You may think that the greatest bane to Braves’ pitching during its ‘heyday’ through the 1990’s was a slugger like Barry Bonds. Indeed, Bonds thumped Greg Maddux for 9 homers, Tom Glavine for 5, and John Smoltz for another 9. Those three pitchers combined to see him for 385 plate appearances, ranking 1-2-3 for the most of any pitchers vs. Bonds.
But they also held that claimant to the homer throne to a combined batting average of under .300.
No, there was another thorn in their sides. His name was Tony Gwynn, And it wasn’t really a close contest.
Anthony Keith Gwynn, Sr. passed away today from cancer at the age of 54. He was the best hitter of his generation, amassing 3142 hits vs. a ridiculous-sounding 434 strikeouts. That’s a career K rate of 4.2%.
- Pete Rose: .784 lifetime OPS, 1143 strikeouts, .303 average
- Rod Carew: .822 lifetime OPS, 1028 strikeouts, .328 average
- George Brett: .857 lifetime OPS, 907 strikeouts, .305 average
- Wade Boggs: .858 lifetime OPS, 745 strikeouts, .328 average
- Tony Gwynn: .847 lifetime OPS, 434 strikeouts, .338 average.
OPS within 11 points of all these players, batting average 10 points higher, and strikeouts less than half most of them. Yes. Clearly better.
As for the strikeout numbers, I’ve seen a lot today to put that number into perspective, but let’s try this:
- Gwynn: 434 career strikeouts in 10,232 plate appearances
- This year, every major league team has already exceeded 434 excepting 2: the Tigers (with 430, they will hit that shortly), and the Royals (389). That has happened with only 24-26% of the plate appearances that Gwynn had.
The Braves’ ConnectionWhen Gwynn retired after the 2001 season, the Braves’ pitchers should have pooled funds and bought him a gold watch. From 1969 until the end of the 1993 season, the Braves were members of the National League’s Western Division – along with Gwynn’s Padres, where “Mr. Padre” played from 1982-2001. There were lots of opportunities for these teams to face one another, and plenty of time for pitchers to figure out Gwynn’s weaknesses.
Apparently, he didn’t actually have any.
Of all pitchers that Gwynn faced, Greg Maddux was the one who saw him the most. Tom Glavine was second on his guest list. John Smoltz was 10th.
So how did they fare? This will amaze you.
107 plate appearances. Now mind you, Greg Maddux didn’t walk hitters very often. 1.8 walks per 9 innings for his career – 999 total. Of those, 18% (177) were intentional. That’s of the 4.9% of the 20,421 batters he faced.
He walked Tony Gwynn 11 times… a 10.3% rate. Maddux knew when to cut and run (to the next hitter).
Mad Dog never was able to strike out Gwynn. While other batters hit .245 against him, Gwynn hit .415 and OPS’d .997. Heck, Barry Bonds only got him for an .883 OPS. And he had… “help”!
The stats include 8 doubles and a triple with 9 RBI. His 39 hits were the most for any player vs. Maddux, save for Craig Biggio and Luis Gonzalez (40 apiece). I’m guessing that a lot of additional possible RBI damage was mitigated by Maddux choosing to avoid Gwynn with runners in scoring position.
105 plate appearances. This was at least somewhat in Glavine’s favor, due to the left-handedness of both pitcher and hitter. So yes, of these three, Glavine fared the best. Kinda.
Gwynn got Tom Glavine for 30 hits, a .303 average and .741 OPS. Gwynn also managed 2 homers. At least Glavine managed to strike him out on 2 occasions, and even induced 4 double plays. Still: not exactly ‘domination’ over 105 encounters: those 30 hits rank as 3rd most vs. Glavine all-time. Jay Bell and Barry Larkin knocked him around slightly more (33, 31 hits respectively; Bonds matched the 30 hits), though all of these players had more plate appearances than Gwynn.
Just 75 matchups here. Darn good thing. Tony Gwynn destroyed John Smoltz. Check this slash line: .444/.467/.694/.1.161. That’s ridiculous.
It gets better: recognize that John Smoltz was a strikeout pitcher – his 3084 Ks rank 16th all-time. So how many times did he get Gwynn? Once. That’s it.
Hardly anyone smacked around John Smoltz… but Gwynn did so regularly: Gwynn’s 32 hits was the most Smoltzy ever gave up to anyone. Biggio and Bagwell had 28… with a lot more attempts. Others also got to Smoltz (the Pirates’ Al Martin, Bonds, Mark Grace, but none with the consistency of Tony Gwynn.
It didn’t seem to matter who was thrown out there to face Gwynn: here’s more numbers from other occasional Braves’ hurlers:
- Zane Smith: .351 in 62 PA’s
- Pete Smith: .375 over 51 PA’s
- Pascual Perez: .391 / 48
- Denny Neagle: .200 / 43 (Aha!!! Somebody could get him out! Or maybe that was mostly while Neagle was a Pirate?)
- Kent Mercker: .282 / 42
- Steve Avery: .400 / 30
Adding it up…
Against Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz, Tony Gwynn amassed 101 hits in 287 plate appearances and struck out just 3 times with an OPS of over .900. He hit .381 against the best trio of the best rotation in baseball.
But the master – Greg Maddux – needs to have the last word here today:
Sad about Tony Gwynn’s passing. Greg Maddux had my favorite quote on TG pic.twitter.com/6rezQ4fUN4
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) June 16, 2014
The Gwynn family has our condolences on their loss of a father, a husband, and a truly great baseball player.