The 10 best seasons of Tony Gwynn's Hall of Fame career
Tony Gwynn was one of the greatest hitters in major league history. His eight batting titles are second only to Ty Cobb's 12, and, in the expansion era, no hitter with more than 125 plate appearances has hit for a higher career average than Gwynn's .338, which he compiled over 10,232 PA. Over that same stretch, no player with 7,000 or more plate appearances struck out less frequently than Gwynn, who had just 434 Ks and whiffed once every 23.6 PA, or roughly once every four games over the course of his career.
Those are remarkable figures, but even more remarkable was Gwynn's consistency, particularly given that he excelled in an aspect of the game -- hitting for average -- prone to significant fluctuation. As a 22-year-old rookie in 1982, Gwynn hit .289 in 209 plate appearances. In 19 subsequent major league seasons, he never again hit below .309 or had an on-base percentage below .355. In his entire career, his worst single-season OPS+ was 105. With that in mind, we wanted to rank Gwynn's greatest seasons, in part to illustrate just how many great seasons he had, and to show that he was great even in seasons in which he didn't win the batting title.
Note: Bold indicates led league, italics indicate led majors
1. 1987: .370/.447/.511 (158 OPS+) 56 SB
In his 20s, Gwynn wasn't merely one of the best pure hitters in the game, he was also a prolific basestealer and an outstanding rightfielder (winner of five Gold Gloves and with double-digit assists in six of seven seasons from 1984-90). Due to my lack of faith in retrofitted defensive statistics, I'm going to stick to his offensive contributions for the purpose of these rankings. Nonetheless, 1987 captured Gwynn, then 27, at his all-around best. His .370 batting average that season was the fifth-highest by a qualified hitter since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, and while Gwynn would top that figure twice in his 30s, those seasons came after he had lost much of his speed. In 1987, however, Gwynn set career highs in stolen bases (56 at an excellent 82-percent success rate) and triples (13). He also had personal bests in walks both intentional (26) and unintentional (56, for a total of 82 against just 35 strikeouts). The result was the second-highest on-base percentage of his career, which helped him score a career-high 119 runs. If you add his net steals to his total bases for every year of his career, Gwynn never accumulated more bases than the 345 (301 with his bat, 44 with his legs) he did in 1987.
2. 1994: .394/.454/.568 (169 OPS+), 12 HR
All three of those slash stats were career-highs for Gwynn, and the batting average remains the highest since Williams' aforementioned .406 in '41. This was also the only year in his career that Gwynn led his league in on-base percentage. On top of that, he was on pace for a career-high in home runs, and he was a perfect 5-for-5 on the bases. Unfortunately, this was also the year of the players' strike, and as a result, Gwynn had fewer plate appearances in 1994 than any other year from 1984 to '98, which is why this season can't rank as his best.
3. 1997: .372/.409/.547 (156 OPS+) 17 HR
Despite being in his late 30s, Gwynn was part of the league-wide power surge of the late '90s. He reached double digits in home runs just once in his first 10 qualified seasons, but he averaged 11 home runs a year from 1994 to '99, peaking with a career-high 17 in 1997 and 16 the next year. Those 17 home runs, plus his career-high 49 doubles and the second-highest average of his career combined to give Gwynn a personal best in total bases that season with 324 (add his net steals and he had 331, second only to 1987). He also had career highs in hits (a major league leading 220) and RBIs (119, his only season above 90). Gwynn's batting title this season was his fourth in a row and the last of his career.
4. 1986: .329/.381/.467 (135 OPS+) 14 HR, 37 SB
Gwynn's best season in which he did not win a batting title was the only one in which he had more than a dozen home runs and stolen bases, respectively. In 1986 Gwynn hit twice as many home runs (14) as he did in any of his other first 12 seasons in the majors. He also stole 37 bases at an 80-percent clip, thus accumulating 328 bases when adding his total bases and net steals together. Gwynn's accumulation in '86, which included a league-leading 107 runs scored, was aided by the fact that he set career highs in games (160) and plate appearances (701), which explains how he was able to lead the league in hits (211) without winning the batting title or even out-hitting his eventual career average.
5. 1984: .351/.410/.444 (141 OPS+) 33 SB
This was Gwynn's first full major league season, and his first great one. He had hit .302/.348/.379 in 140 games over the preceding two years, but a fractured wrist suffered when making a diving catch in late August of 1982 cost him the rest of that season and the first 65 games of '83. In 1984, Gwynn was only successful in 65 percent of his 51 stolen bases attempts, but he more than made up for that detrimental rate by leading the majors in batting average (claiming his first batting title) and hits (213). He also collected 10 triples (the first of four seasons in which he reached double-digits in that category) and got on base more than 40 percent of the time for the first of just two times in his first dozen seasons. In the process, Gwynn was selected to the All-Star team for the first of 15 times, won the first of seven Silver Sluggers and led the Padres to their first-ever playoff berth and pennant, hitting .316/.372/.395 in 10 postseason games.
6. 1995: .368/.404/.484 (137 OPS+) 17 SB
Gwynn lost a chance to hit .400 when the strike hit in 1994, but he picked up right where he left off when play finally resumed in late April 1995, collecting multiple hits in his first five games of the season and going on to post the fourth-highest batting average of his career. Gwynn's .368 mark in '95 stands as the seventh-highest batting average by a qualified player in the 19 seasons since, with only two Colorado Rockies, the 21st century Barry Bonds, Ichiro Suzuki, Nomar Garciaparra and Gwynn himself having surpassed it.
7. 1989: .336/.389/.424 (132 OPS+), 40 SB
Believe it or not, this was actually a fairly pedestrian season by Gwynn's personal standards. He was, after all, a career .338/.388/.459 (132 OPS+) hitter. His steals came at a mere 71-percent success rate this season. However, his relative attendance helps place it above some of his other campaigns. Gwynn played in 158 games and came to bat 679 times in 1989. He also led the league in hits with 203, won the batting title, the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, made the All-Star team and was eighth in the MVP voting. Just a run-of-the-mill Tony Gwynn season.
8. 1993: .358/.398/.497 (138 OPS+), 14 SB
Gwynn put up some handsome rate stats in 1993 and his 14 steals came in 15 attempts, but he was sidelined in mid-June due to a sprained thumb and his season ended in early September due to loose bodies in his left knee. The two injuries limited him to 122 games, which is why this season ranks as low as it does. Gwynn's .358 batting average in '93 was his highest in a year in which he didn't win the batting title. He finished second to Andres Galarraga, who hit .370 for the expansion Rockies.
9. 1998: .321/.364/.501 (133 OPS+), 16 HR
The recurrence of an Achilles tendon injury from two years earlier cost Gwynn a month of the 1998 season and a chance to top his personal home run record set at 17 the year before. Nonetheless, Gwynn helped lead the Padres to their second pennant, recovering from a weak showing in the Division Series against the Astros to hit .333/.364/.429 in the NLCS and World Series combined, going 8-for-16 with a memorable Yankee Stadium home run as the Padres were swept in the Fall Classic.
10. 1988: .313/.373/.415 (128 OPS+), 26 SB
This season edges 1996 because Gwynn, suffering from that Achilles injury and bursitis in his right foot, appeared in just 116 games that year. Of course, that means that a season in which Gwynn hit .353 and won the batting title didn't even make the list of his 10-best seasons. If anyone asks you how good Tony Gwynn was, tell them that.
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