As an entertainment business established in 1876, Major League Baseball, and specifically the game of baseball itself, has featured several fabulous quotes from prominent figures that continue to be referenced to this day. A great deal of them come from the great Yogi Berra, who may be the only player to have a Hall of Fame career, yet be known for everything other than that.
I mean, how many players have a page on Baseball Almanac dedicated to quotations spoken by them over the years? Search up “Yogi Berra” on Google, and good luck finding anything other than a quote that will make you chuckle. To this day, so many of them are not only applicable to the game of baseball, but life in general.
For me, personally, there has always been one “Yogi quote” that sticks with me:
“Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”
We can quibble about the fact that this quotation is mathematically inaccurate, but where’s the fun in that? Rather, it’s meant to illustrate how significant the mental side of the game is to a player’s performance, which is being recognized now. After all, teams are now employing mental health and life skills coaches, placing more of an emphasis on a player’s well being. At the end of the day, enjoying yourself more is only going to help you perform at the best of your abilities. In a game predicated on failure, being able to keep your mental sanity intact may be just as important as what you’re physically capable of accomplishing on a baseball field.
Adding an extra layer to this, playing in a big market only increases the pressure and mental toll that can stick with a player. It’s not easy to thrive in a game where so much can wrong, particularly with the spotlight on you and expectations high. There may be no worse feeling for a player than being booed while playing the game they dreamed of playing professionally, but that’s part of what players who play in big markets have to deal with.
Why do I bring this up? Well, it’s critical to think about when analyzing Joey Gallo. Once considered one of the rising stars of the game, Gallo has been a below-replacement level player this season and has struggled mightily since being acquired by the Yankees last July. Now, the boo birds are starting to come, and the frustration is only rising.
Ahead of being a free agent, is there hope for a turnaround for Gallo? Or are these struggles here to stay? Let’s dive into a very polarizing player, trying to solve this mystery once and for all. Will those boos turn to cheers very soon? Let’s find out!
Joey Gallo’s Rise To Fearsome Slugger
When we think of Nevada’s recent run in terms of producing MLB players, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant immediately come to mind. Nevertheless, don’t forget about Gallo, the third musketeer of a group that formed one of the best Little League teams imaginable.
Most high school hitters are drafted for their athleticism and refinement, with power to come later. Gallo, however, was an exception. As MLB Pipeline put it at the time, no player in the 2012 draft possessed the raw power that Gallo had, though there were swing-and-miss concerns to be wary of. Regardless, the Rangers selected him with the 39th overall pick, banking on the power ultimately winning out.
The results were imminent. At Single-A in 2013, Gallo not only posted a 163 weighted-runs-created-plus, but an absurd .365 isolated power (ISO) as well. All the concerns with his hit tool were still there with a 37% strikeout rate, though, so he remained a bit of a question mark.; few players have been able to succeed with such a monstrous strikeout rate. Yet, the further Gallo went along, the more the power continued to play in spite of the strikeout rate, making him a very valuable offensive producer.
Consequently, Gallo was able to make his MLB debut despite being just 21 years old in 2015. Now, with a 46.2% strikeout rate and 87 wRC+, it didn’t go smoothly, but getting there in the first place was impressive, and enough to solidify himself as a top-ten prospect in the sport by MLB Pipeline, who clearly were enamoured by his power:
“No Minor Leaguer — and perhaps no Major Leaguer — has more raw power than Gallo. He set a Nevada high school record with 65 career homers (the sixth-highest total in U.S. prep history), broke into pro ball in 2012 by establishing a Rookie-level Arizona League mark with 18 long balls in just 43 games, led the Minors with 40 blasts in 2013 and ranked second last year with 42. He also put on a show at the Sirius XM All-Star Futures Game at Target Field, crushing 15 homers during batting practice and the game-winner during the actual contest.
Signed for $2.25 million as the 39th overall pick in 2012, Gallo derives tremendous strength and leverage from his 6-foot-5 frame. He also has outstanding bat speed and an aggressive approach, and it all adds up to tape-measure blasts on a regular basis. While his long swing and mentality will result in lots of strikeouts and prevent him from hitting for a high average, he has gotten better about taking pitches and drawing walks when opponents refuse to challenge him.”
