Can Joey Gallo Turn an Important Corner in 2018?

ARLINGTON, TX - JULY 26: Joey Gallo
ARLINGTON, TX - JULY 26: Joey Gallo /

One of the Texas Rangers’ many young standouts, Joey Gallo has fans wondering when he might put it all together at the dish.

There’s an article over on Sports Illustrated talking about sluggers like Joey Gallo and Josh Donaldson. Both of them embody a “new” approach to hitting that seems to be taking shape, where hitters are trying to get underneath the baseball, rather than the traditional instruction to make contact center-up.

In other words, those golf swings you were told not to take a youngster? Turns out your coach was wrong, I guess.

Gallo is an interesting case, as his career seems yet to have taken off. It’s one thing for Josh Donaldson to tweak his swing — he’s a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, and a former MVP. For Gallo to embody this “new” approach, though, is a bit less of a sure thing.

In 2017, Gallo’s first full season with the Texas Rangers, the lefty put up a .209/.321/.498 line. As deplorable (and unsustainable) as that batting average may have been, Gallo was still good for 3.2 WAR last year, in no small part due to his 41 home runs. This has been the book on Joey Gallo since he was drafted: light tower power, lots of homers, lots of strikeouts.

Of course, we’ve seen this before. The list of power hitters who can’t hit a curveball is a long one. The Texas Rangers, though, think Gallo might be an exception — for being every bit of 6’5, 240 pounds, he’s an athlete.

Gallo pitched some in high school, and, in limited time at third base with the Rangers, has shown that he could more than stick at the hot corner when Adrian Beltre moves on. Factor in that he will play the entire 2018 season at 24 years old, and his struggles thus far in his career seem less alarming.

Gallo is never going to be a high average hitter. Over some 2,000 games in the minors, he’s compiled a .254 batting average. He’s also compiled a .369 OBP and a .587 SLG — good for an OPS of .956. In the event that those numbers carried over to the majors, Gallo would find himself in some good — perhaps even elite — company. Last season, the names of those players with an OPS higher than .956 were Trout, Judge, Votto, Stanton, Blackmon, Freeman, Goldschmidt, Arenado, Altuve, (Jose) Ramirez.

Now, there’s no guarantee that Gallo will carry his minor league production over to the big leagues, but the pieces do seem to be in place. His OBP and SLG last season put him middle of the pack; if he can cut down on the strikeouts (196 in 532 plate appearances), his natural ability seems likely to carry him into the upper-echelon of power hitters. Predictably, he struggled against lefties. Gallo is willing to look at pitches (part of what contributes to his high strikeout rates), and one has to think that this could contribute to more contact down the road.

Taking the (extremely) long view on this, there are six players in MLB history with 2,000+ strikeouts in their careers. The names might surprise you:

  1. Reggie Jackson
  2. Jim Thome
  3. Adam Dunn
  4. Sammy Sosa
  5. Alex Rodriguez
  6. Andres Galarraga.

If I’m the Texas Rangers, and if the price is right, I’d be thrilled to have Joey Gallo end up with a career like any of those guys (yes, even Dunn). You’ve got to be a difference-maker, in one way or another, to even stick around long enough to reach that many Ks.

Those strikeouts, though. Eesh. Last season, nobody in the game struck out with more frequency than Gallo, who was rung up in 43.6% of his at bats. The next closest — and perhaps the best comparison for Gallo at this juncture — was Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis, he himself a former Ranger. (Texas envisioned that Davis would be the same kind of force that they are hoping Gallo will; only Davis took a bit too long for the Texas Rangers liking and was shipped to Baltimore [for Koji Uehara?!] two seasons before he broke out with 53 homers and 138 RBI.)

The Gallo/Davis comparisons are fair, to be sure, but I’m not sure if they are inspiring. Davis has made a career for himself; he has hit the big payday (7/$161m) that every player hopes to…but is he a good player? Is Baltimore glad to have him on the books at $20+m for the next four seasons? Last year he hit .215. The year before, .221. That might be okay for a pre-arbitration eligible 24-year-old (like Gallo), but hardly seems good for a “cornerstone” player approaching his 30th birthday.

But, I digress. This is an article on Joey Gallo, not Chris Davis.

To be sure, this era of MLB is more than willing to endure strikeouts. Some of baseball’s best players last year struck out a hefty amount of the time — Aaron Judge had the third-highest K%, at 38.3%. The difference is that when Judge wasn’t striking out, he was getting hits — 154 of them, compared to Gallo’s 94. Wrap your head around that: of Joey Gallo’s 94 hits in 2017, 41 of them were home runs. That is the definition of the three-true-outcomes player, for better or for worse.  The walks are there (75 in 2017), but for him to succeed, contact has to go up, strikeouts have to come down.

The good company is good for a player like Gallo, but the bad is, well, bad. The Rangers don’t want another Chris Davis; they don’t want a Chris Carter, or a Joc Pederson — at least, they don’t want to have to rely on that kind of a player. They certainly don’t want to have him on their payroll making $20m plus.

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One thing the Texas Rangers are doing this season — at least to begin the year — is putting Gallo in the #2 spot in the lineup. The idea is, if Delino Deshields is able to get on base, teams are going to have to pay attention to him on the basepaths. In theory, that means more fastballs coming Joey’s way, and more fastballs certainly means more contact.

The jury remains out on Gallo, but — particularly with how 2018 is shaping up in Arlington — it seems that time will be on his side. His second half was incrementally better than his first last season, as he improved his average, and cut down on his strikeouts. I’m not sure that anybody expects him to be a .270-.280 hitter, but if Gallo can find his way up to the .250’s, he’ll be a certified force in the Rangers lineup.

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