Two years ago, I wrote an article about baseball’s continued evolution into a game of strikeouts, home runs, and walks, rather than a game of balls in play. Actually, “evolution” doesn’t really cover the normative angle from which I approached the issue; the title of the article ended up being “The End of Baseball As We Know It.” My contention at the time was that as baseball players got bigger, stronger, and more skilled, base runner–fielder interactions would become less common and more of the game would be played at walking pace. These trends weren’t new—the phrase “three true outcomes” dates back to the start of the 21st century—but the league was at a turning point in 2017. Home run totals eclipsed the record highs of the steroid era, and the next year, strikeouts outnumbered hits for the first time ever. For good or ill, that’s how baseball would look going forward until and unless the rules changed.
From the outset, the one player I knew I had to talk to was Joey Gallo, then a 23-year-old in his first full season in the majors. Not only is Gallo quotable—he’s a particularly interesting combination of blunt and descriptive, with almost no filter between what he’s thinking and what face he’s making—but he’s also the poster boy for New Baseball.
Even more than Aaron Judge, whose record-setting rookie season in 2017 seemed to herald the dawn of a new age (or the end of the old one), Gallo lived and died by the three true outcomes. In 2017, 58.8 percent of his plate appearances ended in a strikeout, walk, or home run, compared with 57.1 percent for Judge, and 33.5 percent—then an all-time record—for the average MLB player.
“Obviously I’m not trying to strike out,” Gallo told me at the time. “But I think it’s better for the player I am to go up there and swing the bat with some intent. … I’d rather at least try to put a good swing on it, and if I miss it, I miss it. But if I hit it, damage is going to happen.”
In 2017 and 2018 combined, Gallo hit just .208 and struck out 36.3 percent of the time, for an average of 202 punchouts a season. But he also walked 13.4 percent of the time, which was good enough to boost his OBP to .322, and averaged a hair over 40 home runs a year. And while Gallo is a giant—6-foot-5 and a sinewy 235 pounds—he moves well for a big guy and has one of the best throwing arms of any position player in the majors, allowing him to play competent defense at third or in an outfield corner. Over those two seasons, despite making Rob Deer look like Tony Gwynn, Gallo was a slightly above-average player, according to Baseball-Reference.
Two years later, the league-average TTO% is up to 35.3 percent, and Gallo’s is nearly twice that, at 61.4. He leads the American League in strikeouts, with 67, and is making contact on just 62.7 percent of his swings, the second-worst rate of the 169 qualified hitters in the majors this year.
As recently as last year, Gallo’s distinctive skill set, uncompromising approach, and lack of shame about striking out made him look like an emissary from the future, and a frightening one for baseball fans who love contact hitters and small ball. Now, the people who ought to fear Gallo the most are American League pitchers.
The 2017-18 version of Gallo hit .208/.322/.516 and was a 2.6 bWAR player, on average, which was a respectable stat line and made him a useful player. But this year, he’s hitting .277/.423/.652. Gallo leads the AL in SLG and is a close third behind Mike Trout and George Springer on the AL leaderboard in wRC+. Through 45 games he’s within a tenth of a win of tying his own career high in bWAR. For comparison, when Judge hit .284/.422/.627 in 2017, he was worth 8.1 bWAR and finished second in MVP voting, and if Gallo keeps hitting like this, he’ll be in the MVP discussion by season’s end.
Whether Gallo lands on most MVP ballots, and where, will depend in large part on one number: his batting average on balls in play, or BABIP. “Balls in play”—i.e. not home runs—constitute a small portion of Gallo’s plate appearances compared with a normal hitter’s, but it’s an important number nonetheless because it’s what’s driving the increase in his batting average. From 2015 to 2018, Gallo’s BABIP was just .256; this year, it’s up to .378. That 122-point increase in BABIP, along with more modest increases in his walk rate and isolated power, has increased his batting average from bad to good, and his OBP and SLG from good to godlike.
Gallo’s 70-point bump in batting average would seem to indicate a compromise on Gallo’s part to make more contact. But rather than cutting down on his swing to make more contact, Gallo is still ripping loose like he’s trying to knock over a tree in the next county. He’s just making better decisions about which pitches to swing at. Earlier this month, he told Eno Sarris of The Athletic that he’d made a conscious decision to be more selective, more “stubborn” in his words, at the plate.
