What Made Tony Gwynn a Great Hitter?

Tony Gwynn, who passed away in June of 2014 at the age of 54, is considered by just about everyone to be the premier hitter of his era. It’s easy to believe that he may have been the greatest hitter between 1950 and 2000. He had a .338 lifetime batting average over 20 seasons (that longevity alone being a sign of greatness). His last season was 2001, where in over 71 games, he managed to hit .324.

Gwynn played his entire major league career with the San Diego Padres…and he’s affectionately remembered as “Mr. Padre.” He won a record eight National League batting titles, equal to the number won by Honus Wagner, and collected a total of 3,141 hits in his career, 19th all time. Gwynn’s lifetime batting average was the highest since another left-hander from San Diego retired in 1960: Ted Williams.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then, when you learn that “Teddy Ballgame” himself wrote the introduction to Gwynn’s book, The Art of Hitting, in which he talks about Tony Gwynn’s amazing hitting skills.

What made Gwynn so great?

In the introduction, Williams touches on the skills and attributes that Gwynn had that helped him become as great as he was. Williams breaks it down to a number of things, and the very first thing he thought made Gwynn a great hitter is probably not what you would expect:

Good weather.

“A young ballplayer can have no greater luck than to grow up in a place where you can practice and play every day, year-round,” he says. “For a young hitter, there’s no substitute for practicing until you have calluses on your hands.” Comparing himself to Gwynn, and what made them both excellent hitters, Williams says: “We both love to hit. We love everything about it. Hitting is not only our profession—it’s our passion.”

That passion that Williams describes led Gwynn to be constantly studying, analyzing and thinking about hitting, and testing his theories at the plate. According to Williams, an at-bat is a “mental chess game” between the batter and the guy on the mound. “Every bit of knowledge you have can be an advantage. It helps to be smart…and Tony [was].”

Students of the game.

Tony’s Gwynn’s baseball IQ was also a major factor in his success. Like Ted Williams, Gwynn studied pitchers and constantly talked to other players, both hitters and pitchers. He was always looking for the bits of information that could give him the edge at the plate.

One of those advantages wasn’t available to Ted Williams in his playing days, but was available to Gwynn…and he took full advantage.

Caught on tape.

Ted Williams was right: Tony Gwynn was smarter than most players and embraced technology that wasn’t available to players of previous generations.

Tony Gwynn looked at videotapes of himself every gameday during the season. In the beginning, he’d just tape the ballgames at home, and then watch his at-bats that night. Then the Padres got a video room but the equipment wasn’t too good. So Gwynn shelled out $85,000 of his own money to get a decent system for the clubhouse. It was for the team, but Tony had access whenever he wanted it.

Here’s how it worked: If he’d gotten a hit, he didn’t bother looking at the recording of the at-bat. But if he’d made an out, he’d go right into the clubhouse and look at the tape. He said, “If I make an out, I want to see what I did wrong.”

And he didn’t just focus on the swing. He focused on the at-bat, that chess match with the pitcher that takes place on every at-bat and continues throughout the season and a career. Gwynn used to have made for him an “at-bat” tape that included every pitch of every trip to each particular stadium. That allowed him to study what the pitcher tried to do, and how he, in the heat of battle, responded.

Fun and ballgames.

Sure, baseball is a game. It’s meant to be fun, and it surely is. Roy Campanella was quoted as saying, “To be good you’ve gotta have a lot of little boy in you.” But to be very good, or maybe one of the greatest, takes something else. It takes hard work and commitment, both physically and mentally.

Tony Gwynn made himself a great hitter by understanding the mechanics of his swing and knowing what worked for him and what didn’t. Gwynn’s career-high .394 average during the strike-shortened 1994 season remains the highest to lead either league since Williams batted .406 in 1941. Gwynn always believed had it not been for the strike, which ended the season in mid-August, he would have hit .400.

No one has come that close since.

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