The Relaunching of Joey Gallo

Joey Gallo didn’t win in his long-anticipated Home Run Derby debut — he didn’t even make it out of the first round or hit a single 500-foot drive at Coors Field on Monday night — but he earned his trip to Denver’s All-Star festivities nonetheless. After an injury-marred 2019 and a dismal follow-up in the pandemic-shortened season, the 27-year-old slugger is putting together his best and most complete campaign.

Gallo’s second All-Star appearance was less eventful than his first. He replaced starter Aaron Judge in the bottom of the fifth inning of Tuesday night’s game, but didn’t get to bat until the eighth, when he drew a walk against Mark Melancon in his only plate appearance. In his All-Star debut two years ago, he had entered in the sixth inning, and swatted a solo homer off Will Smith in his lone plate appearance in the seventh. That run, which at the time extended the American League’s lead to 4-1, proved to be the difference-maker in the Junior Circuit’s 4-3 win.

In between those two appearances, Gallo’s had more downs than ups, but he’s worked hard to earn his way back. Having slugged 81 homers while batting a lopsided but respectable .208/.322/.516 (113 wRC+) in 2017-18, he was in the midst of a breakout campaign when the ’19 All-Star game rolled around, hitting an eye-opening .275/.417/.643 (162 wRC+) with 20 home runs in 61 first-half games. An oblique strain that sidelined him for over three weeks in June left him 19 plate appearances shy of qualifying for the batting title, but at that point, his slugging percentage and wRC+ trailed only Mike Trout (by three points and 20 points, respectively). Alas, Gallo played just 10 games in the second half before being diagnosed with a fractured hamate in his right hand. He underwent surgery, and while he expected to be out only about four weeks, continued pain while swinging prevented him from returning at all.

After testing positive for COVID-19 at the start of summer camp last July, Gallo — who was asymptomatic throughout — returned in time for Opening Day. But while healthy enough to play in 57 of the Rangers’ 60 games, and strong enough defensively to win a Gold Glove in his first year as the team’s regular right fielder, he struggled mightily at the plate, setting across-the-board career worsts with his .181/.301/.378 (86 wRC+) line. The loss of in-game video contributed to Gallo’s woes, as did pressing to hit home runs in the Rangers’ new ballpark, and getting into bad mechanical habits that led to a major league-high 26.8 degree average launch angle, 3.6 degrees higher than any other hitter, and 4.4 degrees higher than his 2019 average. Via the Dallas Morning News‘ Sam Blum in February, Gallo explained, “I felt like all year I was kind of rushing myself, and… I wasn’t getting in position — I wasn’t loading correctly and giving myself time to hit the ball.” In March, he told reporters, “When I was swinging at the ball, I was almost crouched… I wasn’t able to create that backspin and that leverage that I’m 6-5, and I can create.”

Using a new, less top-heavy bat from Marucci’s Baseball Performance Lab, Gallo has focused on remaining more upright in his stance, helping him to lower his launch angle so as to hit more line drives. Compare his stance from last year via this August 18 home run off the Padres’ Javy Guerra

…with this one from June 20 of this season, off the Twins’ Kenta Maeda:

Gallo isn’t just more upright in his stance, he starts his swing with his front leg much closer to the pitcher-catcher axis, with his hands more forward. Despite his adjustments, the results weren’t there initially, as he hit just .217/.409/.301 in April while averaging an 88 mph exit velocity and a 17 degree launch angle. He improved to .215/.324/.484 in May via averages of 91.1 mph and 19 degrees, and has been on fire since the start of June, batting a sizzling .280/.459/.740 with 15 homers in 133 PA from June 1 to the All-Star break — a span coinciding with rumblings about a crackdown on spin-increasing sticky substances — while averaging 92.3 mph and 22 degrees. Thirteen of his 24 homers have come in his last 18 games; his 213 wRC+ since June 1 trails only Shohei Ohtani’s 233.

Overall, Gallo is hitting .239/.402/.522, with both his on-base percentage and 153 wRC+ representing career highs. He’s second in the AL in the former, fourth in the latter, and thanks to excellent defense in right field (2.1 UZR, 8 DRS), seventh with 3.5 WAR.

