The year is 1908, the President is Teddy Roosevelt, the best hitter in Major League Baseball is Julio Franco, but most importantly, the average Slugging Percentage in the AL and NL is just .305.
Yes, 1908 was a year where pitchers dominated, but a theme of early baseball is the high contact approach of some of the greatest hitters of all time, such as Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Honus Wagner. These guys are famous for batting in the high .300's and even at times, .400's and hitting loads of triples, but not hitting very many home runs. With that in mind, there are a bunch of players that have played in more power friendly periods, but were famous for their high contact approach. The men who kept this style from complete obscurity are the topic of today's piece.
Born on a racially segregated train in Panama in 1945, the son of Olga Teoma and Eric Carew was named for the doctor who delivered him, and with that, the legend of Rodney Cline Carew was born.
Carew and his family emigrated from Panama to Washington Heights, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, when Rod was 14. He never played for his high school, instead playing semi-pro ball for the Bronx Cavaliers. It was during his time with the Cavs that Minnesota Twins scout, and father of Carew's Cavaliers teammate, Monroe Katz discovered and eventually signed the young Panamanian hitter.
Carew played second base in the minor leagues and stood out. He proved that he belonged at a major league level for the few years that he spent in the Minor Leagues. He gained notoriety for his line drive approach and many spoke of him as not having any weak spots in the strike zone. While Statcast and Pitch F/X data aren't available to back this up, I'll believe it.
Many described the left handed hitter as one of the most complete hitters to ever live, and his style inspired two other notable hitters that had remarkably similar careers to him.
“That kid’s got a hell of a stance! Everything’s perfect! He ought to become a great hitter!” Legend has it that Ted Williams was talking about a picture of an 18 month old boy when he may have said this. If this legend is true, he was right, the picture was of Wade Anthony Boggs, born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1958, and one of the greatest hitters to ever live.
Boggs came from a military family, and he embodied that lifestyle through routine. He became famous for his routines, like eating chicken before every game, but he was also an insanely talented hitter. Wade Boggs moved to Tampa, FL in 1967, and in 1975, as a junior in high school, Boggs batted .522. He stopped playing QB for the football team when scouts started to keep an eye on his baseball.
Boggs' reputation that he attained when he batted over .500 as a junior meant that pitchers started to pitch around him, and he struggled. He began to swing at everything, and then everything changed. He read the book penned by the man who allegedly predicted his success before anybody else, Ted Williams. Boggs used Williams advice to not swing at bad pitches and he finished the season batting .485.
Described as a non-prospect because he didn't have great tools, the Boston Red Sox selected, and signed the left handed hitter in the 7th round of the 1976 Amateur Draft. In the minors, he was brought along slowly, re-establishing himself at every level, unlike another great left handed contact hitter.
What do you say about a man who meant everything to an entire city?
Anthony Keith Gwynn was born in the city of Los Angeles in 1960, but it was 110 miles south of his hometown where he became a legend. A high school basketball star, Gwynn didn't play baseball competitive until his sophomore year at San Diego State. In his junior and senior seasons, he batted over .400 in each, but fell to the third round of the 1981 draft, likely due to his basketball prowess, but he did sign with the San Diego Padres, the team in his college town.
After the draft, Gwynn married his longtime best friend and girlfriend, Alicia. The two met in elementary school, and they dated throughout both high school and college, while Alicia ran track for SDSU.
The Padres knew that they had a player on their hands, so they rushed him up to the majors after he hit .331 in A- ball, .462 in AA, and .328 in AAA to make his MLB debut at the age of 22 in July of 1982, just a year after he was drafted. Unlike Boggs, Gwynn was very fast and athletic. He was a good fielder in right field and he stole bases. It was clear from the beginning that Gwynn had the makings of a great Major League player.
The Minnesota Twins won the AL Pennant in 1965, and they finished second in 1966, so Rod Carew debuted on a good team in 1967. The team already had Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, 1965 AL MVP Zoilo Versalles, the great Tony Oliva, and the ever underrated Bob Allison in the lineup, not to mention a strong staff with 4 guys under the age of 30 who all had sub 3.30 ERA's that year.
One would've thought that the addition of Carew to this stacked team would put them over the top, but it didn't. 1967, as we Red Sox fans know, was the impossible dream, the Red Sox winning the pennant on the final day of the season by 1 game over the Twins and Tigers. But Carew didn't disappoint, as on his major league debut in April, he went 2-4. Carew started the all star game at second base for the American League, and finished the season batting a very respectable .292/.341/.409 for a 113 OPS+. He won rookie of the year, but the year wasn't all to great. He was good, but not great, putting up 2.8 bWAR, but he'd get better with time.
