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Joey Gallo’s HR/K Paradox: An Exhaustive Analysis

The most polarizing prospects are often those who juxtapose areas of tremendous skill with pervasive, troubling weaknesses. Supporters of such prospects will claim that the strengths will render the weaknesses irrelevant as the player progresses and faces tougher competition, while doubters will claim the opposite. Few players inspire this sort of phenomenon more strongly than Rangers third base prospect Joey Gallo, who launched 38 homers in just 106 games as a 19-year-old with Low-A Hickory…but also struck out a whopping 165 times in that span, good for an astronomical 37% strikeout rate.

It seems absurd to dismiss a teenager who swatted 38 homers in full-season ball while missing 33 games–that sort of accomplishment basically never happens. Had he stayed healthy for the whole season, Gallo almost certainly would have eclipsed the South Atlantic League record of 40 homers in a season, and probably would’ve broken the Low-A record of 42. He already holds the Arizona League homer record, with 18, set in 2012…despite being promoted early and missing 13 games. He has remarkable power. On the other hand, there’s only one player who has ever struck out more than Gallo did in Low-A and done anything in the majors: Russell Branyan, who struck out 38.7% of the time in 1995, then repeated the level in 1996 and set the aforementioned SAL record with 40 bombs.

So, Gallo combines monumental power with a very troubling inability to make contact. Today, I’m going to take a detailed look at what is going on to provide such extreme statistics and see how his skillset needs to evolve for him to attain major league success.

Let’s begin with Gallo’s incredible power. I saw him in 14 games this season, and I was thus able to witness (and film) five of his 38 big flies. Here they are in one neat video:

I want to focus on a few things here. First, there should be no doubt that Joey Gallo has true 8-grade power. It’s interesting how that manifests itself, though. When we think of true 8 power, we might think of something like this or this–a player absolutely launching the ball impossibly far over the fence, with the outfielders barely budging on contact. Gallo clearly has the ability to park the ball in those remote areas–just watch the ball absolutely explode off his bat on the first homer–but his homers here aren’t just a sequence of him obliterating the ball. Rather, what stands out is Gallo’s ability to turn what seem like normal flies off the bat into 400’+ blasts. The second homer in the video features Gallo almost inside-outing a 96 mph Eddie Butler fastball out to the deepest part of L.P. Frans Stadium. The third homer comes off an 82 mph slider from T.J. Oakes that Gallo gets a bit under, but still flies out to the opposite field. And the final homer in the sequence is the really breathtaking one–an 82 mph slider from Casey Upperman that Gallo takes a fairly weak, one-handed cut at and seems to get under…and the ball still clears the high wall in center field.

Any ball that Gallo can lift is trouble, and he lifts a lot of balls. According to Minor League Central, Gallo had a microscopic 21.9% groundball rate this year; sure, he might not make much contact, but when he does, he’s usually making it count. Throw in a pretty friendly home park, and that’s how you slug .610 despite striking out 37% of the time.

I am supremely confident that nobody in the minors has more raw power than Joey Gallo. Not George Springer, not Javier Baez, not Japhet Amador, not Miguel Sano…nobody. Just watching him pop a ball up can be a near-religious experience, just observing the sheer height and hangtime of the baseball.

But how exactly is that power playing? Let’s look back at those homers again. We have:

A 77 mph slider from Braulio Ortiz, middle-away
A 96 mph fastball from Eddie Butler, slightly down and in
An 82 mph slider from T.J. Oakes, slightly down
An 84 mph fastball from Matt Taylor, inside
An 82 mph slider from Casey Upperman, right down the middle

All four of the homers against righthanded pitchers come on pitches that are no higher than the waist but well above the knees, and fairly close to the middle of the plate. That’s where the natural trajectory of his swing allows him to drive the ball. The only instance of the five where Gallo drove a pitch that wasn’t in that one compact “sweet spot area” was a first-pitch fastball from the South Atlantic League’s softest-tossing starter where he was clearly sitting dead red, got what he wanted, and had all sorts of time to jump all over it because it was just 84 mph. Gallo, interestingly, seems to see the ball far better against lefties (.324/.440/.827! against them this year) than righties (.238/.342/.579).