From this, it’s clear to see why the folks at MLB Pipeline were inclined to assign Gallo with an unprecedented 80 power grade; there are few, if any, prospects to ever put up the power numbers that he did. Sure, the strikeouts were problematic, but with the combination of absurd power and plenty of walks, the trade-off was well worth it.
Wisely, Texas let Gallo stay in Triple-A in 2016, where he continued to slaughter minor-league pitching (135 wRC+, .290 ISO). By that point, it was clear he had no business staying in the minors, leading to him making the Rangers’ opening day lineup in 2017; for a team looking to contend for a World Series, that was a very strong compliment.
Truly, Gallo was exactly as advertised in his rookie season. Sure, he struck out in 36.8% of his plate appearances, but his .327 ISO ranked third in all of baseball, only behind Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, while he walked 14.1% of the time. As a result, in spite of a .209 batting average, he managed to be 19% better than league average with the bat (119 wRC+), which is exactly what Texas could have hoped for in his rookie season.
Now, there is a general problem with this type of profile from a development standpoint. After all, if power truly is the tool that comes with time, and plate discipline/contact ability is mainly refined, then how much room to grow is there realistically for a player like Gallo? It’s hard to go any higher than a .327 ISO, after all, so unless there was an approach change, it’d appear we were seeing what we were getting from Gallo. That amounted to him being a very valuable contributor, but was a superstar outcome possible?
In 2018, Gallo’s power (.292 ISO) and walk rate (12.8%) were still extremely strong, but perhaps not as much to compensate the lack of any sort of batting average, leading to a 108 wRC+ that is a bit low considering his offensive pedigree. On the bright side, he proved himself to be a valuable defensive outfielder, adding to his profile, but it was fair to wonder if the lack of any sort of hit tool would eventually get to him. Fortunately, that did not turn out to be the case.
Joey Gallo’s Next Steps To Becoming An All-Star
Prior to the 2019 season, the Rangers made a major shakeup to their organization, hiring Chris Woodward to be their new manager. Along with Woodward came a new coaching staff, headlined by hitting coach Luis Ortiz.
Why is this significant? Well, when it came to Gallo making the approach change he needed to unlock more offensive upside, a new voice was always going to be the easiest path to do so. Alas, that new change did come, and it came through swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone:
Notice when the shift to not expanding the zone started? Yep, that aligns exactly with Ortiz taking over. Hitting coaches generally have a notable effect on a hitter’s tendency to expand the zone, and, in this case, a conscious effort was clearly made to get Gallo to not swing as many pitches that weren’t favorable for him.
Immediately, the results were positive. Gallo was limited to 227 plate appearances due to an oblique strain, and his 144 wRC+ was spiked by a .368 8 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That being said, between the spike in walk rate (17.5%) and barrel rate (26.4%), there were plenty of encouraging signs that another level offensively was within reach.
Of course, 2020 had to happen, and Gallo (87 wRC+) was another victim of the 60-game season. Nevertheless, as illustrated in the chart above, the plate discipline gains were still there, and he simply didn’t have enough time to show his usual power. Thus, there was still plenty of reason to be extremely optimistic about his prospects heading into 2021, which turned out to be quite wise.
Gallo’s 123 wRC+ was the highest of his career in a full season, and that actually turned out to be a slight disappointment. Through July 27th, the slugger mustered a 139 wRC+, but after being traded to the Yankees, that declined to a 97 wRC+. Considering that some players struggle under the spotlight of New York, this would have appeared to be a concern.
Or, was it? Gallo’s overall numbers may have been down, but, if anything, he was even better as a Yankee:
- Pre-Trade: 23.3% O-Swing, 15.2% swinging-strike rate, 18.4% barrel, 43.2% hard-hit
- Post-Trade: 20.1% O-Swing, 14.1% swinging-strike rate, 19.2% barrel, 49% hard-hit
So, Gallo hit the ball harder, barreled it up more, chased more pitches, and swung and missed less? Yeah, that’ll work. The Yankees gave up a notable prospect package to acquire him, and based on the underlying data, they had every reason to feel great about that trade heading into this season.
