San Diego Padres: When Tony Gwynn Lost the Chance to Hit .400

Harold FriendChief Writer IJuly 29, 2011

Tony Gwynn
Tony Gwynn

Tony Gwynn was one of the greatest hitters of all time. He was an outstanding hitter, not a slugger.

In 1994, Gwynn was hitting .394 at the conclusion of play on August 11. The next day the players went on strike and Gwynn never had the chance to raise his batting average six points.

"To this day, I really believe I’d have hit .400," he said to Tom Cushman of San Diego Magazine
in 2006.

Continuing, Gwynn provided tremendous insight into a great hitter.

"I was so locked in at the time—hitting everything on the screws,” he recalls. “I remember talking to George Brett and Stan Musial about how easy the game suddenly seemed. And Stan saying to me, 'When you get into that sort of groove, it’s like you have a little man standing on your shoulder, whispering, "This next pitch will be a fast ball."'"

One can speculate forever, but we will never know if Gwynn would have batted .400.

A lifetime .338 hitter, which ranks 18th all-time, Gwynn's single season high was .372 in 1997.

When Gwynn entered the latter stages of his career, batting average and singles became respected less and less.

Yes, more than 60 years ago, Ralph Kiner told a sportswriter "Singles hitters drive Fords and such. Home run hitters drive Cadillacs," but after the 1994 strike, baseball entered the home run era (read that as many players began using performance-enhancing substances). Singles were undervalued.

Ted Williams, who was a better hitter than even Gwynn but who also hit home runs (.344 average with 521 home runs), tried to get Gwynn to hit with more power. He is the last player to bat at least .400 in a season.

Williams wanted Gwynn to turn on the inside pitch in order to drive the ball with power.

Throughout his career, Gwynn swung at pitches from the middle of the plate to the outside, but usually didn't swing at anything inside. The result was that Gwynn hit line drives through holes in the infield.

In 1997, Gwynn took Williams' advice. He used a heavier, longer bat, which produced 13 home runs by the All-Star game. That was it, Tony said.

"After that, they stopped pitching me inside," he recalled. "And a light went on."

Gwynn spoke to Williams again a short time later.

"Mr. Williams, it's taken four years, but I finally understand what you were trying to tell me. Show them you can hit the inside pitch with power, and they'll go back outside, to your strength."

Gwynn finished the 1997 season with a career-high 17 home runs, won the batting title with a .372 average and led the league with 220 hits.

Today, some "experts" believe that Gwynn should have taken more pitches in order to draw more walks. They miss the point. Gwynn was a contact hitter who made contact.

He walked 790 times, which comes out to an average of 52 walks over a 162-game season, but he struck out only 434 times, which is an average of 29 times over a 162-game season.

During the early part of his career, Gwynn was a stolen base threat. From 1984-90, he averaged 32 steals a season, with a high of 56 in 1987.

There is little doubt that Gwynn is the greatest of all San Diego Padres. Trevor Hoffman was a tremendous asset, but he relied on Gwynn and the offense to set him up.