Second, four of the five homers came on pitches slower than 85 mph. Yeah, this is only five of the 38, so I don’t want to overgeneralize on the small sample, but this does indicate a couple of things. First, on the positive side, Gallo isn’t totally inept at hitting breaking pitches, a common pitfall of young sluggers (like his teammate Lewis Brinson, who has a rather extreme case of the phenomenon…which I’ll investigate some other week). However, the flipside is that he’s not really damaging fastballs. Heck, in the video we see him swing through a 91 mph meatball from Oakes and a 92 mph hanger from Upperman right before the homers.

Even in that highlight video, then, there are some issues. And it’s time to talk about what’s causing the issues, and four specific facets of Gallo’s game that need attention and improvement.

The Swing

Joey Gallo struck out 37% of the time this year–165 times in 446 plate appearances. That is equal to the current MLB-record pace of Houston’s Chris Carter, who has impressively managed to stay above replacement-level in spite of the strikeouts and a total lack of defensive value. Carter, of course, also has raw 8-grade power; unlike Gallo, though, he struck out a mere 20.5% of the time when he was in Low-A (though he was two years older). In any case, Gallo’s strikeouts are a major cause of concern. The first area to examine with respect to this problem is his swing. We can see its issues quite plainly in this video:

Did you catch the huge, glaring problem? If you didn’t, here’s a screenshot from the second pitch of the at-bat:



That is roughly the peak of the load in Joey Gallo‘s swing–the most pronounced, extreme loading mechanism I saw any player use all year. There are two problems this mechanism creates. First, it means he has to rotate his bat essentially an extra 90 degrees in order to get it to the strike zone, making his swing extremely long. That means he has to start his swing very early to get around on fastballs, which causes a whole host of problems, as we’re about to see. Second, it means that his bat has to drop down almost vertically in order to reach any pitch on the inner half. Indeed, on the very pitch this screenshot comes from, Ynoa throws a 92-mph fastball in on Gallo’s hands, and the slugger swings through it. Later in the at-bat, Ynoa comes inside again with another 92-mph heater and gets the same result for a swinging strikeout. Strike one also came on–you guessed it–an empty swing on a 92-mph heater, though that one was out over the plate.

The huge loading mechanism in Gallo’s swing helps him generate the extreme power, but it almost totally compromises his ability to hit pitches on the inner half from righthanded pitchers. Even if he’s able to get the bat to the ball in those locations, he usually just rips the pitch foul, like so:

Ynoa starts the at-bat with an 81-mph slider, a pitch that Gallo has enough time to drop the bat on, but all he can do is pull it foul. He then fights off an inside fastball, takes one high, and strikes out by swinging through another 89 mph heater up and in…the same pitch that got him in the first video, except three mph slower.

By the time Gallo got around the SAL a couple of times, the book was clearly out–pound him inside. Here’s Lakewood’s Jeb Stefan doggedly following that strategy and finding success:

The interesting thing about this at-bat is that Stefan throws all three of his pitches to that side of the plate. Righthanded pitchers rarely throw inside to lefthanded batters, but even more rarely do they come inside with offspeed stuff. Clearly, Stefan and catcher Chace Numata understood Gallo’s extreme weakness on pitches in this area and had no trouble eschewing typical pitch patterning to exploit Gallo’s weakness. Gallo takes a massive cut at the first pitch but can’t find it, then is fooled by the speed differential on the changeup, which comes in on the same plane as the fastball. Stefan then comes back in the exact same spot with another fastball, and Gallo at least makes hard contact, but again it’s foul, before Stefan puts Gallo away with a slider.

Brandon Hardin also takes advantage of the hole in Gallo’s swing here:

Hardin, like Stefan, gets strikes on all three of his pitches here–a called strike on a fastball on the inside corner, a swing over the top of a good splitter in the dirt, and finally a slider in on Gallo’s hands that totally throws him for a loop.

You get the picture–Gallo can’t get around on inside pitches and direct them into fair territory with any regularity. Low-A pitchers are already exploiting this weakness a high proportion of the time, so you can imagine how quickly major league pitchers would catch on without significant adjustments on Gallo’s part. He’s going to have to reduce the load in his swing in order to give him a chance at catching these offerings, both in terms of timing them correctly and reaching them on a suitable hitting plane. It’s not like all his power comes courtesy of the load–he should still be able to send the ball flying with a quieter start to his swing.

