The Greatest Season

Chase Headley broke his left thumb, will miss 4-6 weeks.  That’s depressing.  You need a pick-me-up.  Let’s talk a little Tony Gwynn.

As I mentioned before, I’ve been a Padres season ticket holder four times.  One of those 4 seasons was 1997, when Tony Gwynn hit .372, had career highs in HR (17) and RBI (119), and won the last of his 8 batting titles.  I have long been grateful I got to watch him hit during 41 home games that season, and considered it to be his greatest offensive season.  Originally I intended this to be a tribute to that greatness.

A funny thing happened, however, while researching this post.  When comparing 1997 to the rest of his career, it certainly is one of his better years.  But it may not be his best year.  Gwynn’s career is marked by consistent excellence at the plate.   His worst-season OBP was .337.  Last season the NL average OBP was .319. He collected over 200 hits five times.  He never struck out more than 41 times in a season.  Adam Dunn struck out 48 times in May 2012.  Within that consistent excellence, three seasons stand out:

  • 1994:  .394/.454/.568, 12 HR, 64 RBI, 110 games.  The strike season.
  • 1987:  .370/.447/.511, 7 HR, 54 RBI, 157 games.  Tony stole 56 bags in 1987, his career high.
  • 1997:  .372/.409/.547, 17 HR, 119 RBI, 149 games.  Only year he drove in 100+.

Which season is his best?  Comparing the numbers, we see a definite trend.  By fWAR, it’s 1987 – 7.6, as compared to 4.5 (1997) and 4.0 (1994).   As it happens, rWAR agrees (6.4 in 1987, 4.1 in 1997, 3.9 in 1994).  The 1987 WAR number is the highest Gwynn ever posted in a single season.  He turned in his best wOBA in 1994, of course (.434), although his weighted on base average was over .400 in the other two seasons we’re looking at (.409 in 1987, .408 ten years later).  Using wRC, 1987 again is the leader, with 130 runs created in 1987, 121 in 1997, and 101 in 1994.

By the standard advanced metrics, 1987 was the best year of Gwynn’s career.  OK, that’s fine, he finished third in the MVP voting that year (behind Ryan Sandberg and Keith Hernandez), the highest finish of his career.  It’s also the year he finished 8th in the MVP voting despite having the highest WAR in the NL.  I have, however, two caveats to present to that conclusion.

It does not do 1994 justice.  WAR relies on a lot of counting stats.  There were only 110 games played in 1994, thanks to the aforementioned strike.  The power a high batting average used to project has dimmed in the last 20 years, yet hitting .400 remains a magical, almost mystical number.  Probably because the last guy to do it pulled it off in 1941 and was a Genuine American Hero (as well as a San Diego native).  Tony Gwynn missed hitting .400 by 3 hits.  Three little bleeders, three balls that drop, three judgement calls by the official scorer.  No one has come that close since WWII.  One of the great regrets of the 1994 season is the lost opportunity to see Gwynn chase Ted Williams.

You had to be there in 1997.  It’s perhaps lazy, it’s become archaic, it’s definitely old-school.  But you had to see Gwynn hit in 1997 to understand.  For his career, he hit .349 with runners in scoring position.  In 1997 he hit .459.  Gwynn hit over .400 with RISP two other times, but in those seasons (1984 and 1999) he hit almost 40 points less with RISP than in 1997.   It really seemed that, whenever Tony came up with runners on, the ball ended up in either the LC or RC gap and he had a double.  I can still see him running up the first base line, headed for second, having helped the Padres score another run.

I wish I’d seen him play live in 1987.  I wish he’d found 3 more hits before the strike in 1994.  But I remain grateful I was a witness to his greatness in 1997.

Do you have a favorite Gwynn memory?  Talk about it in the comments.  I can be found on Twitter @Padres_Trail.

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  • Tom

    You are confusing the 1984 and 1987 seasons in the MVP voting. Gwynn was 3rd in 1984 behind Sandberg and Hernandez but only 8th in 1987.