What discipline means, and why Tony Gwynn was a bad example of it.

July 26th, 2009


I loved to watch Tony Gwynn hit, and it was clear early on that we were watching a hitter who was historically good at hitting for a high average.

But for all his ebullience, intelligence, and skill, he was a deeply flawed player, and by the end of his career he was so hefty that his frequent absences from the Padres lineup came as no surprise.

I’m thinking about all of this because of a bookmark I just ran across — one I’ve had lying around for a long time — for a 2004 Baseball Prospectus roundtable about Ichiro Suzuki‘s (successful) pursuit of the single-season hits record.

The discussion includes a key quote from Gary Huckabay, whom I have the pleasure of knowing slightly:

Discipline isn’t manifested through compulsive and repetitive execution of those tasks which you enjoy, like cage time and video study. It’s manifested through the diligent repetition of those tasks you don’t like–in the case of Mr. Gwynn, cardio workouts, weightlifting and proper nutrition–so that you’re in a position to perform the entirety of your required task set at the highest possible level. The final years of Gwynn’s career were a pathetic waste, plagued by excessive fragility and impaired defense, primarily because of miserable conditioning.

It’s a thought worth transferring to other fields. We all know people who obsess over the things that appeal to them, but don’t tackle the set of challenges required to achieve their best. Gwynn ended his career with more than 3,100 hits, but given his Olympian skill at hitting and how long he played, even such a big number seems hollow.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess how I’m applying this lesson to myself.


(Photo by Brian Wallace, used under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license.)

13 Responses to “What discipline means, and why Tony Gwynn was a bad example of it.”

  1. Kyle Flaherty Says:

    It also speaks to why the antithesis to discipline isn’t always neglect, but in fact cheating (i.e. hydro, steroids and now HGH). This is when the lack of discipline leads to short cuts to achieve a goal, which of course also happens in the workplace. The question will always be whether it is easier to dismiss discipline, supplement with a shortcut, or do the work needed to achiever. This is a personal question and one that often needs to be answered each day.

  2. Derek Says:

    Agree with Kyle. In certain types of jobs, you are required to be a master of many different types of skills. Excelling in one only and coming up short in other areas may allow you to “get the job done”, but that is not the key to success over the long run. I have struggled with this from time to time in my own career.

    And to touch on the baseball side of it, I see some of these same shortcomings with Manny Ramirez as well (even leaving his use of PED’s out of the discussion). Gwynn seems to have had his shortcomings largely ignored in retrospect, however. Great hitter, nice (jolly?) guy is how he’ll be remembered.

  3. Tim Walker Says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Gwynn gets much better cred than Manny because he’s (a) smart, (b) warm and funny, and (c) clearly a “baseball man” rather than some hitting savant or whatever people want to call Manny. (I mean, can you *imagine* Manny being a college coach, much less a college *head* coach?) Also, to be fair: the young Gwynn was a good defender and a good baserunner, and he was more versatile as a player than, say, Ted Williams was.

    There will always be one-dimensional players like Manny or Ted or Ozzie Smith — players we happily put up with because they’re *so* good at what they do well. But in Gwynn’s case, his lack of effort in conditioning kept him from being good at what he did well.

  4. Steven M. Smith Says:

    Tim, My goodness. Please tell me you aren’t saying Tony Gwynn lacked discipline and was deeply flawed.

    Are you talking about —

    The same man who played had a 20 year career in MLB?

    The same man who struck out only 434 times in 9,288 career at-bats, and never batted below .309 in any full season?

    The same man who is an eight-time National League batting champion?

    The same man who has 3,141 hits and a lifetime batting average of .338, which is the highest among players whose careers began after World War II, and fourth-highest among players whose career was entirely within the live-ball era (only Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, and Bill Terry have higher averages in that time)?

    The same man who is ranked Number 49 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players?

    The same man who is in the Baseball Hall of Fame?

    I’m deeply saddened to read nothing about the discipline he summoned to produce these results. You can’t be a great hitter without plate discipline.

    I gather you find his purported poor eating and conditioning to be a failure of discipline.

    Must discipline be continually focused on what someone doesn’t do?

