Joey Gallo Approaches a Dubious Record (While Remaining Good)

As we enter the final few days of the regular season, our collective attention is fixed on the push for the few remaining playoffs spots, including the race for the American League Wild Card. Three East division clubs — the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays — are competing for a shot at playing in the coin flip game, with the Mariners still clinging to a puncher’s chance that seems to grow by the day. All of the focus is on those teams’ games and the standings, as it should be, but as the Yankees take the field, something is quietly happening in the record books as well.

Enter Joey Gallo, one of the more inimitable talents in the game. There is no question that Gallo is a valuable player. Even with his struggles since being traded to New York at the end of July, his on-base skills and tremendous strength have him on the brink of a four-win season. But his is a profile of extremes. In the world of video games, particularly RPGs or any game in which you build a character with skill or attribute points, there is the concept of min-maxing a character. To min-max is to put all of one’s skill points in a small number of categories while ignoring the others. Gallo is the ultimate min-max character in that all of his offensive skill points have been put into two categories: power and patience.

The power is well known. Gallo is approaching his third 40-home run season, a total he has reached in every full season he’s played. To say Gallo hits home runs doesn’t really do it justice. It’s amazing to consider that three of the few no-doubt, 80 raw power players in baseball are in the same lineup, with Gallo flanked by Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, and there is no question that Gallo belongs in that category. Of his 38 home runs, half have gone more than 400 feet and 11 have come off the bat with an exit velocity greater than 110 mph. He’s capable of majestic, towering blasts, like this 451 foot shot off Ervin Santana in June:

And he’s capable of lasers, like this remarkable shot off Jose Quintana in April, which is both Gallo’s hardest hit home run of the year (114.3 mph EV) and the one hit with the lowest launch angle (22 degrees):

The power is unquestionable, but Gallo has also maxed out his swing decision skill, showing an ability to consistently get on base at an above-average clip despite a batting average that tends to hang around the Mendoza line. Few players in baseball have a more defined swing-zone, and it’s an area that pitchers try to stay away from, a combination that produces plenty of bases on balls. But despite the excessively high walk rate, Gallo can’t be defined as passive. When he gets a strike, he tends to swing at it, but his rate of swings outside the zone is the sixth lowest in baseball.

So you can strike out Gallo, but you’re going to have to do it in the zone, and this where we leave Gallo’s maxes and enter Gallo’s mins, as his in-zone contact rate is the lowest in baseball among qualified hitters, while his overall contact rate of 63% is ahead of only chase king Javier Báez.

That contact rate, or lack thereof, is where all of the strikeouts come from, and while nobody seems to be talking about it, Gallo suddenly has an outside shot at setting a new single-season record in whiffs. Gallo was already in the top 10 in that department with his 207 whiffs in 2018, but by striking out in his final three plate appearances last night in Toronto, that season is now out of the top 10 and has been replaced by this season, which is now tied for eighth all-time with nowhere to go but up:

Single Season Strikeout Leaders
Player Year Whiffs
Mark Reynolds 2009 223
Adam Dunn 2012 222
Chris Davis 2016 219
Yoán Moncada 2018 217
Chris Carter 2013 212
Mark Reynolds 2010 211
Giancarlo Stanton 2018 211
Chris Davis 2015 208
Aaron Judge 2017 208
Joey Gallo 2021 208

Gallo has five games remaining, which should give the slugger around 20 plate appearances, and with the Yankees in a dog fight for a postseason berth, he’s going to continue to play from here on out regardless of how close to Mark Reynolds he gets.

The simple math of expected plate appearances and historical strikeout rates shows that Gallo should reach the top five. But that’s not how baseball works. There is the the mid-point of what is expected, but there is also incredible variation. That’s where Dan Szymborski comes in. Forget about playoff odds for a second — we can use ZIPS to generate all kinds of odds, including Gallo’s chances of reaching the top of the single-season strikeout list. So let’s have fun with this, and have Dan simulate the final five games of the season. And let’s have him do so with knowledge of who the Yankees are playing along with their expected pitchers, and let’s have him run that five-game simulation, say, one million times. With that done, we can see that Gallo’s chances of tying Mark Reynolds are 12.03%, and his chances of sitting alone at the top of that strikeout list are just over 5%, with the most likely outcomes having him end up somewhere between third and fifth all-time:

Joey Gallo: 2021 Projected Strikeouts
Total K Probability
208 0.0003%
209 0.001%
210 0.004%
211 0.02%
212 0.09%
213 0.33%
214 0.95%
215 2.36%
216 4.84%
217 8.36%
218 12.45%
219 15.75%
220 16.72%
221 14.95%
222 11.14%
223 6.84%
224 3.38%
225 1.32%
226 0.39%
227 0.08%
228 0.01%
229 0.001%

In addition, the odds are overwhelming that Gallo will become just the third player since Babe Ruth did it three times in the 1920s to lead his league in both walks and strikeouts, a feat that interestingly enough, has never been achieved in the National League (the walks are in the bag, and Matt Chapman, who is currently nine strikeouts back of Gallo, is an extreme long-shot to pass him in whiffs):

Leading The League In Walks and Strikeouts
Year Player League BB K
1923 Babe Ruth AL 170 93
1924 Babe Ruth AL 142 81
1927 Babe Ruth AL 137 89
1958 Mickey Mantle AL 129 120
2012 Adam Dunn AL 105 222

Of course, we’d be remiss if didn’t put these strikeouts in context. Gallo is seen as one of the biggest punch-out machines in recent history, and he should be based on his raw numbers, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story, as strikeout rates are up nearly 20% over the last decade, and 40% since the turn of the century:

Historical Strikeout Rates
Year K Rate
2021 23.2%
2020 23.4%
2019 23.0%
2018 22.3%
2017 21.6%
2016 21.1%
2015 20.4%
2014 20.4%
2013 19.9%
2012 19.8%
2011 18.6%
2010 18.5%
2000 16.5%
1990 14.9%
1980 12.5%

Former players from previous decades who sit in the analyst chair during broadcasts will tell you that all of this is a result of today’s players worrying about launch angle, or not being embarrassed by striking out, or some other anti-modern baseball hot take, but don’t believe that for a second. The truth is that this environment is a result of the 21st century pitching revolution, with teams and pitchers having learned how to maximize velocity, spin and other attributes to make pitches more un-hittable than ever. And while Gallo’s strikeout rate is high, it’s hardly approaching anything historic. His 2021 rate is roughly 50% higher than league average, certainly an exceedingly high number. At the same time, when Cecil Fielder led baseball with 182 whiffs in 1990, his K rate was a whopping 81% higher than the league average.

Joey Gallo is the ultimate min-max player, and one of the most unusual talents in the game. It’s hard to appreciate just how good he is without digging in a bit, but go past the surface of the numbers and you’ll see that while the maxes in his game are in full effect, those mins might not be as drastic as one thinks, regardless of his pursuit of an ignominious record.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

his defense should be noted as max too, isnt he in the upper tier in defensive metrics? that definitely goosed his WAR too

2 years ago
Reply to  Dmitry

they’re in goose suits man