The Astonishing Development of Joey Gallo

There are certain players who are made more interesting by the greater context. Why is Team X suddenly so successful? Credit should go to the surprising Player Y. Certain other players, though — with some guys, the context is almost irrelevant. They can’t help but be compelling, regardless of whether their team is great or terrible. Joey Gallo is one of these players. Gallo is fascinating, and the Rangers are 8-16. Gallo would be no more fascinating if the Rangers were 16-8. Gallo is forever interesting to me, and he is forever interesting to you, because he might well be baseball’s most extreme hitter. He’s a project, a test of a prospect model we’ve hardly ever seen.

In a sense, Gallo has already passed the test. In his first year as a full-time player, he was worth 3 WAR, with a low batting average but a strong batting line. It’s one thing for a player to succeed over a month or a month and a half, but for me, personally, I like to leave time for opponents to adjust. Opponents adjusted, and Gallo adjusted back. He was better in last year’s second half than he was in the first. Over the course of 2017, Gallo proved that he’s a big-league ballplayer. It was a triumphant season for his extraordinary skillset.

And yet it’s not as if Gallo is all through with his progress. What we’re seeing in this year’s early going is something incredible indeed. One of the core things that’s made Joey Gallo Joey Gallo is starting to go away. Every good hitter evolves, but Gallo was starting with a truly weird foundation.

Gallo hasn’t exactly opened the season white-hot. If you’ve thought about him, you might’ve thought about him because of those defensive shifts. Facing Gallo, the Astros have rolled out a few four-man outfields. This past weekend, here’s how the Mariners set up:

Technically, it’s a three-man outfield. Or maybe, technically, it’s a five-man outfield. I don’t really know. Baseball language doesn’t cover situations like this. No matter how many outfielders you see in the picture, you can tell that’s an unusual alignment. Everyone but the left fielder is seen on the right side of second base. Gallo has been being treated as a pull hitter. Do you know what you get to do as a pull hitter, if you see a defense shifting? You get to try not to pull the ball so much, if you want. There are pluses and minuses, but, anyway, from Baseball Savant, here’s Gallo’s 2018 spray chart:

Does that look like an extreme lefty pull hitter to you? It doesn’t to me. And while I’ve only showed you one spray chart, instead of a couple, here is some reference. There are 143 players who have hit at least 50 batted balls in each of the past two seasons. Here are their year-to-year pull rates, with Gallo the dot in yellow:

Gallo has dropped his pull rate by 19 percentage points. That’s the second-biggest drop in the whole sample. In turn, Gallo has increased his opposite-field rate by 13 percentage points. He’s gotten better about going up the middle and the other way. This is something Gallo talked about wanting to do back in the winter and spring, and, say, here’s a double from just Monday night, which is awfully convenient:

One development here is that Gallo is working to become more of an all-fields hitter. Maybe that’s in response to the shifts, or maybe it was going to happen anyway. But I might’ve buried the lede. See, it’s interesting that Gallo is hitting balls to different areas, but it’s even more interesting that Gallo is hitting balls in the first place. Gallo has trimmed his strikeout rate to a more respectable level, and, driving that, we see it’s because Gallo is making more contact. A lot more contact. Gallo’s contact rate has improved by a stunning ten percentage points.

This is similar to the plot above, except we’ve got contact rates instead of pull rates:

In the early going — and I know it’s still early — Gallo has baseball’s biggest improvement in contact rate. Instead of making contact with 59% of his swings, Gallo this year has made contact with 69% of his swings. I’ve seen so many declarations in so many places that Gallo is a symbol of where the game of baseball is today, and while I know where those people are coming from, it’s not like Gallo doesn’t care about strikeouts. He’s tried to hit the ball more and more often, and even though 69% isn’t a high contact rate — Marco Scutaro, Gallo isn’t — it’s fairly normal. We see other players with similar contact rates. And you have to remember how Gallo began.

Present Gallo has basically the same contact rate as Khris Davis and Yoenis Cespedes. Gallo ranks right in the 11th percentile. He still swings and misses a whole lot, but, since 2002, there are 7,081 individual player-seasons with at least 100 plate appearances. The 2017 version of Gallo was responsible for the ninth-lowest contact rate. And the 2015 version of Gallo was responsible for the very lowest contact rate. In Gallo’s first extended big-league exposure, he struggled to make contact with even half of his swing attempts. It was as low as we’ve ever seen a contact rate get. That player is now within the realm of what’s normal. I wasn’t sure we’d ever get here, but Joey Gallo has been closing up holes.

We’ve already observed some progress similar to this. As a rookie, Kris Bryant made contact 66% of the time. Last year, he finished at 77%; this year, he stands at 82%. And, as a rookie, George Springer made contact 61% of the time. Last year, he finished at 79%; this year, he stands at 79% again. Springer is an extreme example of his own, so, in a way, that was proof of concept, but Gallo’s contact problems were even more significant, even more alarming. Now Gallo has improved his swing, and improved his understanding of his own zone and his own limitations. When you look at video clips, Gallo doesn’t appear to be dramatically different, but I guess that’s maturation for you. It’s not clear to me that Gallo has made meaningful sacrifices. He’s still perfectly capable of obliterating a baseball.

What is undeniably true about this otherwise positive story: Compared to last year, Gallo’s wRC+ has actually gone down. You could interpret that as evidence in favor of the older approach. But, by exit velocities, Gallo remains very much elite. He still hits balls harder than almost everyone else. And by the Statcast-informed expected wOBA metric, Gallo has taken a step forward. It might be too early to take that too seriously, but the same could be said of regular old wRC+. The smaller the data sample, the more room there is for noise. I don’t think that Gallo has actually gotten worse.

And he’s proving something to himself, anyhow. Perhaps this version of Joey Gallo isn’t better than the last. But this version is more of a spray hitter, and this version is more of a contact hitter. I don’t know if Gallo ever thought he could get here. Heaven knows I was skeptical. Joey Gallo’s not so easy to get the ball by anymore. And opponents don’t like it when he gets the bat to a pitch. That’s when Gallo gets to do the other Gallo thing, and when he makes the contact he likes, it doesn’t really matter how the defense is shifted. They all just crane their necks.

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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5 years ago

I’ve been waiting for this article for a few weeks. Given that he’s smoking baseballs all over, I’m expecting a rise in his numbers soon.

5 years ago
Reply to  Apocalypse33

Yeah I was thinking I’d be blown away by his stats clicking on his page but only a 99 wRC+? Must have been an awfully rough start.

5 years ago
Reply to  southie

He’s been pretty unlucky. 70 point gap between his wOBA and xwOBA as of this morning