Despite making another all star team in 1968, Carew was very disappointing. His sophomore slump reduced him to 1.8 bWAR and a .273/.312/.347 slash line, but 1969 was Rod Carew's breakout season, and we'll get to that in a moment.
Tony Gwynn played 140 games over the course of 1982 and 1983, and he was about as good as Carew's rookie season. He had a .306/.348/.379 with 15 SB and 2.9 bWAR in that two season stretch.
Like Carew, Gwynn went 2-4 on his Major League debut, and also like Carew, Gwynn failed to hit .300 in his first big league campaign, 1982. In his second season, he was about the same level of production, just a bigger sample size. He batted .309 and walked more than he struck out, something he would do every season for the entire rest of his career.
Gwynn's first two campaigns were rather uneventful, but Wade Boggs made an immediate impact.
That was Wade Boggs' batting average as a rookie.
He also walked more than he struck out, something he'd do in all but one year of his big league career. Oh yeah, he also finished third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Cal Ripken and Kent Hrbek. He didn't qualify, as he only played in 110 games, but he would've handily won the American League's batting title as a rookie, something he did as a sophomore.
By the time Tony Gwynn became an everyday player in 1984, Wade Boggs had already slugged .930 and won an AL batting title with a .361 average. Boggs also racked up +23 TZ runs in his first two full seasons, and now, with the retirement of Carl Yastrzemski, was about to become the face of the Red Sox new generation. The 1983 Red Sox were full of good offensive talent, and young pitching talent, but they couldn't put it together as all of their talented young pitchers struggled and the Sox labored to 78-84. They were ready to improve in '84, especially with their rookie pitcher, Roger Clemens.
Coming off of a down year, the Padres of 1984 were ready to make noise, and their new everyday right fielder did just that, but 15 years earlier, Rod Carew had his breakout season.
Despite already appearing in 2 all star games, Rod Carew had not reached his full potential. In 1969, the Minnesota Twins were managed by Yankees legend Billy Martin, who must've said something to Carew because his numbers were awesome.
Billy and I also became good friends. He helped me tremendously on the field and off, giving me meaningful, fatherly advice when I really needed it.
His 96 wRC+ in 1968 was followed up by a 138 in 1969 while maintaining a slash line of .332/.386/.457. It was Carew's first batting title, and it would certainly not be his last.
Did Martin's fatherly advice turn Carew into a batting average god? We'll never know for sure, but we do know the most impressive statistic from Rod Carew's 1969. Rod Carew stole home SEVEN TIMES in 1969, falling one short of the record set by Ty Cobb in 1912. What makes this even more impressive is that Carew only stole 19 bases that year, he wasn't known for his baserunning prowess. The Twins were swept out of the playoffs by Baltimore, but it was a very succesful season for Carew.
Tony Gwynn's Padres did make the World Series in 1984, and yes, I can now say, "Tony Gwynn's Padres" because '84 was the year he announced himself to the baseball world. His wRC+ went sky high, from 104 to 144, and he also won his first batting title, slashing .351/.410/.444. Like Carew, Gwynn had some notable SB numbers, as he swiped 33 bags and had 10 triples. He kept putting up impressive numbers, batting .368 in the five game NLCS against the Cubs, before losing in the Fall Classic to a powerhouse Detroit team.
Gwynn put up 6.3 bWAR and 6.3 fWAR during his 1984 breakout campaign, made his first all-star team, won Silver Slugger, and finished 3rd in the MVP voting. He had made his mark, and would not stop hitting for nearly two decades.
Coming off of his 6.3 bWAR (same as Gwynn) in 1984, Wade Boggs was ready to set the entire American League on fire. On May 25th, he was hitting a rather pedestrian .281, and by June 12th, it was only up to .300. Then, everything started to go right.
Beginning with a 3-5 against the Jays on June 13th, Boggs started off a streak of 94 games in which he would hit safely in all but 7, and bat .417. If this June 13th to September 23rd stretch was a 162 game pace, he'd be on pace to break the single season hits record, put up 50 doubles, and have an OPS of 1.050.
Boggs LOVED Fenway in 1985, as he batted .418/.503/.566 in his home ballpark, and he also loved hitting with RISP, as he batted .392 in scoring situations.
He led the majors with 240 hits and batted .368 with 8.8 fWAR and 9.1 bWAR. He somehow only finished 4th in MVP voting. In fact, the 240 hits were the most since Chuck Klein, Babe Herman, and Bill Terry in 1930.
