Joey Gallo: Squint, and you just might see…
There’s a story I’ve heard about Ted Williams. The long version is better, but it includes typical Williams language, so I can’t use it here. I’ve told it before, but I like it so much, I’ll tell it again.
Anyways, in 1954, like most regulars, Ted only played the early innings of Spring Training games. He’s out in the clubhouse annex when he hears a crack.
An ungodly crack. A crack he’d only heard once before: when Jimmie Foxx hit the ball. He ran out in his undershirt, demanding to know who the hell hit that ball.
The Red Sox were playing the Milwaukee Braves. The kid hitting was named Henry Aaron.
There’s a thing about special players. I’ve heard it from numerous baseball players, coaches, and media members. They say they go by their ears.
The eyes can misread. The stopwatch and radar gun can fool you. But the sounds—the sounds rarely lie.
The hiss of a Nolan Ryan fastball, defying physics. The zip of a Clayton Kershaw curve, slicing the air. And more than anything, the special rifle shot reverberation of a great hitter crushing the ball. Foxx. Aaron. Mickey Mantle. Frank Howard. Dick Allen. Willie Stargell. Dave Kingman. Mark McGwire.
There are two players under 25 that I’ve consistently read about, since they were minor leaguers, for distinctive power and unmistakable acoustics at the plate.
Neither of them are in the likes of the guys above. At best, you might squint and see Kingman or Howard (although I’d bet you’re underrating Howard; he was Giancarlo Stanton before Stanton).
Realistically, they’ll just be the best themselves they could be. Given their power, that just might just be legendary enough. If they can only make enough contact.
I want to look at Gallo in comparison to Judge, and others, for some projections, but also a reality check.
Joey vs. Aaron Judge
The summary for both Gallo and Judge sits pretty much here: huge power, huge strikeouts. Careers defined by how much patience they show, and how much contact they make. Full stop.
Judge is playing amazing baseball in the capital of media and the free world, alike. That’s led for writers from NYC to ESPN to call him no less than an MVP candidate, not to mention presumptive Rookie of the Year.
There’s no doubt Judge is powerful. Heck the guy LOOKS like central casting’s version of a power hitter. He’s 6’7”, listed at 275 and proportioned like a modern linebacker. And he does hit the ball a LONG ways.
But is he more powerful than Gallo? Sorry, no. Just, no. He’s not. Gallo grades at 80 raw power on the scouting scale. That’s LITERALLY as high as it gets. That’s Giancarlo Stanton. Judge rates at 70, and is below Gallo both there and in game power (here’s both, per Fangraphs scouting from 2015):
|20 / 50||20 / 60||70 / 70||50 / 45||50 / 50||60 / 60||55|
|30 / 45||60 / 70||80 / 80||40 / 40||45 / 50||70 / 70||60|
Gallo was rated the best power prospect in multiple minor leagues. To wit:
Just for the sake of completeness, here’s Judge’s hitting rankings:
- Best Power Prospect in the South Atlantic League in 2014.
So that’s a pretty decent comparison set. In three separate league in the same year—ranging from the Sally League (SAL), which is Class A ball, to the Carolina League, which is High A, to Texas League, which is Double A—you have the best power prospect in leagues at three of the minors five major levels (the others short-season A-ball and AAA) in two players.
But that was four years, and a combined hundreds of big league at-bats ago. And really, potential isn’t the point unless it’s projectable. Remember, the list of “best anything” in the minor leagues is littered with guys who never made much of a dent in the majors (see Mateo, Ruben, for hitting close to home).
For every minor league, there’s always “the guy”—the one players will talk about 15 years after they played together. They’ll be coaching in their late 30s, fighting the endless fight against a belly roll, talking to kids who are what they once were. And they’ll point to some impossibly distant spot and say, “ ‘The Guy’ once hit one there”. The Guy in the Sally League, at least over the last decade, is probably Aaron Judge. I can tell you, for sure, The Guy at various Rangers levels, especially the Texas League, is Joey Gallo.