Could you imagine a full season of Gallo taking advantage of the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Not only would he be one of the favorites to lead the league in home runs, but he was inserted in the middle of the Yankees’ vaunted lineup, notable considering the team came into the year with massive expectations. Unfortunately, things have not gone as planned.
Joey Gallo’s Difficult 2022 Season
Generally, they say results minus expectations equal happiness, but, sadly, it’s been the opposite for Gallo so far.
Not only was Gallo looking to acclimate himself in New York, but he needed to do so in what is a contract year for him. With a typical season, free agency was destined to treat him very kindly, but, of course, there’s always variance within baseball. Right now, things are going about as poorly as one could have imagined.
For the season, Gallo has put together just a 78 wRC+ and .165/.278/.330 slash line. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has spiked to 39.2%, and the Yankee faithful is letting him know of their displeasure. At this point, he’s not only down to 9th in the lineup, but is starting not to receive as frequent playing time, a trend that could continue if the struggles continue.
So, what is the issue for Gallo? It all comes back to the what has arguably been the key all along- his plate approach. Of course, being traded to the Yankees meant a new hitting coach, and that ended up being the case for every Yankee- the team hired a new hitting coach in Dillon Lawson. In this case, for players such as Gleyber Torres and Josh Donaldson, it has meant expanding the zone more with an aggressive approach, and Gallo has followed suit:
Gallo’s 29.4% chase rate and 49.3% swing rate are both the highest of his career, and mainly mirror where the approach he had prior to 2019. The result? An 18.8% swinging-strike rate, which correlates directly with the bump in strikeout rate. Meanwhile, with more aggression comes fewer walks (13.4%), placing a significant amount of pressure on him to hit for power.
To that end, while he may not be posting the gaudy barrel rates he had been previously, Gallo’s 18.4% barrel rate is in line with where it was last year (18.5%). The problem? That’s not enough considering the diminished plate discipline. To be fair, his 18% home run/fly ball rate is far too low right now, and the batted-ball luck has been comically poor at times:
Joey Gallo JUST misses a homer then gets robbed by the shift in the same AB. Ya gotta feel for the guy at this point pic.twitter.com/mbbUpKYKmT
— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) June 28, 2022
Expected statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt, as they’re more descriptive than predictive, especially in our current run environment. That being said, Gallo’s .263 expected ISO is about precisely where it was last year, and it’s evidently clear that power is not the issue here. Rather, will he get on base enough to complement said power? That’s the million-dollar question.
Really, it almost appears too simple. Should Gallo go back to his old approach, where he’s more selective at the plate, he’ll naturally be putting himself in a better position to succeed by drawing more walks, while also swinging at pitches he can do more damage with. Now, a change like this may not come in the preemptory fashion we’d hope for, but that’s the major sign to keep a very close eye on.
While generally seen as a microcosm for today’s game as a “three true outcomes” player, Joey Gallo is still a player best described as having a very unorthodox style of play. Few players have been able to have the success he has had in spite of such high strikeout rates and low batting averages, as it places an extensive amount of pressure on one’s walk rate and power.
Fortunately for him, this hasn’t stopped him from being a very productive offensive contributor in the past. The key? Selectiveness at the plate. This ultimately was a driver in his breakout from 2019 to 2021, and after reverting back to the old approach in 2022, less walks and more strikeouts are the result.
Will Gallo hit for more power soon? Definitely. The 112 wRC+ projection THE BAT X has for him seems about fair, though the 129 wRC+ projection ZiPs has in store for him certainly isn’t out of his reach should he re-correct his approach at the plate. Given the immense pressure he’s dealing with right now, that may be difficult, but, at the very least, there is reason to be optimistic about the future. Considering his offensive production in the past and defensive acumen, it’s hard to see there not being considerable interest in his services, regardless of this season’s struggles. That means new voices and a fresh start, which may ultimately end up being best for him.
For now, a resurgence from Gallo could be the finishing piece to what could be a historic Yankees season. Hopefully, that selectiveness comes over time. At the moment, though, grab some chips, and wait for the Pico de Gallo to come.