As he intended, Gallo has indeed lowered his average launch angle to a career-low 21.4 degrees. He’s hitting the ball on the ground with greater frequency than ever, though both his groundball rate and groundball-to-fly ball ratio rank among the majors’ dozen lowest among qualifiers:

Joey Gallo Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% Pull% EV LA Barrel% HardHit%
2017 0.51 27.9% 49.6% 93.3 23.0 20.9% 53.0%
2018 0.59 29.6% 45.1% 94.2 21.9 21.8% 48.5%
2019 0.58 27.2% 52.7% 94.8 22.4 25.6% 52.7%
2020 0.48 26.6% 49.1% 91.2 26.8 14.0% 43.9%
2021 0.71 33.7% 42.3% 92.4 21.3 19.6% 44.6%

While Gallo’s average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate area aren’t at the levels of his 2017-19 seasons, they’re all above-average to elite relative to other qualifiers; his barrel rate places him in the 97th percentile, his exit velo in the 91st, and his hard-hit rate in the 69th. The shape of his production has changed, but the overall approximation is similar to his partial 2019 campaign despite a drop in BABIP from .368 to .292:

Joey Gallo Statcast Expected Stats
2017 253 .209 .217 .537 .535 .364 .367
2018 293 .206 .230 .498 .544 .343 .370
2019 129 .253 .222 .598 .598 .401 .393
2020 114 .181 .191 .378 .416 .297 .313
2021 168 .239 .238 .522 .540 .396 .399

Part of Gallo’s strong wOBA and xWOBA (the latter of which ranks in the 94th percentile) is his majors-leading 20.5% walk rate as well as his career-low 30.8% strikeout rate; the latter is 4.2 percentage points below last year, and 7.6 points below 2019. He’s continued his trend of shedding a bit more than one percentage point of swinging strike rate per year, lowering it from 19.2% in 2017 to 14.8% this year; though his year-to-year progress has been uneven, he’s tightened up against every major pitch type:

All in all, it’s an impressive evolution, and while there’s nothing about his numbers that particularly screams “regression ahead!” it will be interesting to see how well his recent hot streak holds up now that the sticky stuff is being policed. For what it’s worth, over the past three seasons, Gallo has hit just .161 and slugged .419 against four-seam fastballs with spin rates of 2,400 rpm or higher (about 100 rpm higher than the major league average for such pitches); by comparison, all major leaguers have hit .237 and slugged .437 against those higher-spin four-seamers.

The real question isn’t how much longer Gallo can continue to hit the way he has this year, but how much longer he’ll do so in a Rangers uniform. Gallo can become a free agent after next season, though he’s been vocal about sticking around during the team’s rebuilding phase, saying in February, “It’s definitely someplace I’d like to stay… I’m going to do my best to be a leader on this team. I know it’s a lot of young guys, and I’m excited for that opportunity.” The Scott Boras client said in June that he’s told the team that he doesn’t want to be traded or depart via free agency, and made it clear that money isn’t his top concern, saying, “Everybody keeps talking about money. It’s not money. I never want money. I want to be here, and I want to be here with a team that values me. Money is money. We can figure that out.”

“Im not asking for Mookie Betts‘ contract. I’m not stupid. I want to be here,” he added.

As to what an extension could look like, I invited Dan Szymborski to supply a ZiPS projection:

ZiPS Projections – Joey Gallo
2023 .219 .361 .525 415 77 91 18 2 35 86 86 7 138 4 3.8
2024 .225 .364 .532 404 75 91 18 2 34 85 82 7 140 4 3.8
2025 .221 .359 .514 389 69 86 17 2 31 78 78 7 134 4 3.3
2026 .219 .355 .487 374 64 82 17 1 27 71 73 7 126 3 2.8
2027 .218 .350 .469 358 58 78 16 1 24 64 67 6 121 2 2.3

ZiPS isn’t a big believer in Gallo’s higher batting average, but then, we’re not that far removed from last year’s rough ride. Still, that’s 16.0 WAR (and 151 homers) for 2023-27, Gallo’s first five years of free agency — his ages 29-33 seasons — for a valuation of $131 million, and an average of $26.2 million.

Particularly given that he’s already signaled his desire to stay, Gallo’s probably not going to get that kind of AAV, but he may want more security, as this will likely be his best chance for a big payday. Do the Rangers, who are currently 20 games under .500 (35-55) and still appear to be a ways off from competing in the AL West, have the stomach to commit that much? Or will they look at Gallo, at a point when his value is on the upswing, and realize that in spite of his stated desire to stick around until the team is competitive, the upcoming trade deadline might be their best chance to sell high on him, given that he can not only have an impact on this year’s races but also next year’s, and at a below-market price? The Padres have been linked to him since last summer, though The Athletic’s Dennis Lin recently characterized their view of the Rangers’ asking price as “daunting.”

The Padres are hardly the only team that could immediately use a left-handed slugger who’s a plus defensively; Gallo would be a shot in the arm for the Yankees, who have not only gotten -0.4 WAR from their first basemen, -0.5 from their left fielders, and 0.2 from their center fielders, but have received a pathetic 74 wRC+ from their left-handed hitters. (On that note, look for my annual Replacement Level Killers series next week.)

Doubtless there will be more suitors if the Rangers make a significant effort to move Gallo given how hot he is. One way or another, his work to reinvent himself has put him in position to be in demand again, and that can only bode well for his future.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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The Duke
2 years ago

It’s refreshing to hear a player say “don’t trade me”, I want to stay. That’s an invaluable tool for a franchise – they should build around him