Having a blinder of a season in 1970, even hitting for the cycle, Carew got injured in June. His average at the time of the injury was a ridiculous .374. He missed most of the rest of the season, serving as a pinch hitter for a few games in September, but he didn't let his injury slow him down.
Well, his injury slowed him down, but he still batted over .300 and made all star appearances in 1971 and 1972, but the video game numbers would soon return.
After another batting title, and coming within one out of a World Championship in 1986, Wade Boggs was ready to make 1987 the year that he set the world on fire. And Tony Gwynn, he agreed.
Boggs started off slowly, batting just .270 through April 28th, but then, over the next 55 games, he batted .434 and slugged over 1.200. He finished the season with over 1.000 OPS for the first time, and most notably, he coupled his .363 average with 24 home runs, more than double his second most home runs in a season. He once again showed tremendous control of the strike zone, walking over 100 times and striking out fewer than 50 for the second consecutive season.
I still have no idea how this season could only be worth 8.3 bWAR.
Tony Gwynn saw Wade Boggs hit .363 and decided, "I can do better" and so he did. He batted an eye-watering .370, and he had another standout stat. While Boggs' '87 was famous for his 24 dongs, Tony Gwynn racked up 13 triples and 56 stolen bases in his 1987 campaign.
1987 NL MVP Vote
1987 AL MVP Vote
Tony Gwynn was robbed of the 1987 NL MVP Award, he somehow finished 8th. There is nobody who deserved it more than him if you look at bWAR and also traditional stats back him up too.
There are only 2 guys that I'd be okay with Boggs losing to in 1987, Alan Trammell and Roger Clemens, yet Boggs finished behind 8 guys.
The MVP Award is a joke, and neither Gwynn nor Boggs would ever win one.
Fast forwarding Carew's career to 1977, you can see that Rod Carew has won 5 AL Batting titles, has been an all star every year, and is coming off of a .331 average with 49 steals. He'd outdo every concievable metric in 1977.
Rod Carew was batting .364 on June 1st and over the course of the next month, he put up numbers that would make Ty Cobb look average.
In 28 games, these were Rod Carew's numbers in July 1977.
His July's 162 game pace would've broken the single season hits record in August. Can we also mention that he had 8 triples in one month.... His sOPS+ ( a stat I discussed a bit in the last article) was 256!!! As far as I can tell, only Todd Helton's May of 2000 where he batted .512 and slugged 1.000, has a higher single month batting average since integration.
That was his first of two months in 1977 in which Rod Carew batted well over .400, the other coming in September. For the season, Carew batted a ridiculous .388, and somehow, that won't even be the highest batting average for a season in this article. Carew, unlike Boggs and Gwynn, won the MVP with his 1.019 OPS and 9.7 bWAR. It was simply one of the greatest contact seasons in baseball history.
Ironically, Carew did this while being pissed off at Twins management, who'd kept him from hitting free agency for another three years. Carew's relationship with the Twins soured, and he was traded after winning his seventh batting title in 1978 to the California Angels. In exchange for Carew, the Twins acquired Dave Engle, Paul Hartzell, Brad Havens and Ken Landreaux, four guys who were all around replacement level players for their careers.
Wade Boggs won another batting title in 1988, and kept putting up awesome numbers from 1989 through 1992, but on October 25 1992, Wade Boggs was granted free agency for the first time.
Boggs decided to take a 3 year, 11 million dollar contract to sign for Boston's eternal rivals in the Bronx, a move that irritated the entirety of Red Sox nation. The Yankees hadn't won a World Series in 11 years, a drought by their standards, and they thought that the mustache corners, former MVP Don Mattingly at first, and Boggs at third, could help to deliver the Yankees back to the promised land.
During this time in Yankee history, they were building up a prospect pool that included future Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, and the Yankees weren't great in 1992, but with Boggs, they won 12 more games in 1993. That brings us to 1994, my favorite part of the article.
The most famous percentage in sports is .406, well in fact it's actually .40570175438. Ted Williams' batting average in 1941 is the high water mark for all hitters. Since then, nobody has batted .400 in a season, and only a few men ever really came close. There was Rod Carew in 1977, Stan Musial in 1948, George Brett in 1980, Rod Carew again in 1983, John Olerud in 1993, Larry Walker in 1997, and most famously, Tony Gwynn in 1994.
Let's start by looking at Gwynn's numbers since we last checked on him.