Diving into the numbers
So before we get to the larger question, let’s look at the current Toast of New York, in comparison to the current Pride of Arlington, in their FULL minor league careers:
What do these numbers tell us? Well, largely, we’re looking at two tremendously similar hitters, with one big difference: home runs. Gallo strikes out a decent bit more (10% more per plate appearance) while walking a small bit more (just under 2% more per plate appearance). We don’t look at batting average because, honestly, it just doesn’t matter. If I have to convince you of that, well, we need to have a long talk about how runs are scored, sabermetrics, and the advances in judging players. That’s not for this column. (Editor’s note, for full disclosure: I selected the stats to compare, not for similarity, but because of what I see as those with “projectability” and value. All are from baseball-reference, with the exception of scouting ratings, which are from Baseball America unless otherwise cited. Also, I make no apologies for mistakes in statistical similarity understanding or projections. 1) I’m not a trained statistician beyond one Grad School course, and 2) I don’t get paid to do this stuff, so it’s best-effort between sleeps).
What matters is, Gallo gets on base almost as much as Judge (0.4% fewer times per plate appearance) but is going to slug better in a full 10% of plate appearances.
Pure power – looking at you, Giancarlo
Now, a word on isolated power. In pure calculation, it’s simple: subtract batting average from slugging percentage. Here’s FanGraph’s description, which is a much better one than I can give:
Isolated Power (ISO) is a measure of a hitter’s raw power and tells you how often a player hits for extra bases. We know that not all hits are created equally and ISO provides you with a quick tool for determining the degree to which a given hitter provides extra base hits as opposed to singles. While batting average and slugging percentage each offer part of the answer, they aren’t very good at distinguishing players without being considered together, even if you know a player’s walk rate as well.
To give you a comparison of the guy generally considered the best pure power hitter in baseball today, Giancarlo Stanton, versus Gallo, his SLG and ISO for his minor league career were .564 and .293. So, even compared to the great Giancarlo, Joey is the better pure power minor leaguer, by either measure.
Does that mean it’ll translate? Not necessarily. But Giancarlo would be a great comp to follow, as his major league SLG and ISO are .537 and .272.
But what about contact rate? Well, Giancarlo’s minor league career strikeout, walk, and walk to strikeout rates were (in 7 seasons), respectively:
Just for sake of our hope, his major league rates (after 8 big league seasons):
As you’d expect, he got a BIT worse, but largely stayed the same. And, he had numbers very comparable to Joey. Again, the big issue is he made more contact than Gallo, as did Judge. That’s simply the huge factor. But we digress with Giancarlo; it’s just a fun note, not a predictor. We’re coming to the predictor.
Also, I’m going to cut Judge out there. This column, frankly, isn’t about what Judge is. It’s what Gallo is, and, more importantly what he might become. Maybe in a couple years, when Joey is the same age Judge is now, we can do a more reasonable comparison.
For now, like many things with Joey, it’s too soon.
Joey vs. Carlos Pena
We just can show that Gallo takes a back seat to neither he nor anyone else. But this isn’t about one tool, really. Not in the long run—even if that tool is tremendous power. And it isn’t about minor league comps or performance, unless they indicate something. And what we see with Gallo is that there is ONE indicator that tracks well with performance.
The likely player I see Gallo looking most like? Well, it’s not Judge. Judging, instead, by discipline, power, and glove, I think Carlos Pena might be a good comparison.
We don’t have some of the more advanced stats for Carlos, but if you look at OPS and walk/strikeout rates at the big league level, he looks a lot like what Gallo could be. Here’s his career progression in those areas:
Would you be happy with that? A one-time All-Star who won a gold glove, didn’t hit for average, but slashed .232/.346/.462 with an ISO of .230 and 31 HR per 162 games played? I think you have to be at least satisfied, given that we’ve seen how low things can go.
But the ceiling could be higher, if the contact rate can just climb a bit more.
Here, now, are Gallo’s season by season strikeout rates per plate appearance (our best record of contact available in the minors) against his on-base plus slugging (OPS) percentages (with year and level, to give us more data) for his career—including 2017 through Friday:
It works better visually; here’s a graph of his OPS (blue line) and SO% (orange line); each MLB range split is indicated by the red dashed line:
What this tells us is what we’ve long suspected. When Joey Gallo makes contact, he hits. That was largely true of Pena, and I think it’s true here. Pena had holes in his swing, struck out quite a lot, and didn’t do much besides homer. But even he didn’t have Gallo’s raw power, or quite his patience (fewer strikeouts, but fewer walks, too), which translates to OPS, generally.
