It’s only been 35 major-league plate appearances, but Joey Gallo has already made quite the impression. The ball doesn’t fly off the bat any faster than it does off his, and he’s also second in the big leagues in three-true-outcome percentage (K%+BB%+HR%) — he’s a slugger’s slugger.
He’s also second in the big leagues in strikeout rate. “I’ve tried to cut down on them,” Gallo sighed when I asked. “I’ve tried. I promise.”
So we talked about the strikeouts, and what he can do about them, and why they have happened, and why they will continue to happen.
He made an adjustment once before, from 2013 to 2014. His strikeout rate plummeted from 37% to 33% that year. Part of it was just getting used to professional baseball. “2013 was my first full season,” Gallo told me before a game with the Athletics. “There was a lot going on other than just baseball, and it’s tough for a young kid. Kinda matured a little bit, got some experience under my belt and played some more games and things started to come together.”
But there was a specific change too. “I was moving my hands a little bit too much and had a pretty big hitch that was usually a little off time with the pitches and that would make me late on everything. That made it a lot tougher to hit,” Gallo admitted. “Calmed that down, and made things more simple — which is tough when you’re big — but we tried to make things as simple as possible.”
Take a look at video of Gallo in 2013 (first) against his work in the big leagues (below that), and maybe you’ll see it. Is his first move with his hands down instead of back? You’ll also see how big he is.
The big-league strike zone itself is very different than the minor-league one. “The zone is a lot bigger in the minor leagues,” Gallo said. “You have to be smart up here, sometimes you’ll see a pitch that instinctively you think will be a strike because you’re so used to that being called that way, and it’s called a ball here.” The powerful Ranger was not surprised to hear that players generally swing less as they get used to the league — big-league umps have professional zones.
Still. In the minor leagues, Gallo struck out swinging six times for every time he struck out looking according to Minor League Central. So far in the big leagues, he’s struck out swinging nine times, and looking four times. So it’s not all about the zone behind him, it’s also about the pitches he’s decided not to swing at, and are called strikes.
That might just be the player dealing with how great the stuff is in the big leagues. “Recognizing pitches with more movement and velocity,” Gallo pointed out as a struggle. “Sometimes I’ll see what looks like a fastball on the outside and it breaks down the middle — that was a slider! I haven’t seen that pitch before.” He’s confident that seeing the league more often will help.
One thing that will never change about Gallo — other than his size — is that he will see different pitches than batters with less power. “At the end of the day, when you’re big and you can hit for power, you’re going to get pitched differently, as well,” Gallo said. “I’m not really getting 3-1 candies down the middle or 3-2 fastballs down the middle. They’re not going to risk making a mistake to a guy who can hit for power.”
This is why the percentage of balls you see in the zone goes down the more power you show. Called strikes also go down when mapped against power. And, maybe most importantly to Gallo, the number of fastballs you see goes down the more power you show.
In his first game, Gallo saw nine fastballs out of 21 pitches — already lower than the league average (58%) — but after he debuted so well, things changed. In his second game, he saw one fastball against 12 breaking balls and a changeup. “Yeah, they stopped throwing me fastballs,” Gallo laughed. “I didn’t expect that. They’d say ‘this guy throws a lot of fastballs, he’ll go at you,’ and then I saw five straight soft pitches. Throws 98 mph and I’m not going to see it.” Yeah, that’s what happens when you see Chris Sale for the first time and the book is already out on you.
Things have calmed… a bit. Gallo still sees fewer fastballs than anyone in the big leagues right now. “Now I have to make adjustments to their adjustments, that’s what I’m in the middle of right now,” agreed Gallo.
The difficulty, especially for a guy that will always have some swing and miss in his game, is that you want to be active enough to swing at the right pitches and not just see your looking strikeouts skyrocket as you try to be more selective. “You still want to be aggressive,” agreed Gallo. And that will have to be a personal journey, finding that tension between aggression and selectivity, because there’s little relationship between swing percentage and power. The top 10% of power hitters this year have the same swing percentage (47%) as the league average.
The good thing for Gallo is that when he makes contact, he hits it harder than anyone right now. The bad news is that only one batter makes less contact than Gallo right now. Gallo laughed when he heard the news. “I just need make contact a little more often!”
That’s not as simple as it sounds, of course. And he knows it. “Strikeouts are always going to be there, unfortunately,” Gallo said, even as he turned to get ready for that night’s game.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.