Who was the best pure hitter in baseball over the last 30 years? It's a fair question, and one that has been argued ad nauseam in many a barroom and barbecue.
Surely many of the same names pop up: Brett, Mattingly, Griffey, Boggs, Ichiro, Pujols, the list can go on and on. One name, however, is conspicuously absent from many an argument. His name is Tony Gwynn, and unless you're from San Diego or a serious and pure baseball fan since before guys like Brady Anderson started hitting chemically enhanced moonshots 50-plus times a season, you probably overlooked him, too.
First, let's examine his resume. In 20 big league seasons, all with the Padres, he led the NL in batting average an incredible eight times. Eight. For those of you scoring at home, that's 40 percent of the time.
For comparison, one of the other great "pure hitters" of the era, Wade Boggs, led the league five times. Additionally, Boggs led the league all five times between 1983 and 1988. Gwynn's initial title came in 1984 and his last in 1997.
He averaged 29 strikeouts per season over his career. Wade Boggs? 49.
Gwynn had five 200-plus hit seasons (narrowly missing with 197 hits in 1985 and 1995). He never had fewer than 400 at-bats from 1984, when he became a regular player, until 2000, at age 40. Very comparable to Boggs in every category.
Additionally, while Boggs played in a lineup with guys like Jim Rice, Don Baylor, Mike Greenwell, Dwight Evans, and Bill Buckner during his batting title years, Gwynn had the likes of Marvelle Wynne, Dickie Thon, Rob Deer, and the immortal Archi Cianfrocco batting around him.
Postseason? Gwynn was clutch. In 27 postseason games, he hit .306, including .371 in nine World Series games.
Finally, there is that ever-present but largely immeasurable stat called "character." Encompassing both off-the-field conduct, popularity, clubhouse demeanor, and a variety of other superlatives, this category is tricky.
Unless you're talking about Tony Gwynn.
The guy was loyal to the Padres when he certainly could have gone to a place like New York, where there would be streets named after him had he played in the Bronx. He stayed in a small market because that was home.
He played on some horrible Padres teams in between their World Series appearances ('84 and '98, where they were matched against two of the most dominant teams in the last 50 years). Never demanded a trade, never whined about not getting enough attention. Tony Gwynn just hit the ball.
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