Monday, June 16, 2014


Tony Gwynn passed away yesterday. He was much too young, only 54. We can consider it a delayed "workplace-related" death, since the cancer he contracted came from a product (chewing tobacco) he was unlikely to have ingested had he not happened to be one of the elite singles hitters in the history of the game.

Gwynn was a first-ballot Hall of Famer whose "career shape" is almost certainly extinct. As the game has receded into a "three true outcomes" two-dimensionality, Tony's historical position is probably akin to the dodo bird or the carrier pigeon. While it's undeniable that hitting for power is valuable, it used to be the case that high-average, low-power hitters were not only useful, but welcome in the game for the particular skill set they embodied.

It's very likely that Tony Gwynn, with his high BA (.338 lifetime) and low HR total (135) will be the last of his kind.

The chart at right, culled from the treasures of Forman et fils' Play Index, provides a brief snapshot of Tony's particular skills and how they rank. He specialized in triumphing over adversity--as an inveterate student of the game's finer points, he was among the first to use video replays to analyze opposing pitchers, earning him the nickname of "Captain Video."

As these numbers indicate, Tony was at his best late in the game. That was the signature of a man who used his mind to maximize what were more limited natural gifts than those possessed by the other Hall of Fame outfielders in his generation.

At the end of August 1983, the San Diego Padres sent Sixto Lezcano to the Phillies, officially opening up right field for Tony. He hit .351 that September, .351 in 1984 and never looked back. The team he played with has only made it to the World Series when he was on its roster.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes before that team makes it back to the World Series. One hopes that when the Padres finally do win a World Championship, they will remember to dedicate it to their one-and only, once-and-always franchise player.