An in-depth look on what the slugger needs to do to get back on track.
Unlike his teammate Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Joey Gallo is a textbook modern baseball player. He excels at the prototypical three true outcome style of hitting. In his career, 58.3 percent of his plate appearances have ended in a walk, strikeout, or home run, which is just absurd. Gallo is known for being a player who rarely makes contact, but hits the ball a mile when he connects. It’s precisely this proclivity toward power-hungry plate appearances that made his 2019 campaign so shocking. That season, he did something he hasn’t done before or since — he hit for average. This new facet of his game earned him his first ever All-Star game appearance, and he looked poised to become an entirely different (and much more dangerous) hitter. He posted career best offensive value numbers: a 144 wRC+, a 0.401 wOBA, and 3.3 fWAR.
However, injuries plagued Gallo in 2019, and he missed 92 games with an oblique strain and later a broken hamate bone. The latter injury ended his season, robbing us of seeing this glorious new version of Gallo for a full year. Regardless, the expectations were high heading into 2020, and Gallo sadly disappointed. After posting a career-best slash line of 0.253/0.389/0.598 in 2019, his numbers dropped to an ugly 0.181/0.301/0.378, all career lows (min 100 PA).
Here, we’ll examine what happened to Joey Gallo in 2020, and whether he can return to his All-Star form from 2019. Of course, we must keep in mind that we’re dealing with a small sample size from an exceedingly difficult and weird season. There’s also evidence that Gallo was still bothered by the wrist surgery that ended his 2019. With those disclaimers in mind, let’s look at three key aspects of Gallo’s game he’ll have to maintain or improve to make the All-Star game again.
A New Approach
Perhaps the most notable and effective change Gallo made to his game in 2019 was an overhauled approach and mindset at the plate. He details this delta in an insightful interview with Fangraphs, and this article goes into further depth on how that approach helped his game. Something that struck me as particularly revealing was this quote from near the end of the interview, when Gallo says, “For me, a walk is a single.” This one quote tells you basically everything you need to know about his new attitude at the plate. Gallo is looking for his pitch to drive every time he steps to the plate, and if he doesn’t get it, he’ll gladly take a walk. He’s not looking to give in and chase a bad pitch just to slap a single into left field — he wants to put his skillset and that massive frame to good use. This mindset clearly worked itself into his game, as the numbers back up his words here. Gallo chopped his swing rate, first pitch swing rate, and chase rate significantly in 2019, and this remained consistent in 2020. These numbers reflect a more disciplined approach, and the results spoke for themselves in 2019.
Gallo is clearly being more patient at the plate, working longer at-bats to get the pitch he wants to drive. This demeanor also rewarded him with a career-high 0.389 on-base percentage, a rate that would’ve placed him in the top 20 in the MLB if he’d had enough plate appearances to qualify. His OBP was boosted by a career best 17.5% walk rate, which would’ve been fourth in baseball. His spoken emphasis on drawing walks is clear in the results. And while he’ll always strike out a lot, this approach allows him to limit his poor contact by being very selective. Something else that stands out is his discipline both inside and outside the zone. While the decline in chase rate indicates better restraint on bad pitches, the decline in zone swing rate shows he was pickier about which strikes he swung at, and we can see this in the zone swing breakdown from Baseball Savant.
Seriously, I love Baseball Savant so much. These charts show us a few things. First, Gallo reined in his areas of attack in 2019. In 2018, he pretty much hacked at anything in the zone, which yielded mixed results. In 2019, however, we can see that he picked his spots well, and the batting average image shows that he attacked areas that he knew he could do damage in — note how the redder boxes in the top middle chart mostly correspond with the redder boxes in the bottom middle chart. Most notably is the up-and-in zone (the top right box in each strike zone). Gallo’s never hit that zone well, and in 2019, he laid off pitches in that area considerably. In 2020, though, he began swinging away in that area again, and it yielded poor results again. For the most part, Gallo appears to have maintained much of his disciplined approach from 2019, even if the results weren’t as promising.
In addition to being more selective overall, there’s evidence that Gallo has adjusted his approach based on his performances against specific pitch types. For instance, in 2018, he performed horribly against curveballs, hitting 0.106 against them and whiffing over half of the time he swung at them. In 2019, he reconciled this by reducing his swing rate on curveballs by almost half (5.37% in 2018 vs. 2.86% in 2019). This new selectiveness steered him toward swinging solely at smashable curves, and the results backed this up — he raised that average against curveballs to 0.476 with a 1.095 slugging percentage and a 25% whiff rate. This adjustment didn’t last into 2020; his curveball swing rate climbed back up to 3.87%, and his batting average dropped back down into the 0.200 range.