The base-stealing has calmed down, and so had the walking, but he's striking out less, and the average is starting to get back into scary territory. 1994 was not ready for Tony Gwynn though. The lowest that his average dipped past April was .376, which remember, was 6 points higher than his previous career high.
On August 11, 1994, Tony Gwynn went 3 for 5 in an exciting 8-6 win over the Astros to raise hit batting average to .394. That would be the last game of the season. He did not get injured, did not get suspended, in fact, the whole league got suspended. Tony Gwynn was robbed of a chance of hitting .400 because the players went on strike.
The strike is certainly something that I will eventually cover on this website, likely with an Out of the Park Baseball simulation of what would happen in the rest of the season, but that's for another time.
Technically, Gwynn won the batting title, and while he didn't deserve the MVP, you'd think that with that batting average, he'd at least finish top 5, which he didn't. He put up 4.0 fWAR and 4.2 bWAR, which was actually lower than Wade Boggs.
Boggs was also a guy who had a fantastic 1994. He also, didn't deserve to win any major hardware, but he deserved recognition. His .342/.433 with a 142 OPS+ is nothing to scoff at, but it put him 13th for MVP, which is probably a little low, but I won't complain too much about it.
All three of these men ended their careers well because they didn't lose their major skill, hitting. While a power hitter will lose some of their power as they get older, a contact hitter just needs to put bat on ball, and these are three men who did that as good as anybody to ever live.
They each finished with over 3000 hits, with Boggs ironically becoming the first man to hit number 3000 on a dinger. Boggs was also the only one out of the three to win a World Championship, which he achieved with the Yankees in 1996 before going home to the Devil Rays for his 1998 and 1999 seasons. Boggs retired, and he has since discussed his alcoholism publically. He was one of the biggest drinkers in baseball, and he still hit .300 every year. He retired with a career batting average of .328. I maintain that Wade Boggs could go out there in an independent league in 2020, at the age of 61, and bat .300.
Gwynn stayed his whole career with the Padres, becoming Mr. Padre. He retired with a .338 career batting and eventually becoming the baseball coach at San Diego State, where he coached 2009 number one overall pick Stephen Strasburg. He had a career long tobacco addiction, and at a point when he was coaching, weighed over 300 pounds. Gwynn passed away in 2014 at the age of 54. I maintain that to the day he died, he could bat .300.
Rod Carew was the first athlete to be given the highest civilian honor in Panama for his community work. He retired in 1985 with a .328 career batting average. His daughter was in need of a donor for an organ back in the 90's, but he was unable to find one for her. Since then, Carew has been raising money for bone marrow research. He suffered a heart attack in 2015, and when he needed a donor in December 2016, he was able to find a heart donor. Three days earlier, Baltimore Ravens tight end Konrad Reuland, who attended middle school with Carew's children died from a brain aneurysm, his heart was transplanted into Carew. Even with a replaced heart, there is somewhere where Rod Carew could still hit .300.
Ah the fun part where we get to look at similarity scores again. But if you don't know what Bill James Similarity Scores are, check out the last article, where I included the documentation for it.https://www.tecmohole.com/the-meteoric-and-ridiculously-similar-careers-of-three-american-league-mvp-winners/
Without further ado, the top ten most similar hitters to Tony Gwynn.
Many of these names come from before baseball was integrated, but 4 names obviously stick out, Ichiro at 8, Clemente at 6, and the Boggs at 4, and Carew at number 2.
Now, for Rod Carew's similarity scores
Once again, Boggs and Gwynn rank highly, with Boggs even being the most similar player to Carew. And also, many of these names come from before baseball was integrated.
And now, Wade Boggs' similarity scores.
Number 1 and number 2. Wow. And also, aside from Tim Raines, Roberto Alomar, Ichiro, and the two we've been discussing, all of these guys are from long before Wade Boggs. What does this say about these guys?
It shows how baseball has evolved, but some guys just played the game like it was 1908. Nobody that I'm mentioning has a slugging percentage as low as the average in 1908, because that's insane, but what made Boggs, Carew, and Gwynn great was the uniqueness of their skill sets for their time as high contact, low power, great vision guys. They didn't strike out very much, they walked a lot, they had high averages, and low HR totals. There is nobody in baseball today like these guys. The closest I'd say are Hanser Alberto and Jeff McNeill, but even then, McNeill hit 23 home runs last year and struck out way more than he walked, and Alberto also struck out way more than he walked.
The point is that great ball players come in all styles in all different eras. There is no such thing as a prototypical baseball player.
For a breakdown of some left handed swings, watch this stream