When it comes to his swing mechanics, this adjustment is an imperative. But it’s just the first key to the improvements Gallo needs to make.

Barrel Accuracy

While pitches on the inner half are Gallo’s singular, mortal enemy, it’s not as though pitches elsewhere in the strike zone are simply ticketed for the seats. Gallo swings and misses at everything, everywhere, at an alarming rate. Just look at this:

92, 93, 93, all right down the middle…and Gallo whiffs on all of them. Rafael De Paula was supposed to throw all three pitches over the outside corner, missed his spot on all three, and it still didn’t matter. Earlier, we saw Gallo take pitches in that location and rip them out of the ballpark–that’s the area of the zone his long, sweeping cuts generate a ton of force through–and yet, not only does he miss here, he misses the same exact pitch three straight times.

What this points to is more than a hole in the swing–there’s a general lack of barrel accuracy at work. Gallo simply doesn’t line the bat up with the ball anywhere near often enough, regardless of the location of the pitch. There are plenty of instances of this issue (and remember, these are just from the 14 games I saw over the course of the year). Let’s walk through a few more.

Again, we have Gallo swinging through three straight fastballs for a strikeout, though this time he takes two balls first, and the pitches aren’t total meatballs like those from the last video. Still, Cesar Vargas is hardly a flamethrower–the three strikes come on pitches at 89, 90, and 90 mph–and when a guy with an average-at-best fastball throws three straight fastballs in the zone against you, it’s quite damning to outright miss all three.

Really, the most striking thing about Gallo’s strikeouts is just how much swinging and missing there isIt’s one thing to strike out 37% of the time. It’s quite another to have a ton of those strikeouts come on three swinging strikes. It’s not as though Gallo is getting caught looking for strike three very often, or that he’s taking strike one and strike two before swinging and missing for strike three–quite often even his non-strikeout at-bats include multiple empty swings. Here’s another one:

Again, the pitcher (Lakewood’s Geoff Broussard) is not a man gifted with an incredible arsenal: he throws a fastball around 90 and an upper-70s slider. In this at-bat, we see the now-familiar sight of Gallo helicoptering through an inside pitch, in this case a 79-mph slider for strike two, but the more galling aspect of this at-bat is how absurdly late Gallo is on the 90-mph meatball that ends the at-bat–he’s barely starting his swing when the ball hits Numata’s glove. What happened there seems to be that a) Gallo guessed slider and b) his spectacularly long swing didn’t leave him enough time to adjust to the fastball, even though it boasted merely moderate velocity.

The length in Gallo’s swing gives him an easier time catching up to offspeed pitches than fastballs, but his lack of barrel accuracy certainly comes into play against bendy stuff as well. Here, we see him try a cut-down version of his swing and a mighty cut, and neither prove successful in making contact on Phil Wetherell’s offspeed stuff, even though the last pitch of the at-bat is a hanging slider.

Miguel Almonte has a nice changeup, but you’d still like to see Gallo at least foul off the 84-mph pitches in the zone. And, finally…

Tyler Vanderheiden is a sidearmer who throws in the mid-to-upper-80s. He threw Gallo three fastballs in the middle of the plate, at 88, 89, and 88, and got a foul ball and two swinging strikes on them. It’s common knowledge that sidearming righties struggle against lefties because their low arm slots are easy to see from a southpaw’s vantage point, and Vanderheiden is no exception–lefties hit .306/.477/.469 against him this year, whereas his fellow righties hit .314/.371/.400. Heck, he wasn’t really effective against anyone this year. And here he threw his mediocre stuff in basically the worst possible location on three occasions, and came away with a strikeout.

It’s hard to say how much of the barrel accuracy issues stem from the swing length, how much stems from pitch recognition, how much stems from hand-eye coordination, and so on. Clearly, though, something’s gotta give here. The fact that, from only 14 games, I have such a readily available array of strikeouts in multiple-meatball plate appearances, is quite problematic. If Gallo is regularly swinging through mistake pitches from the Vargases and Vanderheidens of the world, his future against pitchers with better stuff and a much lower propensity for problematic pitching does not bode well.

