The passing of Tony Gwynn this week made me think of who were the best pure hitters of my lifetime. I was born in 1971 and my first memories of watching baseball date back to, I'd say, 1978. Yup, Bucky Dent. It was probably the first time I swore.
With that in mind, I came up with a list of the best hitters of the last 35 years. There were three players who I had a tough time leaving off the list-- Miguel Cabrera, Barry Bonds, and Ichiro Suzuki. Miggy strikes out a little too much for me to put on this list. Ichiro was a great slap hitter, but who would you take off my list to put him on?
Bonds? Well, you know why I left him off my list. Same reason he is not in the Hall of Fame today. I must admit to staring at his stats in awe for a good twenty minutes.
5. Albert Pujols
We're talking St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols here. Pujols is the only right-handed hitter to make my list. He edges out Miguel Cabrera solely based on the fact that he strikes out less. I figure if you're a good pure hitter, you should be able to hit the ball. Makes sense, right? From 2001-2010, Pujols batted .331 while hitting 408 home runs. He had a ridiculous 1.050 OPS for the decade. He did it all while averaging only 64 strikeouts per year.
4. Rod Carew
I only remember the tail end of his career. I can only imagine how great a hitter he was in his prime. He finished with a career .328 average. In 1977, Carew hit .388. Even at the age of 37, Carew hit .339. He was the master of the batting stances. It seemed like he always had a different one. He was one of the best slap hitters I had ever seen until Ichiro came along.
3. Don Mattingly
I have a confession to make. Don Mattingly was my favorite player growing up. I used to try and copy his pigeon-foot batting stance. For six years, he was the most feared hitter in baseball. From 1984-1989, Mattingly hit .327. The most he ever struck out in any season during that span was 41 times. In 1987, Mattingly homered in eight consecutive games. I remember that streak like it was yesterday. Unfortunately, a bad back derailed a certain Hall of Fame career.
2. Tony Gwynn
It makes me sad to have to now refer to him as the "late Tony Gwynn." If I saw him play every day, he would most certainly be number one on this list. But he played in the National League out on the West Coast. I just never got to see him play for over a decade. MLB cable packages didn't exist back then. It's hard to argue with the numbers, though. He was a career .338 hitter. He hit .394 in the strike-shortened season of 1994. He never struck out more than 40 times in a season. He hit over .300 for 19 straight seasons.
1. Wade Boggs
This is where my bias comes in. It's not because I liked Wade Boggs. Quite frankly, I despise him as a person. I think he is an egotistical jerk. But this egotistical jerk could hit. And I got to see it every day for over a decade. He hit .328 for his career, ten points less than Gwynn. But during Boggs' ten-year career with the Red Sox, he matched Gwynn's career .338 mark. No left-handed hitter used The Wall at Fenway better than Boggs. He was never known for hitting for power, but he always left you with the feeling he could hit 20 home runs per season if he wanted to, as evidenced by him hitting 24 home runs in 1987. He only hit double-digit home runs one other year (11 in 1994). In 1999, he became the first player in major league baseball history to hit a home run for his 3,000th career hit.
To this day, I still can't believe he struck out on a low and away slider for the final out of Yankees' Dave Righetti's 1983 Fourth of July no-hitter.