    This reminds me of my grade and middle school teachers who told me that I was doing great things but I could do better if I worked harder. That feedback is a nice way to put someone in a double bind.

    I’m flabbergasted about what I consider the negative focus in this post. There is so many other things to admire about this man’s work.

    He was deeply flawed? My goodness the man was a baseball genius who delivered.

    If discipline is about searching for every imperfection in myself and others, count me in the group who is against it. I’m all for improving myself every day, but I can’t buy into the idea that I’ll ever be without flaws.

    Tony Gwynn was a phenomenal baseball player by any measure. Let’s celebrate his results. Let’s learn from him by studying the thousands of things he did right rather than from a study of things that someone who never played baseball purports were his flaws.

  5. Tim Walker Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Steven. While I disagree with several things you said in it, let me hasten to agree with you that Gwynn was a phenomenal baseball hitter. (Note the distinction I’m making — and that I made in the post — between “hitter” and “player.”)

    In fact, I’d go a step beyond what you said here — and I was familiar with all these numbers already — and say that Gwynn might be the best hitter for average *ever*. Relative to the era in which he played, his ability to hit for average could be rated even higher than Hornsby’s or Cobb’s. So we don’t disagree about his hitting accomplishments, and in fact I didn’t talk about them in this post because I took all of that as a given.

    But, yes, I *am* saying that Gwynn lacked discipline and was deeply flawed as a player. Given his ability to hit for average, he might easily have collected 3,500 hits — or 4,000, or 4,500 — if he had kept himself in even passable shape. As someone interested in high performance, I do think it’s worth pointing out that, for all his fine achievements, he didn’t “squeeze the lemon” of his ability as hard as he might have.

    It doesn’t mean that I lack respect for what he achieved on the field or in his community. I’d love to have dinner with him. I’d love for my son to play for him. The Padres and the city of San Diego are right to be proud of him.

    But the fact still remains that he didn’t keep himself in shape. That’s not “purported,” by the way: the decline in his conditioning was well-documented while it was still in progress. And, while it’s your own business how you react to what I write, for my part I don’t think this observation is worth being “saddened” or “flabbergasted” about. It’s just something that *also* happens to be true about a great baseball man — just like it’s true that he matched Honus Wagner’s record for National League batting titles. It’s part of the whole picture, and it may be a helpful corrective for those who have made an idol of Gwynn’s hitting since the publication of George Will’s “Men at Work” 20 years ago.

    Something that may put my post into better context: Gwynn was playing inside the “closed” system of baseball, which is very much unlike the “open” systems most of us face in our lives and careers. Closed systems require that we eliminate or shore up flaws in ways that open systems don’t. I spelled out my views on strengths and weaknesses in the context of closed and open systems in a long post I wrote earlier this year. I would welcome your thoughts on that post.

    One more thing: I cannot give credence to your statement about “someone who never played baseball.” Huckabay has worked with major-league front offices and is fully qualified to make the judgment I quoted here, regardless of how much baseball he ever played personally.

  6. Aaron Strout Says:

    Tim – I like your post a lot. The key message I take away from it is, “is good” good enough?

    Let’s slide your argument over to football. Would Jerry Rice be considered the *best* receiver of all time if he wasn’t a fitness fanatic? Or how about the NBA? Would Michael Jordan, Kobi Bryant or LeBron James be mentioned in the *best ever* breath if they hadn’t taken their work out regimens to the highest level? Clearly, the answer is no.

    So back to Tony Gwynn, he was easily one of the 100 best players of all time (49 on Sporting News list as Mr. Smith points out) but could he have been top 10 if he had worked just a little harder to stay in shape later on in life? Could he have been top 5? Likely.

    Rather than look at your post negatively, I look at it as inspiration for us all to drive harder. Personally, there are a dozen things I have on my personal *to do* list that would improve my performance as a CMO, as a blogger, as a dad and as a husband. Does that make me a bad person? Not in my mind. It just keeps me hungry for taking things to the next level.

    Thanks for making me think.

