It’s not speaking ill of the dead to speak factually. Tony Gwynn got quite plump in his 30s and 40s. You only have to look at the pictures to see it. For athletes, extra cellulose can be very harmful to their game, the cause of injury as well as diminished ability.
In Gwynn’s case, what kind of loss in value can we detect? To answer this question, I looked at the components that make up BBREF’s Wins Above Replacement calculation for position players: Plate appearances, batting runs, base-running runs, double-play-avoidance runs, and fielding runs. I compared Gwynn’s value through age 29 to his value after age 29. If a player gets heavy quickly, like Gwynn did, it’s going to show up in his 30s.
G PA Bat Run DPs Field ============================================= Young Gwynn 1060 4527 178 20 4 22 Old Gwynn 1380 5705 225 3 2 -16
If we prorate the strike years, Young Tony played 133 games a year; Old Tony 119. Gwynn had numerous surgeries on his knees and legs. His knees might have been affected by his playing sports year round (he was a highly skilled basketball player in high school and college), but surely the extra pounds exacted their toll. Unsurprisingly, Young Gwynn had it all over Old Gwynn in base running and fielding, the facets of the game that require speed. In fact, the older model might well have kicked in at age 29, not 30, when his fielding suddenly plummeted 20 runs. Gwynn didn’t lose anything as a batter as he aged and was, in fact, a slightly better batter in his 30s and 40s on a per game basis.
But this is just Mr. Padre. Let’s find some comparable players to see how they aged and what it says about Gwynn.
I took the WAR components for Gwynn and created comps around each of them. I started by selecting all players since the war with 4000–5000 PAs before age 30. Then I sifted and sorted so that I could get a comp list for each of the four WAR components mentioned above that ran to the 15 or 20 guys above and below Gwynn. In other words, separate comp lists for batting, for running, for DP avoidance, and for fielding.
G PA Bat Run DS Field ============================================ Young Gwynn 1060 4527 178 20 4 22 Comps (bat) 4615 184 Comps (run) 4515 25 Comps (DPs) 4465 4 Comps (fld) 4436 20 Old Gwynn 1380 5705 225 3 2 -16 Comps (bat) 3952 117 Comps (run) 3573 1 Comps (DPs) 2757 1 Comps (fld) 2963 - 4
Obviously, Gwynn outlasted the comps. He actually gained a tiny bit on them on the bases but really lost ground in the field, by about 14 runs. These fielding comps include guys from all over the diamond. When I restricted fielding to outfielders only, the results weren’t as bad. He still lost those 38 runs, of course, but his comps lost 33 runs (+17 to -16 rfield).
So it seems that Tony Gwynn didn’t really lose much due to his weight problems, right? His numbers on the whole look pretty much like what they others guys’ looked like aside from his outstanding batting.
Let’s return to the question of health and longevity before we close the case. As we mentioned above, Gwynn averaged 133 games per 162-game season in 20s. In his 30s and beyond, he averaged 119 games per 162-game season. Is that a common drop-off for an excellent, long-career outfielder like Gwynn? To look at the question, I looked at every outfielder since the war who played in 2000 or more games. I knocked off any token years and cups of coffee at the very beginning or end of their careers (I spitballed this). Like Gwynn’s 1982 season for example, where he wasn’t recalled until part way through. There are 62 such comps ranging from Yaz and his 3308 games to Ellis Burks with 2000 even. I split their careers into through-29 and after-29 to see how many games and PAs they accumulated in each phase and how their playing time changed as they aged.
G PA PA/G ======================== Young Gwynn 1006 4318 4.3 Comps 1113 4666 4.2 Old Gwynn 1309 5593 4.3 Comps 1230 4995 4.1
Whole lotta nothing there, too. Gywnn hung on for more seasons than most, which increased his total games, but after knocking off a final partial year, he still got just as many PAs as ever (although, granted, the offensive environment inflated PAs in the late 1990s and early 2000s).
So in the end, while we can point to all the surgeries, his gimpy knees, and the big belly, Tony Gwynn doesn’t appeared to have overly damaged his own play any more than aging affected any of his peers. Could he have played more often? Probably. But the performance and playing time suggests his playing time was pretty normal in his 30s as compared to his 20s.
OK, one last slicing and dicing of the previous list of 62. How about only Hall of Miller and Eric-level corner outfielders? 18 of Gwynn’s truest comps: Aaron, Bonds, Clemente, Cruz, Dawson, Evans, Guerrero, Henderson, Jackson, Kaline, Raines, Ramirez, Robinson, Sheffield, Sosa, Williams, Winfield, Yaz.
G PA PA/G =============================== Young Gwynn 1006 4318 4.3 Comps (mean) 1229 5175 4.2 Comps (median) 1193 4927 4.1 Old Gwynn 1309 5593 4.3 Comps (mean) 1424 5915 4.2 Comps (median) 1416 5800 4.1
Tony Gwynn was never as healthy as his HoME-level mates (in the aggregate, that is). But he aged gracefully nonetheless.
This is far from conclusive stuff. I won’t make any kind of claim to being definitive. I’ll only say that, being fat might have cost Gwynn the speed-oriented parts of his game, but even that appears to be merely a handful of wins’ worth of value. Talent and hard work with video can make up for a lot.