Fun With Small Samples: Joey Gallo, BABIP God?

Joey Gallo is a walking archetype. You know the rough outlines: strikeouts like you wouldn’t believe, gobsmacking power, and the walks that accompany those two. When he’s good, he’s blasting his way to success; the park almost doesn’t matter when he gets into one, so titanic is his power.

If you knew only that about Gallo — and to be clear, it’s the most important thing — what would you think about his BABIP? It could be sky-high; he whiffs quite a lot, but that doesn’t matter for BABIP, and when he makes contact, it’s the loudest contact there is. He’s barreled up a fifth of his batted balls, and hit 50% of them 95 mph or harder. That makes it easier to find a hole — or make one.

It could be low, though! Many of those hard hit balls leave the park. What might be doubles in the gap or smoked line drive singles for another player might be home runs for Gallo, and singles and doubles are the bedrock of BABIP. Grounders and pop ups are no good; the real juice is in line drives and low fly balls, and he might simply hit his too hard to keep them in the field of play.

The answer is depressingly pedestrian. Gallo’s career BABIP stood at .270 entering this year, below average but not atrocious. That’s 40th-worst in baseball over that time period, in the same general area as many homer-happy sluggers. Mike Moustakas, Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, Chris Davis — basically, hitters who get a disproportionate amount of their value by putting the ball in the air and over the fence.

In fact, Gallo’s BABIP has been thoroughly unremarkable. Break it down by batted ball type, and he looks like just another hitter:

Joey Gallo’s BABIP by type
BB Type BABIP Lg Avg
Grounder .230 .247
Line Drive .670 .623
Fly Ball .063 .085

So much for the line drive theory; that’s actually the one place he beats league average. He comes up short in grounders — he pulls a lot of them, which makes the shift effective — and fly balls, where his penchant for hitting so many over the wall might depress the batting average on the remaining ones. Really, though: this is boring stuff, right down the middle. Whatever weirdness exists in Gallo’s game, it doesn’t appear to affect his BABIP much in aggregate.

Enter 2021. Gallo has been up to his usual tricks so far; in 23 plate appearances, he already has five strikeouts and six walks. He’s also cranked a homer and been hit by a pitch, which means that more than half of his outcomes have been true. That’s classic Gallo, and to be quite honest, he doesn’t have to do much else to be a valuable hitter. If he ran a literal zero BABIP, that mix would give him roughly a 95 wRC+ (weights are volatile this early in the season).

As you might have guessed based on the title and general existence of this article, however, that hasn’t happened. Instead, Gallo has four singles to show for his troubles, which works out to a cool .400 BABIP.

Wait a minute! Wait just a minute! Looking at BABIP after five games?!? What kind of half-baked tomfoolery is this? Let’s get one thing clear — I’m not trying to say anything about Gallo’s new groove, or how he’s transformed his game with one simple trick, or whatever other nonsense you could theoretically spin. Gallo is what he is, and a few games of batted ball data won’t change that.

Here’s my point, though: imagining Joey Gallo as someone who excels on the ground is fun! Well, fun as long as you aren’t Brady Singer:

As scary as that looks on video, it must have been downright terrifying in person. That ball was scalded — 110.3 mph off the bat — and while the early evidence suggests that this year’s baseball creates higher exit velocities but also higher drag, there isn’t much time to decelerate between home and the mound. Only Singer’s reflexes and plain old good luck kept that from being a dangerous play.

Or, how about this one, from earlier that game? Same Singer, same Gallo, same result:

It isn’t quite so easy to tell, because the ball hit the ground right away, but that ball was actually hit harder — at 111.4 mph, to be precise. Shifting is all well and good, and grounders are a hard way to get on base, but hit anything that hard and good things will happen. Since 2015, grounders hit 110 mph or harder have produced a .525 batting average. The shift is great, but sometimes you can hit through it — and nearly through Singer, quite frankly.