  7. Steven M. Smith Says:

    We are in agreement that

    – Gwynn was a phenomenal player
    – Gwynn had a remarkable career by any measure
    – Gwynn has an impressive personality
    – Gwynn is operating in a closed system
    – I could be wrong about Huckabay’s qualifications to assess

    We may disagree on whether

    – Gwynn was purely a “natural” hitter
    – Anyone can know with certainty Gwynn’s potential
    – “Deeply flawed” is an appropriate description for Gwynn
    – Discipline leads to happiness

    He had natural talent. No doubt. How much talent? How much longevity? How much of his potential did he actualize? It’s unknowable. Neither you nor I nor Huckabay knows the answer to any of those questions.

    I think that’s the underlying reason for using words like “saddened” and “flabbergasted.” I can’t say for sure because it was a more emotional rather than reasoned response.

    Describing Tony Gwynn as a deeply flawed baseball player seems wrong to me. No one knows what he overcame to be able to post those fabulous results. I feel that work deserves credit.

    I concede that he might have been able to squeeze out a few more hits over a few more year if he would have less french fries (or whatever his food of choice was). But would he have been happier? Who are we to judge: It’s unknowable except by him.

    I would hope the ultimate result for having discipline is happiness. If it’s not, what good is it?

  8. Tim Walker Says:

    Interesting points, Steven.

    Let me emphasize something right away: I reject — almost without qualification — the idea that Gwynn was a “natural” hitter, or that anybody achieves levels of success that high as a “natural.” He worked like a dog, for decades, to be a great hitter. (By the way, if you haven’t read my many posts on “deliberate practice” on my business blog, I’d point to those for more in this vein.) I wish he had worked one-fifth as hard on his overall fitness.

    As for his internal happiness, you’re right — who knows?

    As for his potential to do more . . . well, I don’t agree that it’s completely unknowable. He was still able to hit effectively — when he was able to play — to age 40 and beyond. But he wasn’t able to play very much because he had been carrying an extra, oh, few dozen pounds on him for a while, and his knees wouldn’t let him play the outfield. (Too bad for him the Padres are in the N.L., or he might have DH’d until he was 45.)

    To tie this point together:
    ~We know he was still successful with the bat at age 40.
    ~We know he missed a lot of playing time to wear-and-tear injuries over the last several years of his career.
    ~We know that the kinds of injuries he sustained are never, ever helped by being overweight, and in fact are often caused or exacerbated by being overweight.
    ~We know that he became substantially overweight, and that it affected his mobility in the outfield.

    To my knowledge, none of those observations is even controversial among seasoned baseball observers. Roll them all together, and it’s not remotely hard to imagine Gwynn collecting at least several hundred more at-bats during the span of the career he had — a number that would grow again if he’d been able to play an extra season or two.

    Give Gwynn an extra thousand at-bats, and you could count on him collecting 300 – 350 more hits — which, not just incidentally, would make his position on the career hits list look much more like it should (or “should”) based on that sweet swing and all those batting titles.

    Bill Simmons talked about something similar recently in one of his columns when he compared Karl Malone, an icon of discipline, with Charles Barkley, a similarly talented (if not more talented) player than Malone who didn’t take such good care of himself and who ended his career having achieved less than he might have. Both men are among the top-few power forwards ever, but if we’re looking for what distinguishes the greats from the super-greats . . . well, discipline will out.

    Which brings me to your last point. Maybe the ultimate result for having discipline is happiness. But for many great athletes, that happiness is reached, at least within the confines of their sport, by achievement.

    In my view, it’s reasonable to conclude that, great as he was, Gwynn achieved less than he might have. He’s Barkley, not Malone.

  9. Steven M. Smith Says:

    Tim, After reading you say that Gwynn “He worked like a dog, for decades, to be a great hitter,” I am now neither saddened nor flabbergasted. Thank you.

    Being a basketball fan, I enjoyed reading your comparison between Malone and Barkley. It makes a compelling story.

    We agree that Gwynn and Barkley’s achievements, at least in the confines of their sport, are remarkable. And that to me is the fairest way to assess their sport careers: Judge them on their actual results rather than how much of their potential results were realized, which is unknowable.

