After a period of time, it tends to become apparent what exactly a player is. This may not always be the case, with late-career breakouts and the like, but when it comes to Ranger’s slugger Joey Gallo, I think it’s safe to say we know what kind of player he is. Gallo is the poster boy for the three true outcomes, often ranking among the league leaders in walks, home runs, and, inevitably, strikeouts. Ignoring all of this, however, Joey Gallo often lives on a statistical planet all to himself, capable of hitting baseballs harder and further than almost any other human. This has at least been the story for Gallo in his first handful of Major League seasons. In 2021, things are getting even weirder for Gallo and his numbers, and it likely isn’t for the better either.
At this point in his career, there’s a solid case to be made that Joey Gallo is more interesting than he is good. I, however, always have a hard time giving up on other-worldly tools, which Gallo has. There is also his partial 2019 season, in which he posted a 144 wRC+, 3.3 fWAR, and launched a characteristic 22 home runs in just 70 games. It was, at the time at least, a glimpse into what could be. If Gallo could even just hit .250 with his tools, and continue to defend well in the outfield, he really could be a special player. It was only 70 games, but it showed some great potential.
In 2021, Joey Gallo has continued to be an outlier, but frankly, in an even stranger way. As mentioned, Gallo has perennially finished near the top of the leaderboards for walk rate, strikeout rate, and home runs. The Texas outfielder has done more of the same this year, except he’s missing the most important and tantalizing part of that equation. Gallo has actually improved his strikeout and walk rates this year, which is always encouraging, but his power numbers seem to have hit a bit of a wall.
From 2017 (his first full season) to 2020, Gallo ranked 3rd overall in hard-hit rate (49.9%), 2nd in average exit velocity (93.6 MPH), and 1st in barrel rate (21%). Along with this, and in line with his three true outcome tendencies, Gallo also had the 13th highest walk rate, 4th highest strikeout rate, and ranked 11th in home runs during that stretch. All in all, Gallo came out as a solid everyday player over that stretch (without giving much weight to his aforementioned 2019 stretch of great baseball). He did this in a way that no other player really does, which, regardless of his performance, makes him interesting. When it comes to 2021, Gallo is doing his best to put on an even stranger performance. With his mildly improved strikeout and walk rates, Gallo’s exceptional power at the plate seems to have disappeared early into the year. This all comes with a sample size caveat as he’s only recorded 43 batted ball events, but it’s certainly an interesting trend. Through this portion of the season, the Texas outfielder ranks in the 50th percentile for average exit velocity, 35th percentile in hard hit percentage, and 20th percentile in barrel rate. Gallo also ranks 2nd overall in walk rate behind only Max Muncy, both of whom are well ahead of the pack in that realm. Here are those figures visualized by his percentile rankings year by year.
Well, I’d say that’s pretty weird, no? Gallo is walking more than almost anyone, and more than anytime in his career, striking out less than ever (still not a good rate), but he seems to have stopped hitting the ball with notably high quality. It’s concerning, considering most of his production comes from his ability to crush the ball, but the kicker to all of this? He has posted a 121 wRC+ thus far, that’s pretty good! This can be largely explained by his .409 OBP, but it’s quite strange.
Generally speaking, the harder someone can hit the ball, the better, but that doesn’t always mean someone will be a productive hitter. Beyond this drop in quality contact, his spray charts have shifted quite a bit as well. Gallo’s pull percentage is down to a career-low 44.2%, and his fly ball percentage has plummeted to 35.7% with a significant subsequent rise in ground ball percentage to 42.9%. Now, this is not inherently bad, but when it’s someone with Gallo’s fascinating profile, it’s probably not what you want to see.
In general, fly balls hit to the pull side tend to be the most productive batted balls, and Gallo has dropped his rates on both of those qualifiers in 2021. Ground balls tend to be less productive, and for the first time in his career, Gallo is hitting them at a higher rate than he is fly balls. Simply put, he’s doing the good stuff less often, and the less good stuff more often.
Joey Gallo has shown the ability to be a valuable defensive outfielder, but at the core, most of his value comes from his exceptional ability to hit a baseball very far and very hard. That very skill that has made him productive in the past seems to have fallen off a cliff. It’s a long season, and Gallo has plenty of time to return to form. Through all of it, however, Gallo has remained a productive hitter, some of the most productive he’s been in fact. That’s one of the most fascinating parts of baseball, there’s an infinite amount of ways in which a player can provide value, Gallo has always taken a unique path to this, and it only seems to be getting more peculiar.
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