Joey Gallo Will Only Hit Homers

Last night, in a game that meant little, the Astros clobbered the Rangers. It made sense, because the Astros are a very good baseball team, and the Rangers are not. Maybe the most interesting thing happened early on, before the clobbering part was underway. One at-bat before Carlos Gomez took inexplicable offense to nothing, Joey Gallo stepped in, and he looked at the following defense.

We’ve seen our share of aggressive shifting. We’ve seen infields stack the left side, and the right side. We saw what the Diamondbacks did to DJ LeMahieu. Still, that Astros shift for Gallo is something else. Depending on how you word your definitions, either the Astros had four infielders on the right side, or they had two infielders on the right side, with a five-man outfield. The positioning sort of blurs the traditional lines. But, these days, tradition doesn’t matter for much. Defenses are just trying to get as many outs as possible. For Gallo, this defense just might have been perfect.

It makes sense that maybe the most extreme hitter around would face maybe the most extreme defensive alignment. And, in case you’d forgotten, Gallo is arguably baseball’s most extreme hitter. He has the highest fly-ball rate. He has the lowest zone rate. He has the lowest contact rate. He has the second-highest strikeout rate, but then, he has the highest combined rate of achieving the three true outcomes. We’ve known since he was in the low minors that Joey Gallo wasn’t going to turn out like everyone else. It was just a question of whether his particular style would cut it. This year, he’s got a wRC+ of 122. He’s cutting it.

We’ve talked so much about Joey Gallo’s power. Few hitters in either league are capable of hitting the ball as far as he hits it. There’s always been the question of his contact, and there’s been the knowledge that Gallo will walk. In other areas, Gallo has recently drawn some notice for his baserunning and for his athleticism. He’s not just some big oaf. Gallo is kind of weirdly well-rounded. One aspect of his game, though, hasn’t drawn so much attention. Gallo hits homers. Yet his non-homer batted balls are a little bit doomed.

Gallo is sitting on a .250 BABIP. If you just glance at that, you’d assume he’s been at least a little unlucky. That’s about 50 points off the league average, and we all know by now that BABIP is a volatile, noisy stat. Dig deeper, however, and you realize that Gallo’s game is built for hit suppression. That is, non-homer hit suppression. He’s got 39 home runs. He’s got 31 singles.

I’m going to pull a few spray charts from Baseball Savant. Firstly, I noted that Gallo has the highest fly-ball rate. Fly-ball hitters run lower BABIPs than ground-ball and line-drive hitters, because fly balls that aren’t homers tend to hang up for a while. Gallo also has a higher-than-average rate of pop-ups, and pop-up outs are virtually automatic. Anyway, moving on, here is how Gallo has distributed his fly balls.

Fairly even. Most of the big home runs have gone out to right or center. There are more easy outs to left. In the Astros alignment pictured above, you can see the three regular outfielders, and they’re shifted slightly toward right. Nothing too remarkable here. Mostly, there are home runs, and there are outs.

Here are all of Gallo’s line drives.

Things aren’t even any longer. The bulk of the action here is on the right side of the field. Obviously, it’s not all on the right side of the field, but as I look at our splits leaderboards, Gallo has baseball’s third-highest line-drive pull rate. Hardly any of his line drives have gone the other way, which is suggestive to the Astros that they might think about stacking. Backing that up: here are Gallo’s ground balls.

Nearly everything — nearly everything — is seen somewhere between first and second. Now, most hitters pull the majority of their grounders. Especially power hitters. In general, that means Gallo isn’t weird. But his grounder pull rate ranks eighth-highest in baseball, out of 369 players. That puts him within the highest three percent. Now, Gallo doesn’t hit many grounders in the first place, but when he does, it’s clear where they’re going. And because he’s a lefty who doesn’t run exceptionally well, the Astros could stack the right side while having the two middle players back deep. That way, they effectively cover more ground while sacrificing very little.

