Joey Gallo Is Bashing Again
Here’s something we all know about Joey Gallo: He’s got power to spare. Even before he was a big leaguer, tales of his top-of-the-charts power made the rounds among talent evaluators and fans alike. The question was never whether his power would play in the majors, it was whether the strikeouts that came with that power would drag his production down. Those discussions didn’t stop when he made the majors for good in 2017. In fact, it’s 2023 now, and most of the same positives and negatives are still up for debate.
To wit: Through Tuesday’s games, Gallo has hit .189/.326/.541, which works out to a 137 wRC+. He’s also striking out 32.6% of the time – and that would be the lowest strikeout rate of his career. In just 89 plate appearances, he already has seven home runs. By most accounts, it would appear that Gallo is Galloing as hard as ever.
Plot twist: Gallo has made a big adjustment this year, one that seems to have steered him out of the rut he fell into in recent seasons. See, Gallo had a second carrying tool offensively, beyond the power. His thump made opposing pitchers so afraid of him that he ran up massive walk totals merely by being passably selective. In 2019, the season that saw him post his best batting line, he walked 17.5% of the time. In 2021, his second-best, he walked 18% of the time. It’s not so much that he had a perfect batting eye; rather, he just started swinging less in 2019, and pitchers avoided the zone against him to such an extreme degree that he drew piles of walks. He kept it up for a few years before starting to swing more again in 2022.
Take a look at his swing rate compared to league average over time:
One way to look at this change? It worked! Before 2019, Gallo struck out in 38% of his plate appearances and walked in 13.4%. From 2019 to 2022, he struck out 36.7% of the time and walked 16% of the time. Fewer strikeouts, more walks — it isn’t difficult to do the math there.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s take a step back and think of how objectively wild this is. Joey Gallo – Joey Gallo, the idealized embodiment of bat speed – came up with a plan to swing less often to get better. He’s the best at swinging! No one can match him when it comes to crushing the ever-loving smithereens out of the ball, with the possible exceptions of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. He decided to swing less, and count on his batting eye, which is by all accounts average. And this is a good thing?
Well, here are some stats that aren’t strikeouts and walks. From his first 2015 cup of major league coffee through 2018, Gallo barreled up 21.1% of his batted balls and hit 50.6% of them 95 mph or harder. From 2019 through 2022, those rates fell to 18.8% and 47.8%, respectively. Those aren’t huge shifts, but clobbering the ball less frequently gave away all of Gallo’s plate discipline gains.
This isn’t surprising to me. Plenty of hitters would benefit from swinging less frequently, but Gallo wasn’t exactly swinging at everything to begin with. He swung at an average clip from 2015 to 2018. Sure, he got into more advantageous counts by taking more frequently, and pitchers walked him rather than throw him a ton of cookies to get back into the count, but he also got into disadvantageous counts more frequently by taking strikes.
Is that what led to Gallo’s power cratering in the second half of 2021 and 2022? I certainly can’t say. I’m willing to bet that it didn’t help, however. Gallo has never been particularly well equipped to work deep into counts; a swing as big and powerful as his inevitably comes with swing-and-miss issues. Shortening up his swing isn’t really a great solution, either. Do you want joey gallo, lower-case swinger trying to punch the ball the other way, or do you want JOEY GALLO, KING OF HOME RUNS?
No, Gallo is a major leaguer because he takes big hacks, and changing that seems like a bad plan. He needed to change something, though. The funk he fell into as a Yankee carried over to his time on the Dodgers. He posted an 85 wRC+ and the lowest isolated power of his career in 2022. This year, he came up with a new plan. In three words: he started blasting.
Across a broad variety of splits, Gallo is swinging more frequently this year. No matter how you slice it, he’s looking to do damage early in the count:
|Split||0-0, In Zone||0-0, Fastball||Ahead, In Zone||Ahead, Fastball||1 Strike, In Zone||1 Strike, Fastball|
Sometimes analysis isn’t hard. Gallo is teeing off early in the count. I’m sorry, but when did this become an acceptable way to pitch to him?
The cameraman fared about as well as Domingo Germán there; that ball was so thoroughly clobbered that it was hard to find in the air. All told, Gallo is hitting .417 with a 1.417 slugging percentage when he puts the first pitch into play. Let me put on my analyst hat for a second: that’s good.
Want to know the wildest part of it all? It hasn’t cost him strikes. From 2019 through 2022, he faced an 0-1 count in 47.4% of his plate appearances. This year, that’s down to 40.4%. There are three reasons for that. First, pitchers are throwing him fewer first pitches in the strike zone. I mean, duh. Did you see those clips up above? Second, when they do challenge him in the zone, he’s putting a lot of those balls in play. A whopping 13.5% of his plate appearances this year have ended with him putting a first-pitch strike in play, up from 7.7% over the last four years. Pitchers hang them, Gallo bangs them.
This kind of adjustment isn’t without its downsides. He’s chasing first pitches out of the zone more frequently. Again, though, it isn’t resulting in more 0-1 counts, so it’s hard to call that a huge hindrance. The bigger problem is that pitchers will eventually adjust – or at least, they will if they don’t like seeing enormous home runs. They’re throwing him fastballs 64% of the time on the first pitch so far this year. That’s higher than the big league average on 0-0. To Joey Gallo. What are we doing here?!?
That’s not the only change Gallo has made this season. As Robert Orr noted a few weeks ago, he’s swinging less frequently at changeups. That’s a good plan, and it goes hand in hand with this adjustment: more swinging at fastballs means fewer counts where changeups can tear you apart. Even as Gallo has offered at more changeups in the past few weeks, he’s keeping up the aggression, and that’s keeping him out of counts where he faces his Kryptonite.
When Gallo starts to see more sliders and changeups early in his at-bats, he might have to make a change. As the saying goes, however, if it ain’t broke, keep swinging out of your shoes at it. I’m all for it. Gallo is at his most entertaining when he’s hitting the ball from Minneapolis to St. Paul, and his recent adjustments mean I get to see that more often. Yes, please.
All statistics are through May 9.
Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.
Use your force, Joey!
I really doubt he can keep this up at all; he just doesn’t make enough contact. He has the lowest xBA in the league, and is bottom 5% in whiffs and K%. His xBA in particular is nowhere near his prime years, and it was already low. Pitchers are also, bizarrely, throwing him the most fastballs of his career, 61.5%, a five point jump from the previous high. He’s going to get bamboozled again sooner or later. But it’s certainly fun to watch.
I’m incredulous at all the people still throwing him belt high fastballs inside. That’s like the one place you don’t want to throw it to him. Go higher or lower.
Even the best pitchers on the planet miss. And if you miss by just a couple of inches, it’s a meatball.
Yup. Gerrit Cole dealt with the problem for years. Jeff Samardzija never beat it. If you miss, it almost has to be for a ball. Missing or locating poorly inside the strike zone is usually terrible.
And Lyles and Cueto are now on the opposite end of the spectrum from the best…
Pretty misleading to say his xBA is the lowest in the league when it’s the same as his actual BA, and his xwOBA is higher than his wOBA.
Since the amount of contact he makes is what I was talking about, no. He can do as much damage as he likes when he makes contact; if he doesn’t make enough of it, it doesn’t matter. He’s neither lucky nor unlucky to any serious degree, this is just SSS and I expect him to regress.