    If Gwynn and Barkley were happier eating and relaxing, what’s the value of saying they could have done better? Isn’t it about what they wanted rather than what someone else wanted for them? Their potential has nothing to do with me.

    What this means for me is that I can choose whether to be disciplined. Sometimes I accept the suffering that comes with it in return for more happiness later. For instance, more discipline (of my type) has helped me become a better writer, which has made me happier. Sometimes being disciplined chokes the joy out of things for me. For instance, I have chosen to apply minimal discipline to my photography because it’s more fun for me without it. I don’t feel constrained by that choice because I can choose again if I feel differently.

    Tony Gwynn may have had similar feelings as his career progressed. Other things may have become more important to him than baseball. What’s wrong with that? I think you would agree, he does have the right to conduct his life, including his sports career, in whatever manner makes him happiest.

    I realize now that the discipline I most value is around making conscious choices.

    I’m happy for Tony Gwynn. He is a good guy. He had a remarkable career. If he made a conscious choice to trade-off baseball production for more happiness, I’m even happier for him. How about you?

  10. Tim Walker Says:

    Thanks for taking the time as we’ve worked through this, Steven.

    I think you and I may continue to disagree about what is “unknowable.” If we’re talking about what’s truly knowable down to the last detail, then I agree with you — it’s unknowable what Gwynn or Barkley might have achieved. But if we’re talking about what’s *ostensible* or *likely* — no, I don’t agree that it’s completely unknowable. There are reasonable inferences to be drawn, ones that don’t require any great stabs into the ether.

    Also, if we’re talking about their actual results, the verdict on both Gwynn and Barkley is clear: Hall of Famers, easily. But that’s a different issue from the one that I (or Gary Huckabay) raised in the initial post. The point isn’t to say “Tony Gwynn doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame” — which I would find absurd — but to say “Tony Gwynn wasn’t all he could have been, and his discipline was too narrowly focused to make him one of the greatest of the greats.” That latter statement, to my mind, is completely reasonable, and in fact is a pretty straightforward assessment based on the facts we have.

    This brings me to your bigger point about Gwynn having the right to conduct his life as he pleases. Of course he does, and I hope I never implied otherwise. I hope he leads a happy life, because he seems like a prince of a guy and he’s brought a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people, myself very much included.

    But, *as a separate question*, it’s perfectly appropriate for me — as a baseball fan, as a student of high performance — to point out that he didn’t achieve all that he might have on the baseball field. I’m not saying it makes him a bad person, or that he should have made himself miserable to pursue my ideal of baseball greatness. But I am saying it kept him from attaining the heights of, say, Stan Musial. I don’t know if that’s the “fairest” way to judge his sports career, but I do believe that it is *one* fair way to judge it.

  11. Steven M. Smith Says:

    Tim, I’ve enjoyed the discussion and learned from it. Thank you.

    I believe you are doing your utmost to be fair. I don’t question that for a second.

    What I’ve learned is that discipline can be a means to an end. But I have always accepted it as just a given, discipline = goodness = righteousness. That notion wasn’t implanted in my DNA — it was taught to me through the culture I grew up in.

    I now realize that my trouble with the idea for discipline, which I interpreted from this post, comes from my years in Catholic school. The nuns were merciless when I went to school. Despite their acknowledgment of my outstanding work, it was never good enough. They always demanded more. And they would use the line, “You’re not working to your potential.” Four decades later, I can forgive them for their pathetic attempts at motivating me, but I haven’t forgotten them.

    So my buttons were pushed by your post. I heard the words applied to Gwynn and I reacted. I own that reaction and it is about me rather than about you.

    I interpret from everything I’ve read from you that you believe in the importance of discipline. If you would allow me to advice, please consider whether you are clear where the discipline is supposed to take you and adjust its application accordingly. I’ve worked with many highly-disciplined people who are clearly miserable. Nothing is free — achieving full potential in one area will require trading off the realization of potentials in other areas. I wish for you happiness rather than just the realization of the full potential of your talents.

  12. Tim Walker Says:

    You’re a mensch, Steven. Thanks for the wise words.

  13. Aaron Strout Says:

    Wow. Group hugs? ;)

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