I know this doesn't have to do with the, but it was inspired by one. I was looking over Ichiro's numbers on Baseball-Reference, and I scrolled down to the Leaderboards/Awards/Honors section. My eyes drifted over to the 'Intentional Bases on Balls' box, where I noticed that Ichiro currently ranks 38th all time in intentional walks, with 155.
I got to wondering just how many other singles hitters there've been who have drawn so many free passes, so I clicked through to the all-time list. And there, near the top - #12 in baseball history - is Tony Gwynn, with 203. Gwynn and his career 135 home runs are sandwiched between guys with 586, 555, 548, and 512.
It isn't crazy - Ichiro and Gwynn have been among the best singles hitters ever. They've stood in as legitimate threats, and it's made sense for pitchers to pitch around them in run-scoring situations. But it's still impressive that they've been treated with such fear and respect given that neither has been a real candidate to go deep. It says a lot about their respective abilities as pure batsmen.
That got me glued to Gwynn's player page. Because I grew up in San Diego, Gwynn didn't exactly go by unnoticed, but I don't think I was old enough to truly appreciate how good he was at what he did. Had you asked me 12 years ago what I thought about Tony Gwynn, I would've told you he's pretty good for a big fat guy. I couldn't believe it the first time someone told me he came up as a scrawny speedster. Gwynn stole 33 bases in 1984. He stole 56 bases in 1987. He slapped 13 triples that same year. Gwynn used to be quick.
Then - and there's no getting around it - he got bigger. I don't know why he started adding weight so fast, and I don't want to say anything unfairly critical, but he ballooned in the second half of his career.
But that's not what I want to focus on. Rather, I want to focus on a split. Gwynn played in parts of 20 Major League seasons, making them easy to split up into groups of five. Let's split his career chronologically into four groups of five years and check out his batting average on balls in play over those periods of time:
First 5: .335 BABIP
Second 5: .339
Third 5: .355
Fourth 5: .334
It's important to note that the league average BABIP when Gwynn was young was lower than the league average BABIP when he was older. So he didn't finish his career with as good a BABIP as he had early on, relative to his peers.
But he was close. And that .334 BABIP over his final five seasons - that's astonishing. Carl Crawford's career BABIP is .331. Carl Crawford is one of the fastest runners in baseball. Over his final five seasons, Tony Gwynn was one of the biggest, and he had some of the worst knees.
With footspeed almost completely taken out of the equation, Tony Gwynn nevertheless managed to turn far more balls in play into hits than the league average. And he was able to do this because he just hit the ball hard. He hit the ball on a line, seemingly without fail, at least a couple times every game, from the time he was a fresh-faced rookie to the time that playing in the outfield every day just killed him.
Tony Gwynn retired in 2001. He spent the year as a 41 year old pinch-hitter playing on impossible knees. He batted .324.
Tony Gwynn was amazing. If he could bat .324 against Major League pitching in the condition he was in at the end of his career, beating this cancer should be a walk in the park.