A similar trend can be found in his performance against four-seam fastballs. Pitchers attacked him with four-seamers more often in 2019: he saw that pitch 41% of the time as opposed to 31% in 2018. In response, he began crushing those pitches, hitting 0.272 with a wOBA of 0.45, both significant improvements from the previous year. In 2020, his performance dropped off precipitously against four-seam fastballs, and this was likely a key factor in his poor offensive year. He had his worst ever season in this area, hitting just 0.143 with a 0.282 wOBA on the pitch, both career lows. This decline is perplexing; his whiff rate, swing rate, and hard-hit rate are essentially constant across the three-year span. In fact, his hard-hit rate was a career high on the pitch. Perhaps this decline is attributable to bad luck, but I suspect there’s more at play here. Regardless, Gallo has shown he can hit this pitch well in the past, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned this around in 2021. For more on how he can do this, we turn to another area of concern: quality of contact.
Making Better Contact (by Joey’s Standards)
If there’s one thing Joey Gallo is known for, it’s hitting the ball hard. In 2017 and 2018, Gallo ranked in the top 1% of the league in barrel rate and average exit velocity. This trend continued in 2019, although Gallo didn’t post enough at-bats to qualify for the league leaders in these categories. If we lower the qualifying threshold, Gallo’s 26.4% barrel rate would’ve led the league by a considerable margin, and his average exit velocity of 94.7 mph would’ve put him behind only Aaron Judge for best in the league. This is probably the driving force behind Gallo’s great year: he excelled at the thing he’s best at. In 2020, Gallo experienced a major decline in this area. His average exit velocity of 91.2 mph was a career low, as was his barrel rate of 14%. These are still good numbers by league standards — his exit velocity was 26th-best in the league, and his barrel rate was in the top ten percent of hitters — but they weren’t up to his standards. For a clearer look at this, let’s check out his exit velocity distribution from the last two years.
Notice the right end of each distribution, and how 2019’s is shifted much more towards balls hit harder than 100 mph. In fact, 2019 Joey Gallo’s most likely batted ball (highest probability on that distribution) was one hit at about 105 mph, and he was just generally more adept at hitting it above 100 mph. 2020 Joey Gallo, on the other hand, was most likely to hit the ball just below 100 mph, and was more likely to make very weak contact (note the bump in the 2020 distribution on the very left side). This dip in exit velocity was a major factor in his poor year.
Another area of concern is Gallo’s average launch angle. In 2019, it sat at 22.4 degrees, but in 2020 it crept up to 26.8 degrees, a career high. Both of these launch angles are well within “line drive” territory, but that increase is telling — it reflects Gallo’s increased tendency towards hitting fly balls and pop-ups in 2020. His fly ball rate was already incredibly high in 2019, when it sat at 36.4%, good for 3rd in the league among hitters with at least 250 PA. In 2020, he actually brought that down to 29.8% (still 7th in the league among qualified hitters). The difference, however, is Gallo hit way more pop-ups. He hit them in 17.6% of his plate appearances, which led the league and was nearly double his percentage from the prior season. It doesn’t take a baseball genius to know that pop-ups are bad. Combined with his fly ball rate, it’s clear that Gallo was hitting it in the air more last season. This is reflected in his launch angle distribution.
Note how in 2019, Gallo had a much higher probability of having a launch angle in the 0–30 degree range (line drives). In 2020, he was much more likely to have an undesirable launch angle of 50+ degrees — the cutoff mark between fly ball and pop-up. Gallo has a game that’s largely predicated on hitting homers, which in turn requires a high fly ball rate. This is fine, but when fly balls aren’t leaving the yard, they aren’t often falling for hits. This wasn’t much of an issue in 2019, where 37.3% of his fly balls left the yard, good for second in the league. In 2020, though, this rate plummeted to 16.7%, good for 122nd in the league. This, combined with Gallo’s decline in line drive rate and increase in ground ball rate, contributed to his poor batting average and overall offensive performance in 2020. A return to hitting the ball hard with a better launch angle distribution, along with muscling more fly balls into the seats, will help him get back on track. It could also help him beat the shift, which is the final element that he’ll need to get back into the All-Star conversation.
Beating the Shift (aka the BABIP discussion)
In 2019, Joey Gallo had a career-high batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The league average in this statistic is about 0.300 — a ball put in play will be a hit about 30% of the time for an average hitter. For Joey Gallo two seasons ago, that mark was 0.368, which is by far a career high and was 10th best in the league. In the two seasons before that, he posted BABIPs of 0.250 and 0.249. The massive spike in 2019 can partially be attributed to skill, but there’s undoubtedly a luck component, as there is with many facets of baseball. BABIP is at least partially dependent on luck: a pop fly lands between two fielders, a grounder just gets by a diving infielder, an outfielder loses a fly ball in the sun, etc. As this Fangraphs article points out, Gallo’s 2019 BABIP was boosted by a 0.500 mark against left-handed pitchers, compared to just 0.306 against right-handed pitchers. A 0.500 BABIP is unheard of and is undoubtedly mostly luck, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. Gallo’s 0.306 BABIP against right-handers was still a career high and is a much more reasonable number. And while his 0.368 total BABIP is certainly an outlier, I don’t think this one statistic can be pointed at to dismiss Gallo’s entire 2019 as “fraudulent”, as that author puts it. But I digress.
