andrelton Simmons, who played 12 full games before recording his first strikeout this season, currently has a 9.5% strikeout rate. 2013’s best player in this regard was Nori Aoki, who ended 5.9% of his plate appearances with a punchout. Aoki’s 2013 number is a remarkable single-season rate. Over the course of his entire 10,000+ plate appearance career, Gwynn was nearly two percentage points better.
  • The exact number of plate appearances Gwynn recorded is 10,232. He struck out in 434 of them. From 2010 to 2012, Adam Dunn recorded 1,793 plate appearances. He struck out in 595 of them.
  • Per Twitter’s @cantpredictball, Gwynn recorded more doubles than Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig; he recorded more triples than Ichiro; he stole more bases than Carlos Beltran.
  • Per those same fellows, Gwynn struck out thrice only once in his career. He did so during a game in which he reached base twice and scored the winning run in extra innings.

Now, a sort of personal reflection:

I was 16 years old and pretty much living on baseball forums when I first read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. My immediate takeaways were the ones you’d expect a dumb 16 year-old to have. At that point, I didn’t know who Tom Tango was, and hadn’t yet read the excellent Baseball By the Numbers or set Fangraphs as my homepage. I believed players who walked a lot and hit home runs were the best players, and everyone else was overrated, and argued the value of Adam Dunn with my Reds-loving stepdad and trashed players like Gwynn who paired single digit home run totals with 8% walk rates. As time went on and I became slightly less dumb, I learned Gwynn was the underrated one, and that the Adam Dunns and Mark Reynoldses of the world weren’t quite as great as I thought.

I’m glad this happened.

Growing up in the years before Moneyball, I was a kid who played a lot of Tecmo Baseball and collected a lot of baseball cards. That kid loved Tony Gwynn. I can’t say he was my favorite player – especially after he drove in a run off John Rocker to beat the Braves in the 1998 NLCS – but he was one of my favorites. Playing in a body that progressively transformed from one shaped like a baseball player into one which was decidedly not shaped like a player of anything, his athleticism always came as a surprise. When he stole a base or made a great catch in the outfield, the result seemed to follow an event in which an object accidentally tumbled toward its destination. Gwynn may not have shared a walk rate with the market inefficiencies utilized by the Moneyball A’s, but he sure had the body of one.

But the thing his oddly-shaped figure did best was hit. As broken as he made baseball appear when he was running, he made it appear just as broken when swinging the bat. He was the guy on front of the baseball card with the .394 batting average on back. Gwynn hit over .350 in five consecutive seasons from 1993-1997, and led his league in batting eight times. His .302 batting average in two-strike counts is the highest since data became available in 1988, and it outpaces the second highest mark by 40 points. What I’m saying is, we’ve now reached the point where mainstream baseball has peeled enough layers from the sabermetric onion to see that Tony Gwynn was as good a baseball player as the little kid version of me thought he was, and that is important. It would be a shame for him to be remembered any other way.

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