Tony Gwynn’s 1994 season stands as one of the great “what ifs” in sports history. He was batting .394 on August 11 when Major League Baseball players went on strike and finished the season the closest to a .400 average of anyone since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
Gwynn’s pursuit of .400 was the lone highlight for the Padres in a season where they finished in last place in the NL West. The only other person to even come close to that mark since Williams was George Brett, who batted .390 in 1980. While Brett’s pursuit fell short, a number of factors in Gwynn’s career stats, seasonal trends, and strength of schedule make it reasonable to believe that he would have gotten to .400 had the 1994 season not ended abruptly.
Over the course of 110 games, Gwynn recorded 165 hits in 419 at-bats (in 475 plate appearances), giving him an average of 3.8 at-bats per game that year. Assuming he kept this pace and played in all 45 of the Padres’ remaining games, he’d have 171 at-bats remaining that season—giving him a total of 590 at-bats.
He would need 236 hits in 590 at-bats to get a .400 average. He had 165 at the time of the strike, so he would have to go 71-for-171 in his final 45 games to get to .400. This would mean hitting at a .415 clip over the remaining month-and-a-half of play.
The last time Gwynn’s average crossed the .400 threshold was on May 15, as he batted .383 before the All-Star break. But a .423 average in the second half lifted him to .394, the highest it had been since mid-May. Gwynn also hit during the month of August, compiling a .348 career average. He was a lifetime .333 hitter in September and October, so he wasn’t one to wither away as the season ended.
San Diego also had a very favorable schedule remaining. Of their 45 games, 24 were to be played at home. Gwynn had a lifetime .343 average at home, and was batting .403 there in 1994. He fared only slightly worse on the road, batting .337 lifetime and .387 in 1994. Playing the majority of the remaining games at home presumably would have helped raise Gwynn’s average.
Likewise, a whopping 33 of San Diego’s remaining games were against teams that were below .500 at the time of the strike thanks to subpar pitching. The Padres had 27 games against teams in the bottom-half of NL team ERA—and 24 of them were against teams in the bottom five.
Despite these favorable matchups, Gwynn would have faced what looked to be a sizable roadblock to .400: Six games against Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz’s Braves. If anyone could stop Gwynn it would be Atlanta’s big three, the best pitching staff of the 90’s, right?
Only Gwynn put up some of the best head-to-head stats of his career against them. Through the 1994 season, he batted .304 against Glavine, .465 against Smoltz and .444 against Greg Maddux. This would have hardly been a deterrent in Gwynn’s quest for .400.
Gwynn always felt that he could have hit .400 in 1994 had the season not ended early. And given his repertoire and these conditions, it’s really hard to doubt that he would.