“Less chasing pitches,” Gallo told Sarris. “The player I am, they’re not going to just fucking throw me hittable pitches, I have to earn ’em.”
By narrowing his focus, Gallo has cut his swing rate from 48.3 percent to 40.2 percent, and his swing rate on pitches outside the zone from 32.2 percent to 22.9 percent. The effect of this change doesn’t exactly show up in his contact numbers—his strikeout rate is down and his contact rate is up, but both by 1.7 and 1.0 percentage points, respectively.
The difference is that Gallo is able to square up a greater percentage of the pitches he swings at; rather than delivering a glancing blow to a ball that’s just out of the zone, he’s waiting for something he’s sure he can hit right on the screws. Gallo isn’t making more contact, he’s making better contact, which says a lot for a player coming off back-to-back 40-homer seasons. And while Gallo hasn’t cut down his strikeout rate by laying off bad pitches, he is walking in 19.9 percent of his plate appearances, a career high and second in baseball to Mike Trout.
The reason pitchers don’t “just fucking throw hittable pitches” to Gallo is that he’s one of the strongest players in baseball. Gallo looks like he could beat up Optimus Prime with his neck, and his arms are the size of a normal person’s legs. Regardless of body type, position players who came up through the Rangers system—Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Odubel Herrera, Jurickson Profar—tend to hit from a fairly deep crouch, with an open stance, and bat more or less parallel to the ground. When they stride, they’re not only transferring momentum forward into the baseball, they’re lifting it like a barbell off a squat rack. Profar, whose entire body could fit in one of Gallo’s pant legs, had 61 extra-base hits, including 20 homers, using this swing last year.
Gallo applies considerably greater physical strength to similar swing mechanics. So when he gets into one, it comes with a sonic boom.
You guys wanna see Joey Gallo's longest homer of the season? pic.twitter.com/VapwvzfySS— Cut4 (@Cut4) May 1, 2019
There are home runs where the outfielders don’t even bother to move, and then there are Gallo’s signature mortar shots, which stay in the air so long the outfielders could flag down a hot dog vendor and have some dinner before the ball lands. And by laying off trash out of the zone, Gallo is hitting the ball harder than he ever has before; his hard contact rate, 57.3 percent, is 8.8 percentage points better than his previous career high.
In fact, he’s hitting the ball harder than anyone in the league. Gallo leads MLB not only in hard contact rate, but also in average exit velocity, at 96.1 mph. Gallo has put 89 balls in play in 2019, and 25 of those have been what Statcast records as “barrels,” the best classification of hard contact. That’s the highest ratio in baseball. In old-school terms, 27 of Gallo’s 89 batted balls have gone for extra bases, including 15 home runs. Gallo also leads baseball in HR/FB ratio, at 42.9 percent.
Gallo may also be a beneficiary of a newly juiced baseball; after a drop-off in leaguewide home run rate in 2018, MLB is on pace to crush the record for league average home run rate. A baseball less susceptible to air resistance would seem to benefit a player who hits the ball as hard as Gallo does.
The question going forward is how much of Gallo’s increased BABIP is the result of that harder contact and how much is a fluke. To a certain degree, BABIP is a measure of luck—whether bloopers down the line turn into doubles or line drives into the shift turn into outs. On average, leaguewide BABIP tends to be about .300. But certain hitters either overperform or underperform that number because of their underlying skill set. Spray hitters who don’t get shifted and can beat out grounders, like Lorenzo Cain, tend to have a high BABIP, as do big dudes who hit the absolute stuffing out of the ball, like Miguel Cabrera and Paul Goldschmidt. Christian Yelich and Mike Trout, who can do both, are second and fifth among active players in career BABIP.
Gallo doesn’t beat out a lot of grounders because he doesn’t hit many grounders, and he gets shifted frequently and extremely. Therefore, he’s currently 205th out of 225 active players with at least 1,000 career PA in BABIP. But given how hard he’s hit the ball this season, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a leap in BABIP and overall production. Baseball Savant has Gallo’s wOBA at .441, with his xwOBA—expected wOBA, based on strikeout rate, walk rate, and quality of contact—at .442.
Maybe Gallo’s getting a little lucky, but maybe he’s just so strong and selective that he can keep cranking searing line drives and suborbital home runs at this rate until they either change the baseball or the rules. Gallo was once an extreme outlier who heralded the future of baseball. Now, after two more seasons of evolution, he looks like the archetype.
Stats are current through Sunday’s games.