The surprising thing is the DEGREE that contact makes a difference in these numbers. If my math is right (a BIG if), then each 1% shift in contact percentage for Gallo, on average, leads roughly to a 2X change in OPS in the opposite direction.
Stating the obvious, again: contact, for a player like Joey, with his raw power, is incredibly important.
That’s why, when you hear me raving about his working the count deep, only swinging and missing three times in a game, or trading two strikeouts for fly balls to left and center field, it means a lot.
So, what’s he doing right to MAKE contact this year? Well, for one thing, he’s just taking more pitches, swinging less often, and closing more holes in his swing.
We’re fortunate, in that Joey gave us a comparison of his lowest of lows in the majors last year, going 1-for-25 with 5 walks across 30 PAs (that one hit, of course, was a massive home run). This year, he’s approached the highest of his highs, especially for stretches, but I’ve taken all of 2017 and hoping we can dig in to get an idea of what good really looks like.
Now, a spray chart for all those rotten 2016 at-bats won’t tell us anything. It amounts to six—6!—data points (one HR, one liner to RF, one GB to 1B, and flyouts to short left, medium right, and LF foul territory). It’s sparse not only because it wasn’t a huge sample, but because he struck out in almost 2/3 (19) of those appearances.
So we look instead to his contact percentage for the 145 pitches he saw in those at-bats:
Basically, he either reached for an away pitch, or he pulled off inside stuff. Simple enough. He was dead with anything low, and even the heart of the plate was a chance shot, at best. Now here’s 2017, in total:
That might look pretty similar. He’s still deadly inside, and still dead low and in or up and away. But a close look shows he’s got much better coverage middle and away. In the zone, we see very little blue relative to our friends, white and pink.
Now, we’ve hit on the key to Joey Gallo: discipline and contact. So what does good there look like, and how are the trends going? Well, here are is 2015-2017 discipline numbers. First, a definition of each metric, which are fairly intuitive:
- O-Swing% / Contact%: Percentage of pitches a batter swings at / makes contact with outside the strike zone
- Z-Swing% / Contact%: Percentage of pitches a batter swings at / makes contact with inside the strike zone
- Zone%: Percentage of pitches seen inside the zone
- SwStr%:- Swinging strike percentage
Here’s Pena, by comparison, for his career: Again, the question becomes, what does this tell us, trend-wise, about Gallo now vs. Gallo then? Well, he’s swinging at close to the same number of balls as he did last year (just over 2% more, actually), but he’s hitting them almost 8% more often. Inside the zone, he’s swinging more often (almost 5% more often) but critically, he’s made a HUGE jump in contact percentage, by 17%. Overall, he’s making contact at roughly 2/3 of the times he swings, versus ½ of those swings last year.
Carlos basically swung at fewer pitches, over his career, outside the zone, but made contact outside the zone a bit more. He also made a good bit more contact. That’s understandable. Carlos wasn’t scouted to be like a Joey Gallo. He emerged as an all-or-nothing type slugger as he matured, in an era when that kind of hitting was almost necessary to play first base in the major leagues.
Now, even without having batted ball velocity data for Carlos, having seen him play, I can tell you he could hit the ball hard, but I never remember thinking, “He’s in a league of his own.” I think that with Gallo. We know Joey hits the ball hard, and often far. From our earlier analysis, we know if he MAKES contact, his OPS responds by a 2x factor to that contact. And we can tell by the 5% drop in swinging strikes that he is swinging and missing less, but his percentage of pitches seen inside the zone has stayed level (actually gone up just a bit), and that extra discipline is especially helping because he’s seeing fewer first-pitch strikes, by 6%. That happens when you hit.
Jeff Banister said Gallo’s approach for the early season was to stay within himself, and not play the pitchers game, if you will. “What we’ve been talking about is, he’s staying off chase pitches for the most part,” the manager said, “Using the hands much better, staying on his legs, and looking for pitches to drive.”
Banister also commented on his maturity in recovering from chasing out of the zone, saying “When he does chase, it doesn’t affect him. He gets right back into the at-bat. ”
So we know he’s seeing better pitches, making contact in the zone much more often, and thus doing more with them when he makes contact.
But how did he make this adjustment in a fairly short period of time? Take it from the man himself. Said Gallo earlier, after his two-homer game on April 23rd:
“I just wanted to get some pitches in the zone today and take good swings on them. Mash (assistant hitting coach Justin Mashore) was just kind of reminding me today that I was just trying to do too much and put the ball in play and he said, “Don’t try to hit .300. Be you.” So my at-bats after that have been more the way I play and swing.”
