My mom passed when I was a younger man, and I remember from then how people judged the way others mourned. That’s always stuck with me. Mourning seems like such a personal thing, and I don’t know that there is a right way or a wrong way to do it. I do know, however, that some of the deaths of my lifetime that are supposed to have struck people of a certain age just haven’t had the effect on me that they’ve had on others. The deaths of famous people, whether Kurt Cobain, Ryan White, Christa McAuliffe, or Chris Farley, didn’t seem to reach me as they did others.
This past week or so has been different. Maybe I’m beginning to understand my own mortality, or maybe baseball is just that important to me.
There were two moments in the career of Bob Welch that were particularly notable in my development as a baseball fan. My earliest World Series memory came in 1978 when the 21-year-old Welch took the mound for the Dodgers against the mighty Yankees trying to close out game two. With two men on and just one out in the ninth, he got Thurman Munson to fly out and then got Reggie Jackson to swing like a madman, particularly at the first and third strikes, bookending foul balls and brushback pitches, to preserve the win. Of course, Reggie had his revenge in the sixth game with a homer against the Dodger righty that kind of wrapped things up for New York. But I had to look that up. I could still feel what it was like to watch Jackson swing and miss in that second game.
The other Welchian moment that had a tremendous impact on this future baseball blogger came a dozen years later when he won 27 games and the Cy Young Award for the A’s in 1990. This was one of the first times I really, truly believed I knew more about the game than those handing out post-season trophies. I didn’t. I just got lucky on one. And so did Welch. Sure, Clemens only won 21 games. But he topped Welch in ERA 1.93 to 2.95.He struck out 209 compared to Welch’s 127. His ERA+ was 211 versus 125 for Welch. His K/BB ratio was a laughably better – 3.9:1 for Roger and only 1.7:1 for Bob. And while WAR doesn’t always tell the whole story, sometimes it’s all you need to know. Roger Clemens posted 10.6 WAR that year. Welch put up just 3.0. That’s not a typo. Want to know why he won 27 games in 1990? There were only three times in 35 starts that the A’s failed to score 3+ runs. By the way, Welch lost all three starts.
But you know, 1990 was a long time ago. And don’t quite feel the same way about Roger Clemens as I did then. I’m okay with Welch winning the award, and I’ll always remember the strikeout in game two more than whatever happened four games later.
My pal Geoff keeps reminding me that it would be a good idea for the HoME if we were to post something not about the guys on the in/out borderline, but about the sure thing, slam dunk candidates telling everyone just how great they were. Well, Tony Gwynn passed away two days ago, and though he won’t become a member of the HoME until our 2007 election, his tragic loss provides the perfect fodder to complete what Geoff asked.
I have no idea why I’m tearing up as I write this. Gwynn shouldn’t mean that much to me. He began his career at the same time as Wade Boggs, and I was a Red Sox fan. It’s not like Gwynn really stood out either. His New York Times obituary put it well, “Playing all 20 of his major league seasons with the often lackluster San Diego Padres, in one of baseball’s lesser media markets, and usually shunning home run swings in favor of well-struck hits, Gwynn was not one of baseball’s more charismatic figures.” He wasn’t. But he was truly awesome. In an article in ESPN the Magazine from 2006, Tim Kurkjian told the story of Gwynn handpicking billets of wood for his bats, bats were the same length and weight as those of teammate Scott Livingstone. Gwynn said, “If I close my eyes and put my bat in one hand and Scott’s in the other, I’ll tell you which bat is mine every time.” That’s the kind of feel he had for his bats – and the kind of relationship he had with them. That relationship led to eight batting titles. It put him on a Wheaties box. And it brought about the naming of a street outside of Petco Park after him. I could go on and on. And I will, or rather I’ll share some of the things folks said about him on Twitter and elsewhere in the hours after his passing.
- Beyond the Box Score shared that Gwynn struck out in 4.2% of his career plate appearances during a time when the league average was around 14%. Further, of the 1165 players with 500 PA from 1982-2001, nobody had a lower K% than Gwynn.
- David Branson @obxleatherman put it well when he asked how good Tony Gwynn was and answered that he once won a batting title without even qualifying (1996).
- He also shared a list of the most SB in a season since WWII while hitting .370. Gwynn had 56 in 1987. After that it was Ichiro (36 in 2004), Carew (22 in 1977), and Brett (15 in 1980).
- Gwynn crushed Greg Maddux. Beyond the Box Score tells us his line was .415/.476/.521.
- Eric Edholm @Eric_Edholm tweeted that Gwynn batted 323 times against Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez. He whiffed on only three occasions.
- Dave Cameron from Fangraphs said that Ichiro is probably the closest thing to Gwynn 2.0, but he’s struck out twice as much.
- Joe Giglio @JoeGiglioSports tells us that Gwynn came to the plate 60+ times against 17 different pitchers. He hit .300+ against all of them but Doc Gooden.
- Adam Darowski @baseballtwit said that Gwynn was basically our Rod Carew. I buy that.
- Sky Kalkman @Sky-Kalkman tweeted that there have been 1,033 hitters since 1960 with 3000 PAs. Gwynn is 4th in K% and 15th in BABIP.
- And as he so often does, Joe Posnanski put it beautifully when he said that Gwynn “wasn’t just a Hall of Fame player, he was an artist who perfected his craft.”
One thing I don’t quite understand about mourning is how honesty is sometimes put on hold in place of unadulterated praise. And since I don’t understand that, I don’t mind saying that Gwynn had a weight problem. Did it impact his life? Possibly. Did it impact his game? Probably. Did it impact his knees? I’d say so – he had eight knee operations. But did it rob Gwynn of the first .400 season in the game since Ted Williams turned the trick in 1946?
I don’t know.
In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Gwynn hit .394 (165 hits in 419 at-bats). A little quick math tells us that three more hits would have put him over .400. Three more infield hits would have done it, and a guy with more speed might have been able to produce those three hits. So let’s look at a time when weight almost certainly wasn’t a problem. In 1989, Gwynn stole 40 bases. That season he had 20 infield hits in 604 plate appearances. In 1994, he had just 12 infield hits. Was it the weight? At the same rate he produced in 1989, we should have expected 14 infield hits in 1994. So he’d still have fallen short of .400. But let’s take another season, one during which his weight was almost certainly an issue, 1998. He was 38 years old and approaching the end of his career. That year he had 37 infield hits in 461 at-bats. Perhaps his infield hits were a function of luck and placement more than speed. But if you think Gwynn’s weight robbed him of some speed, some infield hits, and a .400 average, well, so be it. Today, I don’t care. I just miss Tony Gwynn.
I’ll let David Branson @obxleatherman close this one out. Tony Gwynn had one 3-strikeout game in his career. Bob Welch did the honors.
Rest in peace, gents.