The Next Space Race – #4 in a 5-part Series

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As we move toward the third decade of this century, there’s a true space race going for the first time since the 1960s.

Who will be the next to reach Mars: another NASA mission, or a Joey Gallo home run?

Where to begin with Gallo? Well, actually, we start with someone who knows him much better than me. Brice Paterik has been aware of Gallo since sometime after he played Little League with Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant in Las Vegas, and before he was ending his first big league game a triple short of the cycle. I don’t know which direction that scale slides, but knowing Brice, I’d gamble on it leaning towards the former. Gallo was on his radar as readily as most of Gallo’s homers are on local air traffic controller’s screens – that is, well more of a blip. Here’s his seminal and farewell piece for Brice, on Gallo as this season’s #1 Rangers prospect.

Gallo is one of those rare hitters who you never have to see. You HEAR him. The ball sounds truly different off his whiplash swing.

Here’s what that swing produces at its best: a 471-foot monster to right. From the freeze-frame, you see even though he crushed the ball, his head stays down through contact and neither foot is planted hard in the dirt – meaning his weight was dead center of his body and transferred fully into the baseball.

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For all his strength, Gallo’s weakness is just as well known – he struggles with contact, and like most power hitters, he’s almost dead pull. Don’t get me wrong – he has plenty to hit the ball out to all fields. But his damage comes when he recognizes a pitch, sits back long, and rotates hard with all his considerable strength through a pull shot.

Now, while Gallo will probably always be a strikeout machine – I think there are certain players who are productive DESPITE whiffs, even moreso in today’s game – he’s also developed a good eye. It was when that eye betrayed him at the big league level, and he stopped seeing fastballs out over the plate or low inside that his struggles really came. Here’s his career minor league stat line, followed by his cup of coffee after Adrian Beltre’s thumb injury midseason:

Minor League Progressions (2012-2015):

AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
206 53 56 12 1 22 48 78 0.272 0.412 0.66 1.072
411 86 103 23 5 40 50 172 0.251 0.338 0.623 0.961
439 97 119 19 3 42 87 179 0.271 0.394 0.615 1.009
321 41 77 19 1 23 51 139 0.24 0.342 0.52 0.862

 

Major League Stats:

AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
108 16 22 3 1 6 15 57 0.204 0.301 0.417 0.717

It says a lot about Gallo’s minor league rise that, in a season where he hit 23 HR in 321 at bats, he was distinctly struggling. And that, even in a horrible, “Mendoza Line” season at the big league level, he had an on-base percentage 100 points above his batting average. The fact that he struck out in literally more than half of his big league at bats simply indicates that he was rushed, and exposed. It happens. Per the great Evan Grant, this is a player with an AMAZING head on his shoulders, who is spending free time this spring with Tony Beasley as he undergoes cancer treatment. That, to me, pins him as a key runner in the race to be the next cornerstone of this franchise.

He’s also embracing the approach the Rangers have trying to instill in him for his career: miss big to hit big is fine, but chasing pitches doesn’t work. His spring training is one of adjustment – one of walks and fewer whiffs. He had a streak early this spring of 12 times reaching base in 23 plate appearances, and before striking out twice on March 18, he’d strung together 19 straight plate appearances without a whiff.

Here are his numbers through his first 11 spring games, facing what Baseball-Reference puts at slightly above AAA, but well below big league, pitching:

AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
22 8 0 0 3 6 6 0.364 0.517 0.773 1.29

Spring training is full of phenoms and busts. For every Kris Bryant, who dominated 2015 Cactus League play and turned it into a Rookie of the Year campaign after being called up in May, there are dozens of guys who never reach 10 big league at-bats. But Gallo has the advantage of having been to The Show; he’s seen the bright lights, and watched them fade.

Gallo could take a lesson from Sandy Koufax. The tale would seem apocryphal, except Koufax himself has told it repeatedly:

Gil Hodges, near the end of his career as a Dodger – Brooklyn Legend and Los Angeles hanger-on, was managing the Dodgers in a split-squad game in Spring Training of 1961. The Dodgers were short on pitchers, and Hodges put a finger in Koufax’s chest and said, “You’re going eight innings today.” On the trip to the game, Koufax and his roommate, catcher Norm Sherry, had a conversation about velocity. Sherry prompted Koufax to try not to throw so hard. Koufax said he walked three in the first inning, but got out of it and pitched no-hit ball for those eight innings. That was the launch of “THE” Sandy Koufax.

All because he decided to take a bit off and throw as hard as he HAD TO, not as hard as he could.

With Gallo’s power, the secret might be much the same – 410-foot homers count the same as the 450-foot variety. And with a bit longer wait to recognize the pitch, and almost the same bat speed – you’re staying back just a bit longer and relying on hands instead of hips for just a few more swings than normal – you’re going to see the below heat chart spread from a pull-happy shift machine to an all-fields monster who doubles to left and triples to right:

 

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Here’s Gallo’s Major League Hot Zone chart for his final 30 MLB games of 2015. It tells you all you need to know – pitchers owned him except when they made a mistake and he could extend his arms low middle to middle-away.

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He’s shown the ability to hit pitches across zones, but with his Swing-for-It-All approach, holes open.

So here’s Gallo against traditional measures for the Majors best power hitters last season, measured against their minor league careers. This looks really good:

AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Stanton 1228 333 67 10 91 168 378 0.271 0.365 0.564 0.93
Arenando 1695 508 137 5 49 126 193 0.3 0.345 0.473 0.818
Donaldson 1998 550 130 8 81 272 413 0.275 0.365 0.47 0.834
Davis 1811 575 132 9 118 158 494 0.318 0.374 0.596 0.97
Cruz 2746 816 170 11 155 282 730 0.297 0.369 0.536 0.905
Gallo 1377 355 73 10 127 236 568 0.258 0.369 0.602 0.971

But here are some measures I ran, that contradict that, and tell me he MUST take the Koufax route to cut down his strikeouts or he’ll fail. Look at the last number and soak it in:

K to BB  K per HR K per Times On Base (H+BB) 
Stanton 2.25 Stanton 4.15 Stanton 0.754
Arenado 1.53 Arenado 3.94 Arenado 0.304
Donaldson 1.52 Donaldson 5.10 Donaldson 0.502
Davis 3.13 Davis 4.19 Davis 0.674
Cruz 2.59 Cruz 4.71 Cruz 0.665
Gallo 2.41 Gallo 4.47 Gallo 0.961

So here’s my worry. Look at Gallo’s strikeouts per time on base. It’s almost 1:1.  You do NOT succeed in the majors with that metric. He’s mid-range in K to BB and K per HR, but when you measure his ability to get on base versus strikeouts, he’s measurably worse than anyone else. He HAS to make adjustments, and considerable ones. All of the above-mentioned players are threats beyond the Home Run – even Davis. When Joey Gallo comes to the plate in the minor leagues, there’s a 50% chance he will reach base, and if he doesn’t do that, he’s just as likely to strike out.

Here’s the key: teams will TAKE that gamble.

His bat is like Koufax’s arm: unlimited power potential. All he has to do is harness it. And what does good look like? Something like this, a flashback to his 40-homer 2013 season – tough at-bat ending in blasts all over the park:

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He’s more than the heir apparent at third base. He’s the right man to take on the most of Beltre’s heavy load as lineup leader and push a young, talent-laden Rangers team into the third decade of the 21st century – moon shot by moon shot.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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