Approaching the Joey Gallo Threshold

By the middle of their game on Tuesday, the Rangers were getting blown out. It hasn’t been a great start, overall, for the ballclub. But as Joey Gallo stepped up to the plate, the broadcast kicked it over to reporter Emily Jones, who talked about how Gallo had been a more than capable fill-in for the injured Adrian Beltre. The broadcast put up a nearly screen-wide graphic of some of Gallo’s impressive early statistics, and then they cut away just in time to see Gallo charge up another hack.

It was a home run that Gallo made to look easy. That’s his thing — that’s what he does. Or, that’s what he sometimes does. As Gallo stepped in, the Rangers broadcasters talked about his six home runs. He immediately knocked his seventh, tying him for the American League lead. Gallo, as I write this, owns a 158 wRC+, just the same as Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton.

So much about the Rangers’ organizational future could hang on Gallo and Jurickson Profar. Profar just lost his job in left field, but it’s too early to declare him a complete and utter bust. By the same token, it’s too early to declare Gallo a breakthrough success, but he’s at least showing the necessary signs. As a matter of fact, you could simplify that: He’s showing the one necessary sign. For Gallo, it’s always been a matter of just making enough contact. There’s a threshold somewhere in there, and it looks like Gallo’s approaching it.

Do I need to sell you on Gallo’s power? I don’t think I need to sell you on Gallo’s power. According to scouts, he’s drawn the highest power grade possible. His minor-league power numbers are fantastic. You can see just from the clip above how Gallo’s power is almost effortless, in a Chris Davis kind of way. And since we all love Statcast, I pulled data from Baseball Savant since 2015. There are 638 players who have had at least 50 batted balls tracked. Gallo ranks seventh in average exit velocity. He’s one of just 13 players to have hit at least three batted balls at 115+ miles per hour. Gallo’s crazy strong. He was kind of Aaron Judge before Aaron Judge, except that today is Judge’s 25th birthday, and Gallo is 23 and a half. Gallo simply got himself to the majors ahead of schedule.

Gallo has to maximize production on the balls he hits back fair. He’s well-equipped to do that, on account of being stronger than almost anyone else. He just needs to not strike out half of the time. This is where we get to the beautiful simplicity of where 2017 Gallo stands. In his limited big-league action before this year, Gallo had 76 strikeouts in 153 plate appearances, for a rate of 50%. His current rate is 35%. Looking at things differently, Gallo previously had a contact rate of 52%. His current rate is 67%. Nothing about Gallo’s current contact metrics suggest that he’s close to Jose Altuve or anything, but Gallo’s 2017 numbers are at least within a more familiar range. They’re not laughably bad. And that’s really all Gallo needs. With even one of the lower rates of batted balls, Gallo can punish enough pitches to stay in the lineup.

In Gallo’s limited past, he has kind of teased like this. But, not for very long.

How to explain the early drop in strikeouts? It’s worth noting that Gallo hasn’t gotten so much better in terms of avoiding two-strike counts. This isn’t just being more aggressive early. But, before this year, when Gallo got to two strikes, he struck out 78% of the time. His only company there was pitchers; the closest position player was Collin Cowgill, at 65%. This year, so far, Gallo has struck out 57% of the time he’s gotten to two strikes, and that rate’s still high, but it’s not the highest. Chris Davis is at 59%. Trevor Story’s at 58%. Marcell Ozuna, 55%. Gallo’s doing a better job of holding his own, stringing together at-bats that feel less like foregone conclusions.

To my own eye, it doesn’t feel like there’s an important mechanical explanation. Although Gallo has adjusted his stance, the swing itself is still that Joey Gallo swing. Gallo’s preferred explanation is that he’s just better now about accepting strikeouts as they happen. He doesn’t let one at-bat bleed over into the next. I’m not going to discount the psychology of these things. I’ll file it under “general experience,” with Gallo just learning more about himself and about big-league competition. He remains young enough to be a prospect. He is a prospect, playing in the majors.

There’s nothing about Gallo’s current numbers that we can comfortably assume is set in stone. He’s going to have contact-heavy streaks, and whiff-heavy slumps. If Gallo slumps between now and when Beltre returns, he could find himself going back to Triple-A. But let’s entertain the idea that Gallo has gotten better. How much better does he need to have gotten? I looked at all the individual player-seasons between 2007 and 2016, setting a minimum of 300 plate appearances. There are some triple-digit wRC+ marks tied to strikeout rates of 36%. Miguel Sano, in 2015, had a strikeout rate of 36%, and a 150 wRC+. Mark Reynolds, in 2009, had a 34% strikeout rate, and a 127 wRC+.

For a different look, I focused on combined seasons between 2007 and 2016, keeping the same plate-appearance minimum, for the hell of it. Sano is up there, with 36% strikeouts and a 124 wRC+. Sorting by whiffs, the next good hitter is Chris Carter, with 33% strikeouts and a 112 wRC+. Chris Davis is at 31% and 120. I’ve passed over guys who’ve been league-average hitters, like Domingo Santana and Juan Francisco. Gallo probably wouldn’t be good enough with a wRC+ around 100. You’re hoping for at least Carter-level production, and probably more like Sano. Good news! Sano’s the same kind of player. Same power. Same power reputation.

Miguel Sano himself isn’t yet 24. He’s still short of 1,000 big-league plate appearances. Including what he’s done this April, he’s at 35% career strikeouts, with a 129 career wRC+, and a career contact rate of 64%. Given the many parallels, I think this is roughly the Gallo threshold. It seems like Gallo should be pretty good provided he can get close to contact with two-thirds of his swings. Provided he can get close to striking out one-third of the time. Gallo doesn’t have to get *all* the way to the two-thirds/one-third cutoffs, because he packs so much power into every swing. But they feel like appropriate lines to draw. Joey Gallo’s making a push to be an everyday player. He’s so far looking the best he’s ever looked.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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The Joey Gallo Threshold seems a lot more interesting than like The Ben Revere Threshold.