Jimmy Rollins was already a two-time All-Star by 2004, but he was far from the consistent hitter he would eventually become. His career was four years old, and his batting line of .262/.317/.395 was worth a mere 89 OPS+ in the seasons of plenty that were the steroid era. At just 5-foot-8 becoming the slugger that characterized even the shortstops of the steroid era -- think Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra -- wasn't realistic for Rollins. So he enlisted some help from Tony Gwynn.
In 2003, when Rollins first worked with Gwynn, the Padres' hit king was two years removed from retirement. He finished his career with a .338/.388/.459 in 20 seasons, all in San Diego. He reached 15 All-Star games, won four Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers. He won eight batting titles behind an absurd 4.2 career strikeout rate. Only Felix Millan (Braves and Mets second baseman, 1966-1977) and Bobby Richardson (Yankees second baseman, 1955-1966) have a lower strikeout rate since expansion in 1961 among players with at least 3,000 plate appearances. Millan and Richardson combined for 10,542; Gwynn alone took 10,232.
Gwynn spent his entire career perfecting the skills Rollins needed to take a step forward. Gwynn didn't just make contact, he made his contact count despite lacking the power that characterized the best hitters, particularly in the 1990s. Of the top 10 hitters in strikeout rate since 1961, Gwynn is the only one who owns an OPS over .800, one of two with a slugging percentage over .400 (Bill Buckner), and the only one with a wRC+ of 100 or better. Gwynn hit .338/.388/.459 with a 132 wRC+.
As counter-intuitive as it might seem, hitting like Gwynn did without striking out is a near impossibility. Consider Marco Scutaro, who from 2011-2013 became one of the best contact hitters in the league. His 7.1 percent strikeout rate trailed only Juan Pierre's 6.4 percent mark over those three seasons among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances. FanGraphs' Eno Sarris talked about Scutaro's league-leading contact ways last season. "I'm probably leading the league in bad contact, too," Scutaro told Sarris.
"There are times that I would rather swing and miss," Scutaro explained, "I make contact and it's a fair ball and it's a weak ground ball, and I'd rather have another chance, as long as there's not two strikes." This was the story of Millan, a .279/.322/.343 career hitter, and Richardson (.266/.298/.340), and all those other mediocre or worse hitters who join Gwynn atop the list of those best at avoiding strikeouts. Gwynn, as Tim Marchman detailed at Deadspin, hit with a level of artful precision they could never hope to match.
Rollins struck out 331 times in 2,169 plate appearances in his first four seasons. At 15.2 percent, his strikeout rate was below average, but Rollins needed to be a contact machine to thrive in the power-saturated major leagues of the early 2000s. "I've figured out what kind of player I want to be," the shortstop told the Reading Eagle at spring training in 2004.
"I'm just trying to win," Rollins added. "So, if it means cutting down on my strikeouts or laying the ball down that's what I'm going to do. In the past I didn't care if I struck out. Now it makes sense to me." Rollins said it took a year for him to take Gwynn's advice to heart. "That first year (2003) was like him teaching a baby," Rollins said. "But the more you come back, the more you learn. It made more sense to me. This time, I've got it.
In 2004, Rollins lowered his strikeout rate to a career low 10.1 percent and set career highs (barring his 14-game cup of coffee in 2000) in all three triple-slash statistics with a .289/.348/.455 line. From 2004 through 2011, Rollins's strikeout rate never topped 11 percent and dipped as low as 8.1 percent. He produced a .276/.334./.447 (101 OPS+) line over those eight seasons, according to Baseball-Reference. Combined with his speed and defense, Rollins's improved bat made him one of the league's premier shortstops. He won the 2007 MVP, ranked second among shortstops with 33.4 fWAR (Derek Jeter, 34.4), and ranked first among shortstops with 31.9 bWAR over those eight seasons.
On Monday, Gwynn died at the age of 54 after years of battling throat cancer. Two days earlier, Rollins recorded his 2,235th major league hit to become the all-time hits leader in Phillies franchise history. It's a phenomenal accomplishment to cap what has been a tremendous career in Philadelphia for Rollins. It also shows how Gwynn's fingerprints remain on the game, 13 years after his retirement and eight years after his induction into the Hall of Fame.