We think of Tony Gwynn as being the model of consistency, perhaps best highlighted by the fact that he completed 19 consecutive seasons with a batting average over .300. From a distance that certainly holds true, but when you look closer, he had hot and cold streaks just like anyone. I came across an interesting piece about George Brett recently, so I thought I’d borrow the idea (after asking permission, of course). What would happen if we could take each of Tony’s best months of his career and splice them together into a season of greatness?
I pulled his monthly splits from Baseball-Reference and sorted them to find out. First I filtered out the months when he played less than 20 games. Then I filtered out the months where his sOPS+ (his split relative to the league that month). OPS+ is a normalized stat that compares a players OBP + SLG to the league and adjusts for ballpark factors. While this might not be the best true measure of a man who was primarily a singles hitter, I found it to be an effective way to pare the list down to the top dozen of each month of his career. From there I just picked the month that I liked best. So without further ado, here are Tony’s best months of his career:
April / March: 1984
Tony didn’t get a full share of playing time his first two years in the league, despite performing above expectations in all phases of his game. 1984 was his first season to make the team out of camp, and boy did he ever hit the ground running. He hit .434 with a .495 OBP, logging five doubles, two triples, and one homer as “the thin Gwynn” started to make his mark in the game. He would finish the season with his first batting title, his first Silver Slugger, his first All-Star Game appearance, a third place MVP finish, and of course his first trip to the World Series.
In the year prior to his second World Series appearance, Tony put the team on his back and carried them through a losing season. While the rest of the team would come together the following year, Tony’s numbers were the main bright spot that year. In May of 1997, he had 46 hits and knocked in 20 runs for a line of .447/.478/.650 for the second highest OPS of any month in his career at 1.129.
1987 was one of the best seasons of Tony’s career, and his June was a monster. Hie hit five triples and stole 12 bases on his way to a .473/.524/.667 triple-slash. June of 1987 represented his career-best single-month performances in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, so naturally his 1.190 OPS is the best of his career as well.
A .406 batting average feels like a letdown after the silly numbers posted above, as it seems that perhaps Tony had a mid-season lull most years. His best July came with an OPS of 0.999, while he topped 1.000 at least once in April, May, June, and August. Still, a .406/.442/.557 month is nothing to shake a stick at. This happens to be the only month in this study where he struck out in double digits, racking up 11 K’s.
Tony’s 47 hits in August 1993 is only topped by a relatively powerless July 1984 where he got 49 hits. In 1993 he tallied ten doubles and two homers along with ten walks to put up a line of .448/.487/.600.
September / October: 1987
The final months of the baseball year brings us back to Tony’s standout 1987 season, when he hit .378/.475/.490 and stole ten bases. This is the only month in this study where he hit under .400, but it’s a long season, so let’s give the guy a break. His 19 walks happened to be his highest single walk total of any month of his career.
The Greatest Season
I present to you, Tony Gwynn’s Greatest Season:
Tony Gwynn’s Greatest Months
At his very best, Tony Gwynn put up a dazzling .430/.483/.590 triple-slash, good for a 1.073 OPS. In this amalgamated season, he hit 36 doubles, 11 triples, 12 homers, and stole 41 bases. None of those totals top his best individual season in that stat, but we’re taking a slice from each phase of his career. It’s pretty impressive to run through his entire body of work.
You may be looking at these numbers and asking “What about 1994? You know, the year he was supposed to hit .400 but the season was cut short by the strike?” While he hit for high average all season long, his hottest months in other years beat those in 1994. Also, he only played in 18 games that April and 10 games that August, so they didn’t meet my arbitrary minimum sample size.
While looking through all of this data, I found some remarkable tidbits about just how good he was. Not that we needed a reminder, but it’s fun to see some weird numbers from such a unique hitter.
- He struck out more than ten times in a month only twice in his career: April 1986 and July 1988. I’m pretty certain a handful of Padres will strike out at least ten times this week.
- He was always a very smart baserunner, but early in his career he had some serious wheels. He stole 56 bases in the 1987 season, and it’s fitting that he stole more than ten bases in three months of that year. Those are the only months where he stole more than ten bases.
- He only got caught stealing more than three times in eight months out of his entire career, and never more than five times.
- BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is a stat that is predicated on hit placement and speed. Fast runners can get on base more often by beating out infield hits (see Ichiro, circa 2004). Savvy hitters can find gaps in defenses more often. Early in his career, Tony excelled at both. He had 13 months where he had at least 80 plate appearances and logged a BABIP over .400. Only four guys have managed to do that for an entire season since 1945.
- I don’t recall him drawing a ton of walks, but he drew ten or more walks in fourteen separate months. I guess it’s worth noting that he drew five or more intentional bases on balls in five of those months.
- In 1997, he batted in 119 RBIs, which far surpasses his second highest season total of 72. Of the nine months where he knocked in 20 or more runs, four of them came in the 1997 season.
- He scored ten runs or more in ten months, most coming in the 1980’s when he hit second in the order more often as a “table setter” versus his #3 spot for most of his career where he had more chances to drive in runs.
- He legged out three or more triples in a month six times, and all of them were in 1991 or earlier. The “Thin Gwynn” era, if you will.
- He hit three or more homers in a month seven times, and three of them came in the 1997 season, when he hit is career high of 17 home runs.
- You’d think that he must have hit a bunch more doubles, but he actually only hit ten or more doubles in a month five times. Two of those months were in the 1998 season.
- He only grounded into a double play five or more times in a month in four months. He had a knack of knowing who was covering second base and hitting the ball to that side. For all of the times that he was the “hit” in the “hit and run”, his success rate must be off the charts. They even say that he could put the H&R on himself.
Happy Birthday, Tony Gwynn!
Today would have been Tony Gwynn’s 57th birthday. I still get a little misty-eyed thinking about what he meant to his adopted city, and it’s a shame that he was taken from us at such a young age. He’ll forever hold a place in my heart as a man I idolized as a kid, and as I’ve grown I have yet to hear a bad word spoken about him. Take a moment today and picture him hitting a liner through the 5.5 hole, fielding a bouncer and firing it to the cutoff man, or just laughing with Uncle Ted in a dugout interview. Miss ya, T. Happy birthday.