Joey Gallo’s Best Season Gets Shorter

The Rangers announced Thursday that Joey Gallo will miss 4-6 weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a fractured hamate bone in his right wrist. That’s bad news for Rangers fans, who’ll see somewhat fewer moonshots and scalded line drives than they would have otherwise, middling news for the Rangers themselves, who were never really in the playoff race they’re now decidedly out of, and worst news of all for Gallo, who’d been in the middle of his best season yet.

Gallo has been part of our national baseball consciousness for many years now as a walking indicator of the game’s direction, possessed as he was of exceptional raw power, an abysmal contact rate, and horrific-even-for-the-late-2010’s strikeout numbers. In 2017, he hit 41 home runs and posted a 14% walk rate but got on base only a third of the time in part due to shifts that limited him to a .250 BABIP. 2018 was more of the same; his 110 wRC+ that year was good, but 75 big league players posted better.

This year had been different. Through June 1, when a strained oblique muscle cost him three weeks, Gallo was among the major league leaders in a number of offensive categories, including a few he’s never come close to ranking in before:

No Ordinary Year for Gallo
Through June 1 Through June 1 Rank Previous Best Rank
wRC+ 167 7th 2017, 45th
WAR 3 4th 2018, 66th
wOBA .431 6th 2017, 36th
BB% 19.6% 2nd 2017, 9th
HR 17 5th 2017 & 2018, 3rd
ISO 0376 3rd 2018, 5th

I know it’s not fair to compare full-season ranks to stats through June 1, so don’t read too much into the specifics here. The point I’m making is that for the first two months of 2019 Gallo was not just the best version of himself we’ve seen to date, but among the most successful hitters in the game. He still struck out an eye-popping 35.5% of the time, and his contact rate was a major league worst 61.8%, but the overall picture had enough bright spots to earn him an invitation to his first ever All-Star game.

The change this year can be read most clearly in a career-high .368 BABIP that has allowed Gallo to sustain consistent offensive value even when he’s not hitting the ball over the fence or jogging down to first.  And there’s real meat behind the improved numbers, which are starting to look a lot like those he put up in the minor leagues from 2013 to 2015. As Dan Szymborski noted in his early-July review of our farthest-off ZiPS projections, the improved BABIP appears to be the product of a change in approach rather than just a run of good luck. Last year, Gallo swung at 32.2% of pitches outside the strike zone. This year, he’s down to 24.5%, suggesting that he’s been swinging at better pitches, which could lead to better contact.

At least to date, it seems to have done just that: Although Gallo’s groundball rate has stayed about the same as it’s been in each of the last two years, his line drive rate has jumped by nearly 25% (from 22.7% to 28.2%). That’s come at the expense of somewhat fewer fly balls, but it’s paid off: his batting average against the shift has jumped from .256 and .246 in 2017 and 2018 to .371 this year, with a corresponding jump in wRC+ from 51 and 47 in ’17 and ’18 to 129 this season. That result is consistent with a change in approach that recognizes that, with his natural power, there isn’t all that much cause to try to hit home runs — hit the ball hard on a line, and the ball will go out often enough to make do. The overall effect of Gallo’s changes so far has been that he has been much more likely to hit a hard line drive than he had been in any previous season, even as his overall exit velocity has dropped:

Only The Bad Remain
GB (mph) LD/FB (mph) Overall (mph)
2019 78.3 101.2 93.0
2018 85.2 99.9 93.9
2017 85.4 99.1 93.1

As Gallo has become increasingly adept at laying off pitches outside the zone that he might previously have swung hard at, it appears that a higher percentage of his groundballs have become mis-hits with low exit velocities. It’s a backwards version of survivorship bias, where due to an improvement in approach, a larger proportion of Gallo’s groundballs are now “bad” contact than they had been previously, thereby driving a lower average velocity on all pitches but coming along with a welcome increase in BABIP because of the disproportionately positive results of the pitches that do work: those hard-hit line drives.

But now he’s on the injured list. It’s hard to say exactly when Gallo’s wrist started to hurt, but he had just seven hits in 59 July plate appearances, and looked to be visibly in pain after a number of at-bats late in the month. He struck out at a staggering 52.5% clip. Now he’ll have the opportunity to spend five or six weeks in rest and recovery and return in time to add a few more home runs — and perhaps a few more singles — to round out what has been his strongest season yet. For now, the Rangers will turn to Willie Calhoun, who they demoted last week, and put the For Sale sign out front.

The best-case scenario here is probably something like what happened to Matt Olson, another lefty slugger who underwent right wrist surgery this season. Olson played for the A’s in two games of their season-opening series against the Mariners in Japan, then underwent surgery for an injury that apparently came on suddenly, and returned on May 7 against the Reds about five weeks later. He’s hit 21 home runs since then, so his power doesn’t appear to have suffered. With any luck, Gallo’s return will bring more of the same.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

newest oldest most voted
The Ancient Mariner
The Ancient Mariner

“Indeed, they’ve already dealt lefty reliever Jake Diekman to the Rays for prospects.”

Umm, no–the *Royals* traded Diekman to the *A’s* for prospects . . .

The Rays have made a trade, for Eric Sogard, but that was with Toronto.