If you combine just grounders and line drives, Gallo’s 2017 pull rate is baseball’s fifth-highest, out of 319. And while the infield overshift opens up plenty of territory for a bunt, Gallo has yet to lay one down for a hit. He’s bunted just one time as a major leaguer, and this was it.

It’s not the worst bunt anyone’s ever seen, but it was ultimately a failure. Gallo won’t be honored as a bunting threat until he actually bunts. You can see the Astros’ alignment for that plate appearance, which happened in the middle of August. It’s only grown more extreme.

Do the math in your head. Gallo hits for plenty of power. Yet, he’s an extreme fly-ball hitter, who hits for more pop-ups than average. When he hits line drives, which isn’t often, he tends to yank them. When he hits ground balls, which isn’t often, he tends to yank them. He hasn’t yet shown he’s much of a bunter. Gallo hasn’t seen many defenses like the one the Astros threw at him Monday, but he’s become intimately familiar with the overshift, because his batted-ball tendencies are predictable. He’ll probably see something like the Astros alignment more often. Gallo can hit home runs. Because of what else he is, though, he struggles to hit non-home runs.

Just look at the numbers. Even despite a somewhat more normal-looking September, 43% of Gallo’s hits this year have been homers. Here are this year’s top five.

  1. Joey Gallo, 42.9% HR/H%
  2. Giancarlo Stanton, 35.8%
  3. Mike Napoli, 35.4%
  4. J.D. Martinez, 34.7%
  5. Kyle Schwarber, 34.5%

That’s a difference of more than seven percentage points between first place and second. This is a home-run-happy era, sure, but over the past decade, the highest such combined rate belongs to Chris Carter, at 29.5%. Gallo is beating that by more than 13 points. Just how extreme is this, historically? Here are the highest 10 rates since 1900.

Highest-Ever HR/Hit Rates
Player Year H HR HR/H%
Mark McGwire 2001 56 29 51.8%
Barry Bonds 2001 156 73 46.8%
Mark McGwire 1998 152 70 46.1%
Mark McGwire 1999 145 65 44.8%
Mark McGwire 1995 87 39 44.8%
Mark McGwire 2000 72 32 44.4%
Joey Gallo 2017 91 39 42.9%
Mark McGwire 1996 132 52 39.4%
Mark McGwire 1997 148 58 39.2%
Art Shamsky 1966 54 21 38.9%
Minimum 250 plate appearances.

Joey Gallo doesn’t literally only hit homers. But, relatively speaking, he only hits homers. Or, relatively speaking, his only hits are homers. And it’s not a fluke, for as long as this is his style, because Gallo is simply predictable. He gets loft under everything, and his best contact leaves the yard. On the rare occasion he hits a liner, those usually go to the right side. Ditto the grounders. It’s not easy for a hitter to make himself hit a grounder the other way, and it can mess with your mechanics. The grounders are going to go where the Astros put their defenders. Gallo’s most effective response would be to learn how to bunt, but at least so far it hasn’t taken. When Gallo digs in, he looks out at an entire baseball field, the same one as for everyone else. Yet Gallo’s effective baseball field is much smaller in area. His hits are often the best ones, and the other types will probably remain quite infrequent.

Extreme baseball players can work, but extreme baseball players come with extreme results. While Gallo will post wRC+ marks that other players have done before, odds are no player will have done it quite like Gallo did. He’s going to go as far as his contact and power can take him. Gallo’s likely to grow more and more accustomed to alignments like the one he just saw from the Astros. Those alignments are going to rob him of hits. The solution is just to hit the ball over the fence. Which, I should mention, is exactly what Gallo did.

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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6 years ago

future MVP

6 years ago

I agree, he’s got the power and talent…another year or so of experience. quickpayportal

6 years ago
Reply to  jerry01

It makes me inexplicably sad when a spammer actually has to go through the effort to write something relevant to the article.