A major factor in that increase was Gallo’s ability to beat the shift. Gallo is consistently one of the most shifted-on players in the league, and it generally harms him significantly. He’s underperformed his expected batting average every year of his career aside from 2019. Digging deeper, we can see exactly where the shift hurts him the most.
The shift excels at swallowing ground balls, and Gallo is no exception, posting very poor batting averages on grounders. In 2019, however, he wasn’t as hurt as he normally was, and this may be due to luck and a few bunt hits. The line drives, however, are where Gallo is really kept down. Line drives generally have a 0.700-ish batting average across the league, and we can see here that Gallo is harmed tremendously by hitting liners into the shift. This is what’s keeping him from ever hitting for average. Still, Gallo managed to sneak a few more liners through the shift in 2019, posting his only batting average greater than 0.300. While some — or maybe even most — of this is getting lucky and finding holes between diving fielders, there is a component of skill to it. In 2019, Gallo hit line drives an average of 101 mph, the only time he’s ever broken 100 mph in that regard. This blistering speed is a factor in liners screaming past fielders or tipping off gloves for base hits.
While BABIP is an inherently noisy statistic which can be driven by getting lucky, Gallo showed real signs of improvement to boost his in 2019. Even if he’ll never post one that high again (which is likely), he still showed that he can occasionally blast hits through the shift. This is the antithetical approach to what your vintage baseball fan might suggest. “Just hit it the other way!” They might say, angrily waving their fist at the clouds. For a player like Gallo, a batting average-centric approach would involve hitting grounders and liners to left field to eventually get teams to stop shifting. While he could in theory do this, it goes against the kind of player he is and is a waste of his rare skillset. His approach may sacrifice a high average, but he’ll accept that for the chance to do as much damage as possible. With some adjustments to his game — namely more line drives, fewer pop-ups, and more consistently hard contact — he’ll be able to beat the shift more often and raise that batting average a little more. It’s not super important for him, but it’ll help him get on base more when he’s not hitting it out of the yard. And it would help him make the All-Star team, since fans and coaches still care about batting average.
Conclusion: Can Joey Make the All-Star Team Again?
After reviewing the numbers, I think there is a path back to the All-Star game for Joey Gallo. At the very least, he’s shown that he can get hot for a 50-to-60 game stretch, and that’s really all you need. Plus, his Gold Glove caliber fielding, which I haven’t even talked about here, will always keep him in the conversation and will keep those Adam Dunn comparisons at bay. I haven’t dwelled on his fielding because it’s not really important in terms of his All-Star candidacy; hitting is far more important in that regard. But the real question I’m getting at with this piece is whether he can return to the player he was in 2019, and I think he can. He might not hit for as high of an average — I’m thinking that was a bit of an outlier — but he showed concrete, important development in 2019 and much of it stuck in 2020. His plate discipline numbers have the same look, and some have improved. He had an uncharacteristically bad year against four-seam fastballs; I expect that to change based on his past performance. He didn’t make as much hard contact, but again the past performance suggests that he’ll return to being among the league leaders there. If he can recapture some of that same BABIP luck, aided by some more scorching line drives, he should be able to see that batting average climb above the Mendoza line again. But really, for Gallo, the batting average isn’t important: he’ll always strike out and be hurt by the shift too much to have a good one (aside from outliers like 2019). In his case, the on-base percentage is one of the most important statistics to follow. He’ll always strike out a lot and hit a lot of home runs, but if he’s walking a lot, you know he’s seeing the ball well at the plate and he’s primed to do as much damage as possible.
Gallo had a pretty horrible offensive year in 2020. To get back on track, he needs to hit fewer pop-ups, more line drives, maintain a disciplined approach, and get back to hitting the ball as hard as he’s capable of. He’s not as bad as he showed last year, and he’s probably not truly a 0.250 batting average guy either. Steamer projections, often used by fantasy baseball nerds, puts his projected 2021 slash line at 0.212/0.334/0.481 with 39 home runs and a 103 wRC+. I think that’s a fair projection based on his disappointing numbers last year, but I know he’s capable of exceeding that. If he does, he’ll be an even more dangerous hitter for some other team when the Rangers inevitably trade him for less than he’s worth.
Thanks so much for reading. Please give me feedback; I’m still new at this. All data is courtesy of Baseball Savant and Fangraphs.