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The Tony Gwynn Era

With the offensive climate of the game changing, where are we headed? A name currently on everyone's mind and lips may have some answers to offer.

Otto Greule Jr

I had planned (and promised), to deliver my annual shadow draft post this week, but, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on what you think of my draft coverage, I suppose), I couldn't find the time over the weekend to write it up. I've made my picks already; they're currently sitting in a document file on my hard drive. But, considering it's nearly seven as I'm starting this post, I just don't have the time to write up a couple thousand words worth of drafturbation today. Ergo, I'll be back next week with said shadow draft post, my last word on reviewing the 2014 draft. My apologies, if anyone was looking forward to reading it.

Instead, I'm going to write today about something else that has been on my mind the last couple days. The San Diego Padres lost their Stan Musial on Monday, and the baseball world is currently in mourning. Tony Gwynn was just 54 years old, gone much too soon, and I'm sure that the whole city of San Diego is trying to cope with the loss of Mr. Padre.

Now, I'm not going to go into whether or not baseball should ban chewing tobacco, which likely contributed to Gwynn's salivary gland cancer (I could not care less about the subject, frankly), nor am I going to take you on an emotional journey into the career of some other team's legend. I never met Tony Gwynn, and I honestly don't have a whole lot of especially strong memories of his playing career. He scared the hell out of me whenever the Cardinals would play the Padres, and by all accounts he was one of the classiest, most genuine, and just all-around best individuals the game has seen. But, while I certainly admired him, this just wasn't a player I found myself connecting to in some sort of deep, profound way.

Rather, over the last couple days, as I've been listening to various podcasts and sports talk radio programs, there's been a pretty steady deluge of statlets and fun facts about Tony Gwynn. the sorts of things you always hear about players after their careers are over, and the sorts of things you can almost always safely ignore, presented as they are without context.

In this particular case, though, ignoring some of said fun facts is tough, if only because the numbers presented, no matter how weirdly cherry-picked or how contextless they might be, are so crazily out there you can't help but pay attention. To wit: in his rookie season of 1984, a very young Tony Gwynn came up to the majors and struck out in 7.7% of his 209 plate appearances. It would be the last time he would strike out in more than seven percent of his plate appearances until his final season in the league, nearly two full decades later.

Or, my favourite: Tony Gwynn his .462 in Double A in his first year in professional ball after being picked in the third round of the draft. Read that whole sentence again. No part of that is a typo. He really did last until the third round of the draft.

But anyway, I'm not here to throw Tony Gwynn facts at you. Rather, hearing some of the slightly absurd numbers he put up in his career has started me thinking about a larger trend we're seeing in the game today.

Gwynn, of all the things he was and was not (and I will admit up front to occasionally arguing he's one of the more overrated players in the history of the game, full disclosure), he was first a hitter, and he was most known for his one truly legendary skill: bat control. His lifetime strikeout rate, in slightly more than 10000 career plate appearances, was 4.2%. In 1995, following up the strike-shortened season which cost him his chance at hitting .400, Gwynn struck out in exactly 2.6% of his trips to the plate. Nearly 600 times at bat, and he walked straight from the plate back to the dugout just fifteen times.

That ridiculously low strikeout rate throughout his career was the key to his remarkable batting average of .338. He didn't often have the luxury of putting the ball over the fence, thus ignoring the defenders (he reached double digits in home runs just five times in his 20 year career). His career batting average on balls in play was .341, which is very high, but not an all-time anomaly. For instance, Joey Votto's career BABIP is .358 currently; Jon Jay's is .343. No, the reason Tony Gwynn was able to compile a .338 career batting average is because he just...never struck out. Every at-bat ended with a ball in play; eliminating the only 100% sure way to make an out from the game is a hell of a way to boost your BA, turns out. Gwynn simply avoided the most negative of batter outcomes almost completely.

Which, of course, made him an anomaly. An anachronism, if you will. He was a dead ball era superstar playing in the earliest days of the steroid era, and he lasted well into an era in which we came to simply accept strikeouts as just another out, a somewhat undesirable but not particularly impactful side effect of players mashing unprecedented numbers of home runs.

And, really, we're still at least somewhat in that era; at least, the part about the strikeouts. At least it's not a double play, 2010 Cardinals fans would tell you. The stigma of the strikeout has long been abolished in the psyche of the modern hitter, and Joe DiMaggio's near 1:1 home run to strikeout ratio looks unimaginably freakish today.

Not to mention, of course, that improved availability of information on hitters' strengths and weaknesses, not to mention the increased velocity of bigger, stronger athletes on the mound, have contributed heavily to today's K-heavy game. Nobody really bats an eye anymore at a strikeout rate for a hitter in the 20%+ range; it's largely thought of as just the cost of doing business.

But, as always happens when anything in the game becomes part of the norm, it seems as if the winds might be changing yet again on strikeouts. Maybe it's the idea there's a market inefficiency to be found here, or maybe it's just the reality of the changing offensive landscape of the game, but suddenly it looks like there is a movement within the game to get away from the high strikeout rates of the last era, to try and go all Tony Gwynn on the game of baseball.

We've seen the last couple years that there are certain teams which seem to have put an emphasis on hitters with lower strikeout rates. The Oakland Athletics have somewhat famously gone to a low-strikeout, high-flyball rate batted-ball profile, the idea being that players who put the ball in play in the air with some authority will bring plenty of damage to a lineup. The Tampa Bay Rays, always lauded as one of the smarter organisations in the game, have made it a point of emphasis the last couple years to focus on hitters with low swing and miss rates, which, of course, tend to bring lower K rates along just by definition.

And, of course, our very own hometown nine have very much moved toward an offensive identity that I think Gwynn would have quite approved of.

The Cardinals, over the past couple seasons, have constructed an offense based around players with low strikeout rates, decent but not necessarily elite walk rates, and batted-ball profiles heavy on lots of line drives and ground balls. The theory being, those are the balls in play most likely to turn into hits, and by limiting the strikeout rate you're avoiding the most negative outcomes. Or, at least, the outcomes least likely to lead to a player reaching base. When it all works together, the effect is that of a daisy chain; hits strung together in long runs of singles and doubles, chasing home runners and leading to tons of discussion over whether the system is sustainable or not. It's both fun and devastating when the engine is turning at full speed; pitchers never leave the stretch and rarely manage to kill off a rally with a well-timed strikeout. Of course, the downside of such an approach is the tendency toward limited power; very few ground balls manage to sneak over the outfield wall and into the bleachers. But still, the idea is a relatively sound one; you maximize the number of balls in play, and try to maximize the number of those balls in play that become hits by finding the types most likely to do so.

And, with the increasing prevalence of defensive shifts -- not just extreme overshifts, but more subtle changes in positioning -- I could see bat control becoming even more vital as we go forward. After all, we saw the Cardinals try to turn Matt Adams into, well, Tony Gwynn for much of the season; luckily, someone seems to have realised that shifts still don't put defenders in the right field bleachers, so that's probably a good place to try and hits balls also. But even so, the experiment of trying to beat the shift with the Mayo Man shows that a player capable of hitting the ball relatively close to where he wants can, in fact, do some pretty remarkable things in terms of collecting hits. Singles, mostly, but hits all the same.

The game has changed significantly since the time Tony Gwynn hung up his spikes for the last time. We've been through an era of unprecedented offense, and come out on the other side into this brave new world of a league average OPS of .709. And in this brand new climate of runs and hits and everything else productive being put at such a premium, it seems the lessons of Gwynn himself and his remarkable success, lessons as old as the game itself and only occasionally forgotten, just might be coming into vogue again in a big, big way.