Crushing the ball
The best thing about Gallo? He hits the ball hard. VERY hard. Here are the current 2017 leaders in average exit velocity.
The message is pretty clear – you hit the ball hard, you’re probably one of the better hitters in baseball. Look at the names above. Khris Davis—we all know him. Nelson Cruz—yep, pretty familiar with him, too. Aaron Judge—I think we covered him. The Ryan’s (Zimmerman and Braun) have some skins on the wall. Further down the list, but still in the low 90s, you have Miguel Cabrera (93.3), Corey Seager (92.7) and Joey’s former Las Vegas Little League teammate, Bryce Harper (92.2).
I can’t really explain Mike Trout not being on the leaderboard, except that he’s a bit of a situational guy. He barrels the ball very hard (his hardest velocity this year is 117MPH on a single), but he also hits a lot of balls that get over the infield or through, even jammed, because he’s so strong. That brings his average down a bit.
Trust me: Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew would never have made this list. They weren’t that type of hitter; you don’t have to hit the ball hard to be great. It can help, however, in being legendary. Legends like those we mentioned (Aaron, Mantle, Stargell, McGwire and let’s not forget Willie McCovey), would have been among the leaders had we had the numbers.
Gallo, in his own words, and some others’
So, Gallo: the way he plays and swings, and hits. Hard. All the time. This year, he’s just making contact more often. And, being Joey Gallo, when he makes contact, things go very, very well. And he works, of course, very hard at it.
But part of the secret is to remember the fun of the game.
“I mean, I think in the offseason you kind of have a lot of time to think. Everybody is always jealous we get to play baseball for a living and we get to play in the Major Leagues, but we don’t always view it like that. It’s our job,” said Gallo earlier. “This year, I kind of wanted to enjoy every moment I had on the field, and enjoy being with these guys a little more. I think just that comfortability is just helping me a little bit to progress, and to feel better.”
But most of it comes down to simple trust and belief in himself, which we could probably cut and paste into every story on a maturing player from the turn of the last century.
“I’m just learning to trust myself, and trust my abilities more, and what I can do on the field,” Gallo said earlier this year. “You know, I think I used to listen to other people’s opinions too much, and I wouldn’t think I was good enough to be here because everyone else thought I wasn’t, and I kind of had to go into the offseason, really, like, take a look at myself and say, ‘I worked this hard to get to this point and I’m not going to blow it.”
“I’m going to believe in myself and, every day, work my butt off. I think just trusting myself and trusting my abilities has started to definitely come out and play well up here.”
Indeed it has. And if “comparables” mean anything, it should bode well for the future.
Squint, and dream
Gallo plays a position where power is at a premium (3B) and has a history of being legendary. Eddie Mathews, Mike Schmidt, and a young George Brett could all crush the ball. (If you doubt the latter, ask Goose Gossage if Brett had power; three words: Pine Tar Game.)
Moreover, the greatest of those three, Mike Schmidt, had tremendous troubles with contact and batting average early in his career; he stayed at 3B largely for his glove and his sporadic bursts of power for a dismal Phillies team. In his first year, in 40 plate appearances, he whiffed 15 times and slashed .206/.325/.294. That was nothing compared to 1973; in his rookie season, he had 443 plate appearances. He hit 18 HR but struck out 136 times in just 367 official at bats.
His struggles make 2017 Gallo look downright MVP-worthy; Schmidt slashed .196/.324/.373.
Think about that for a moment. How much potential must the Phillies have seen to give a guy who hit .196 with a .697 OPS have 440 plate appearances? Maybe the kind of potential you’d see in an athletic 23-year-old who, when he makes contact, hits the ball scary hard. Sound like anyone you know?
Schmidt, like Gallo, was 23 in 1973. The next season, 1974, he hit 36 homers, slashed .282/.395/.546.
He brought the Phillies their first World Series title in their long history at 30, in 1980, retired in 1989 as the greatest third baseman of all time. But “all time” took time.
Gallo won’t be Schmidt. But like all of the guys we talk about here, just squint, and dream. Maybe you’ll see something worth remembering.
If you can wait, it’s worth it.