You’ve seen half of Gallo’s singles — all against the Royals, naturally, given that they’ve played only five games so far — and for the sake of completion, we’ll look at the rest. They aren’t as exciting, but they still show off Gallo’s ability to spray lasers, like this one that eluded defensive ace Carlos Santana:

That was only 90.3 mph, but given that it was hit on a line, it still got to Santana in a hurry. His other single was nothing to write home about, though it does show why teams like to shift against him; it was hit to where the shortstop would be in a standard overshift:

Are you having fun yet? I could watch Gallo smash singles all day, but I sadly don’t have anymore from 2021 to show you. Aside from the four grounders you just saw, he hit three others; all of them victims of the shift in one way or another, though two of the three would likely have been caught by any reasonable defensive alignment.

The real joy in all of this, to me at least, is how extreme his batted ball profile has been so far. He’s hit seven grounders, all but one to the right side of the infield. He’s popped out twice. Aside from that, he’s smashed two fly balls to center — one at 111.7 mph for a dinger, and one at a puny 89.7 mph for a harmless out. No line drives, and not even many fly balls: it’s mostly just smashed grounders to the right side of the infield, and it’s resulted in a 191 wRC+ through five games.

Did we solve it? Is this how Gallo should approach hitting from now on? Nope! It might sound like this is a solid plan, because his results in a tiny sample have been excellent. These smoked singles won’t make up for the lack of power for long, though.

Wait, lack of power? Gallo has hit two non-pop fly balls, and one of them has turned into a home run. That doesn’t sound like a lack of power to me. The thing is, though, you could just as easily say that he’s converted 11 batted balls into one homer, and when you’re Joey Gallo, that rate just won’t cut it. For his career, he’s put roughly one in seven batted balls over the fence. How? First, he’s really strong! Second, roughly 65% of his batted balls have been line drives and non-pop-up fly balls.

As it turns out, the best way to hit a ton of homers is to hit a ton of balls that can become homers. Shocking! This year, he’s only produced two such balls, thanks to the seven grounders he’s hit so far.

Another way of thinking about it: those 110 mph grounders are fun, but you can’t rely on them. Even Gallo, one of the few strongest hitters in the game, has hit only 21% of his grounders 100 mph or harder in his career. That compares to 47% for all other batted ball types. It’s not just that grounders take away potential homers; they take away from that sweet, sweet velocity as well.

There’s good news, though, Rangers fans: nothing about Gallo’s performance so far suggests that he suddenly can’t hit the ball in the air. A fly ball rate this low is hardly abnormal in a minuscule five-game sample:

In fact, flukish batted-ball luck notwithstanding, Gallo’s season is full of positives so far. He’s been making recent strides towards patience, but his 16.4% chase rate thus far represents even further progress. He’s also posted his highest-ever contact rate, and thus his lowest swinging strike rate. If you’ll forgive the noisily-colored chart, walking more than he strikes out is a rare and wondrous occasion for Gallo:

So yes, it’s been fun watching some hard-hit grounders from someone most notable for not hitting grounders. Keep your eye on the ball, though: the early returns suggest that it might be a hell of a season, and that’s largely due to refinements in his three-true-outcome style.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Sure, all he has to do is walk 25% of the time, K 20% of the time, and hit a home run 5% of the time and he’ll be fine. Piece of cake, could do it in his sleep. Don’t know why everyone else doesn’t do it that way too.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

FWIW– since the strike, there are 4349 player-seasons of 450+ PA. 27% of them struck out at least 20% of the time and 15% homered at least 5% of the time… so those should be pretty common. It is the level of walking that’ll be tough, as those are only at 0.1%.

Oh, and they were all Barry Bonds (who didn’t strike out enough to meet all three).

Totaling 50% between the three happened often enough (37 times in the 24 years, by 19 different players)

The closest to meeting all three was Mark McGwire in 1998;
10.3% HR
23.8% BB
22.8% SO

Runners up, McGwire 1996 and 1999, Jack Cust 2007, Jim Thome 1999 and 2002

1 year ago
Reply to  rosen380

To be fair, the key is that to maintain this basic profile he can’t strike out more than, say, 25% of the time. So Bonds (and McGwire) would theoretically count, except for the small issue that using the poster children for the steroid era in a comparison to anything we see today is be punishable with three years of hard labor.

The closest comparison to what Gallo is doing now, if he did it over a full season (which, of course, he will not…like, there’s just not way) is 2015 Joey Votto. If you want to go to earlier eras you can look at someone like Jack Clark or Frank Thomas. Again, though, not gonna happen.