Twenty years ago today, San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn flared a first-inning single over the head of Montreal Expos second baseman Mike Mordecai to become the 22nd member of baseball’s 3,000-hit club. It was a classic Gwynn swing: The two-strike breaking pitch from Expos starter Dan Smith was low, but Gwynn tracked it perfectly, waited to swing through the ball and deposited it into right-center field with his signature looping one-handed finish.
A lot has changed in baseball over the decades since Gwynn joined one of MLB’s most immortal clubs. The beloved Hall of Famer died of cancer in 2014, at the far-too-young age of 54, and the sport has generally moved away from the type of player Gwynn epitomized: the quintessential singles hitter. However, Gwynn’s influence is still felt in the sport as much as ever — primarily in the way players prepare for games and analyze their own performance.
Gwynn made his big-league debut in the summer of 1982, the same season Whitey Herzog’s St. Louis Cardinals used small-ball tactics like speed and spray-hitting to win the World Series. That era of baseball suited Gwynn just fine: The former point guard at San Diego State would quickly establish himself as one of the game’s premier contact hitters, posting an MLB-best .351 average in 1984, while also stealing 33 bases. (Young Tony Gwynn was fast!) It was the first of eight batting titles Gwynn would win in his career, a number tied with Honus Wagner for the second-most in history behind Ty Cobb.
Even as the game began to shift towards power (I wonder why…) during the 1990s, Gwynn exemplified a different type of hitter — one whose value came from putting the ball in play and using the whole field, rather than working the count and mashing for power. Gwynn finished among the top half of MLB batters in walk rate in only five of his 18 seasons with at least 150 plate appearances,1 and the same can be said of his seasons with above-average isolated power. However, he led the majors in contact rate 10 times — never dropping below the 87th percentile in the category — and he was perennially among the hitting leaders in batting average on balls in play (BABIP) as well.
Players in that mold — albeit pale imitations of Gwynn himself — used to populate baseball. In 1998, Gwynn’s second-to-last season as a regular, 49 qualified players hit .300 or better and 18 hit at least .320 (a mark Gwynn eclipsed in each of his final nine seasons). In 2019, only 17 qualified players are on pace to hit .300, and six are on pace to hit .320. That’s not an artifact of overall league offense being down, either — MLB-wide runs per team per game are basically the same between 1998 (4.79) and 2019 (4.83). The incentives of the modern game, which emphasizes power and walks rather than simply making contact, have just shifted away from Gwynn’s playing style.
Some recent star players have managed to carry on Gwynn’s legacy. Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve has almost carbon-copy levels of contact, walks, power and BABIP (relative to the league) as compared with Gwynn’s prime seasons. Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets, as Jared Diamond of The Wall Street Journal recently called him, is the “last player in baseball who cares about batting average.” His .330 average through his first two seasons would make Gwynn proud. And Seattle Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki — who hit .350 or better in four separate seasons2 — drew parallels to Gwynn for his contact-hitting skills.
But the 45-year-old Ichiro retired this past March, after making a couple of appearances when the Mariners played in his home country of Japan. And among the Top 25 players on Gwynn’s list of most similar career hitters (according to Bill James’s Similarity Scores system), only Ichiro, Johnny Damon and Mark Grace played in this century. Gwynn had a lot more in common with long-retired stars such as Rod Carew and Pete Rose than he did with most of today’s top batters, an absurdly talented generation who care more about sabermetric measures such as OPS than batting average.
“If I wanted to hit .300, I’d hit .300,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman told reporters at the All-Star Game in July. “It’s an OPS game, though. It’s about driving the baseball and getting on base, walks and extra-base hits. If it turned into an average game, I’d get the ball out of the air and hit line drives and hit .330.”
“All the hitters care about now is OPS,” Bregman continued. “We don’t care about batting average. Some guys do, I guess. Batting average is an old stat that doesn’t matter. It’s OPS, runs created, WAR. Look at Mike Trout’s numbers. There are guys that hit .340. Mike Trout is hitting, what, .300 on the dot? I’d rather have Mike Trout’s numbers with all the walks and the damage than the guy who hits .340 [with a bunch of singles]. It’s an OPS game.”
If Gwynn’s influence on the field has waned, however, his influence off it has grown more than young players like Bregman can imagine. One of the secrets to Gwynn’s unparalleled success as a hitter was something we all take for granted in today’s age of media-savvy game-watching: Video. Mired in a rare early-career slump back in 1983, Gwynn asked his wife Alicia to record broadcast footage of him hitting.
“I called home, told my wife to tape my at bats,” Gwynn told Sports Illustrated in 1995. “Just hit the record button whenever I came to the plate. When I got home and looked at it, I saw right away what I was doing. I couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark and correct it. Took me 15 swings. Hit .333 the rest of the year.”
Gwynn eventually became legendary for his obsession with video analysis, keeping a vast library of tapes at home and toting around a portable VCR on the road. The exercise was a means of both detecting small changes in his own swing mechanics and scouting opposing pitchers. As quaint as it sounds now, Gwynn was a pioneer in that regard; according to Jerry Crasnick, he invested thousands of dollars in video equipment to help himself and his Padre teammates become better hitters.
Even if Gwynn hadn’t dug so deep into video so early, it’s likely other major leaguers would have eventually adopted similar practices as the technology got cheaper and more accessible. But it’s also undeniable that Gwynn’s success accelerated the trend of tape-watching and video analysis, which has since become commonplace in the game — particularly among today’s young, forward-thinking players. In many ways, Gwynn’s spiritual successors are technicians like Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer, who uses footage (and data tracking) from high-speed cameras to improve his pitches and detect mechanical flaws before they cost him on the field.
Many words have been spilled lamenting changes to baseball since Gwynn collected hit No. 3,000, particularly when it comes to the loss of similar contact-hitting virtuosos. But Gwynn’s larger legacy is as strong as ever. Along with the few batters in today’s game carrying the torch for Gwynn’s style of play, there are many, many more who emulate his work ethic and attention to detail to improve their performance.
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