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Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge Are Redefining Our Home Run Expectations

Two of the breakout stars of 2017 morphed from awful hitters into baseball-crushing forces by fixing the same problem. Rejoice, baseball fans: Many more moonshots await.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The story of Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo, two of the most fascinating hitters of the young 2017 season, is a tale of 22 dingers and three statistical tables. Let’s discuss the dingers first, because it would be a fireable offense to go more than one paragraph into a story about sluggers like these without any home run highlights. Judge, the Yankees’ 6-foot-7, 25-year-old right fielder, leads the majors with 13 home runs. Gallo, the Rangers’ 6-foot-5, 23-year-old third baseman, has hit nine. Here’s Gallo’s biggest bomb of the year, a 462-foot shot that ranks as the seventh-longest home run hit by any batter this season.

And here’s the least dubious of Judge’s many no-doubters, which ranks eighth overall at 460 feet.

Gallo’s dinger was described by a Rangers announcer as going “over the popcorn wagon in the concourse,” whereas Judge’s was described by dependably hyperbolic Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay as “put into orbit.” Regardless of reference points, both players have hit some of the hardest and most majestic home runs in recent years, shattering windshields and leaving large holes in TVs. This year, they’ve hit them consistently, too.

In 2017, everyone hits home runs, including relatively pint-sized position players who would have had a hard time going deep in earlier eras (if they’d even attempted to). For the second consecutive season, we’re on track for a record percentage of non-strikeout at-bats ending in homers, and with so many balls flying over fences, the home run has lost a little of its luster. Here’s a sentence I just heard on a highlight: “Marwin González continues his home run rampage.” I mean, Marwin González! He isn’t even excited about watching himself hit homers.

In these dinger-saturated times, we’re more in need than ever of hitters whose home runs stand out. Homers don’t have much inherent suspense: They’re batted balls that bypass the defense and soar straight into the stands. But the best home run hitters make the mundane spectacular through sheer size and strength, and Gallo and Judge are two of the few players with the power to keep homers fun.

What ties these two hitters together, aside from how hard they hit the ball, is how often they once struggled to make any kind of contact. First, the hit hardness: During the two-plus seasons of the Statcast era — the 2015–17 period for which we have batted-ball speeds, and which also encompasses the careers of Gallo and Judge — no other hitter with at least 100 balls put in play has hit as high a percentage of those balls 95 mph or faster.

If we raise the speed minimum to 110 mph — close to the tip of the batted-ball iceberg — Judge and Gallo still stand out, surpassed in percentage only by Giancarlo Stanton, who like Judge has a football background and looks too big and built to be a baseball player. Last week, Judge hit a 119.4 mph homer, the hardest ever recorded by Statcast.

Although their size and almost unequaled ability to hit the ball hard made them well-known prospects — in Gallo’s case, a consensus top-10 — Gallo and Judge also shared the same potentially crippling weakness: excessive swing-and-misses. When this season started, the pair owned easily the lowest career contact rates in the 2008–17 Statcast/PITCHf/x era among active hitters with at least 90 career plate appearances (a low enough bar for Judge to clear).

In Gallo’s two partial major league seasons, he’d come up empty on almost 48 percent of his swings and struck out in 49.7 percent of his plate appearances. In Judge’s first exposure to the big leagues last season, he’d whiffed on more than 40 percent of his swings and struck out in 44.2 percent of his plate appearances (after hitting a ball off a sports bar in his first MLB at-bat). Both had been abysmal hitters. No matter how much raw power a player shows off in batting practice, it’s hard to be valuable while batting .170-something in games, as both Gallo and Judge had in their young major league careers.

That takes us up to the third of the three promised statistical tables. This one, which again pulls from the 2008–17 pitch-tracking era, shows the largest single-season improvements in contact rate in more than 100 plate appearances by hitters who entered a season with at least 90 combined PA in previous years.

Gallo and Judge make contact now! (At least compared to their previous selves.) I’ve set modest minimums for this list, so all of these players produced their improvements in partial seasons. The higher the plate-appearance threshold, the smaller the largest increases; it’s not easy for a player to defy his past for a full season. Odds are that Gallo’s and Judge’s 2017 contact rates will decline somewhat as the season wears on, but their placements close to the top of this list reveal the significance of their contact increases to date. Gallo’s K rate has fallen from 49.7 percent pre-2017 to 38.2 percent this season, and Judge’s has shrunk from 44.2 to 26.0.

Increasing contact isn’t always a recipe for success: If you hit the ball only as hard as Jordan Schafer, you can make more contact and still be bad. If you’re Gallo or Judge, though, putting the bat where the ball goes is much more than half the battle. For them, the rest is easy.

Contact rate is one of the fastest stats to stabilize, telling us something meaningful about a player’s in-sample performance in as few as 40 PA. That doesn’t mean he’ll make the same amount of contact in the next 40 (or 400) PA, but we can be confident that the Gallo and Judge we’ve seen so far really have been changed hitters. Unlike Gallo, Judge has cut down on his K’s (and upped his walk rate) in part by making a major improvement to his selectivity: After reaching for more than a third of pitches outside the strike zone last year, he’s offering at only about a fifth of such pitches this season. No player with at least 30 plate appearances last season and 100 this year has lowered his swing rate on out-of-zone pitches by as much as Judge’s difference of 14.3 percentage points.

Gallo, meanwhile, is swinging at out-of-zone pitches more often than ever. But both players have dramatically raised their contact rates on pitches inside the strike zone, the ones with which they can do the most damage. Among players with at least 30 PA last year and 100 PA this year, Gallo (17.0 percent) and Judge (11.5 percent) own the only double-digit increases in contact percentage on pitches inside the strike zone.

It’s not so surprising that Gallo and Judge would get better with more major league time; we’ve seen other tall and talented hitters, such as Stanton and Kris Bryant, cut down on their rookie K rates, and even Gallo and Judge reduced their strikeout rates in their second stints at Triple-A. What’s shocking is how sudden and dramatic their epiphanies have been. Judge cites his offseason study of other big hitters who’ve had success, which led him to make mechanical tweaks that have helped his bat spend more time in the strike zone. Gallo, whose struggles last season may have functioned as a form of strikeout exposure therapy, credits his improvement to a Zen acceptance that the K’s will come when they come.

Judge is supplying some star power for an ahead-of-schedule contending team that didn’t start the season with many marquee names and lost Gary Sánchez — last year’s Yankees phenom — to injury early. Gallo’s strikeout issues have always been more acute than Judge’s, and they remain so this season; even as the biggest bright spot in a scuffling Rangers lineup, he’s still striking out too often to be a really great hitter. But he is approaching the point where it’s reasonable to expect a hitter with his power to be above average. And that’s the only bar he has to clear to keep treating us to popcorn- and concourse-clearing fly balls.

The first four-plus weeks of the season have been great for Gallo and Judge, but they’ve been almost as fun for anyone who’s followed them. We’re not just seeing two hot starts to a season. We’re watching the promise of many more moonshots to come.

Plate-discipline and exit-speed stats through Wednesday’s games. Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs and Jessie Barbour for research assistance.