The greatest hitter of a generation is gone.
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died today at 54, four years after a diagnosis of with cancer of the salivary glands. In his 20 years in the majors, he racked up 3,141 hits, a .338 career batting average, eight batting titles, 15 All-Star Game appearances, and the eternal reverence of most he met or who was lucky enough to watch him play.
He was, as USA Today's Paul White put it, the "purest hitter in an impure era," a contact hitter who maintained his subtler dominance amid the often artificially inflated power numbers put up by his contemporaries. The only season he finished below .300 was his first -- and then he proceeded to put up four of the 10 greatest hitting seasons in history.
And he did it his way, refusing to swing at bad pitches and ignoring the advice from Ted Williams, with whom he is often compared, to drive the ball more. You could marvel at any of Gwynn's impressive statistical feats -- defying his roly-poly appearance, he stole 318 bases in his career, including 56 in 1987 -- but perhaps the most conspicuous is his strikeout total: 434 strikeouts in 2440 career at-bats. That averages out to 29 strikeouts in a 162-game season over two decades. To put that into context, check out the average strikeouts per season of the last 10 NL batting champions:
When Greg Maddux enters the Hall of Fame next month, he will do so never having struck out Gwynn, in 107 at bats. Today, Maddux tweeted condolences to Gwynn's family, calling him "the best pure hitter I ever faced." As the numbers suggest, Gwynn was not only the best -- he could very well be the last.
Last year, Bleacher Report noted the recent increase in power and strikeouts in batters who hit for average, signaling "the death of the pure contact hitter" in MLB. Today we mourn the passing of the greatest hitter of an era that's nearly faded away.
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