Two-Strike Approach

A third adjustment that would assist Gallo in cutting down on his excessive whiffing is developing a two-strike approach. Too often, his two-strike approach at this stage seems to be “swing even harder than normal because it’s your last chance in the at-bat!”

This is another three-fastball, three-strike (two swinging) plate appearance, though it should be noted that Aroni Nina had one of the best fastballs in the SAL this year. Against a 95-mph heater on 0-2, though, Gallo doesn’t shorten up and protect; instead, we see his load as pronounced as ever, and he takes an absolutely mighty cut at the ball. As poor as his barrel accuracy is, adding even more effort and length into the swing in two-strike situations like this is a bad idea. As we’ve seen in the above videos, it’s not as though he always goes max-effort in these situations, but it’s happened on more than one occasion in my viewings.

Another multi-whiff K–Gallo seemed to be late on an 88 mph changeup from Butler, or at the very least his bat appears very slow on the cut. Then he gets a really nice 87 mph slider down and in that he wasn’t looking for, and again you get a high-effort swing that does nothing beyond violently displacing a lot of air.

We saw earlier what happens when Gallo guesses slider and gets a fastball–his swing is so long he can’t catch up. Here, we see him guess fastball and get a changeup from Jake Cose, which results in a titanic, contorted hack that is way out in front of the pitch. Here’s where we see the swing length come into play again–he has to decide to swing so early that he can’t adjust to different speeds. Again, shortening with two strikes would assist in alleviating those issues and allow Gallo to hang in and not be put away so easily.

Plate Discipline

The above trio of areas that need improvement–swing, barrel accuracy, and two-strike approach–are important for Gallo to work on, but it’s safe to say that regardless of the inroads he makes, he’s always going to strike out a lot. You don’t swing and miss at such extreme rates, even at age 19, and go on to be even an average contact hitter. It just doesn’t happen, and there’s essentially a zero chance of it happening here.

Of course, Joey Gallo has already proven that he doesn’t need to make an average amount of contact to be an effective hitter. The ball’s almost always going to go in the air when he manages to put it in play, and it’s going to be trouble a fair amount of the time it goes in the air due to his sheer strength and swing violence.

In a lot of ways, though, the statistic that offers more upside for Gallo is the other half of the plate discipline equation–the walk. I believe it is increasing his walks, rather than decreasing his strikeouts, that largely holds the key to Gallo’s success. This year, he walked 48 times, or 10.8% of the time, which is a decent number but hardly the sort of elite rate that portends his becoming an OBP machine at higher levels. It was also a significant drop from the 19.2% walk rate he posted in Rookie ball (and 16.4% in short-season-A in a small sample) in 2012. Power hitters like Gallo tend to get an artificial walk boost from being pitched carefully, so a 10.8% rate isn’t really all that impressive in that context.

We’ve already seen how much trouble Gallo can have making contact with even the most blatant mistake pitches–obviously, it stands to reason that he would have even more trouble doing anything with offerings outside the strike zone. As such, a shrinking of his hitting zone would help Gallo increase his walk rate, possibly cut a bit off his strikeout rate from not chasing as much junk, and also put him in more hitter’s counts to do significant damage. Duplicating his current walk and strikeout rates (10.8% and 37.0%) probably won’t allow him to play much in the majors, but at, say, 14% and 34%? Then we’re nearing Mark Reynolds territory, which is essentially the baseline for being an effective crazy-high-K hitter. So he needs to cut at-bats like this out:

This is from later in the Cesar Vargas start, where Vargas is down to 86-88 on the fastball, and yet again we see Gallo swing through three of Vargas’ “heaters”. He swings at a 2-0 86 mph fastball that’s just a tad off the outside corner–the sort of pitch a patient slugger should take in that count. Then he chases a 2-1 87 mph fastball that’s clearly well off the outside corner before striking out on an 88 mph pitch up and away.

Here, Gallo chases a 79-mph breaking pitch in the dirt to start the at-bat against Daniel Stumpf, turning what should be a 1-0 count into 0-1. He then is way out in front of a second breaking pitch at 78 before chasing a 90-mph heater off the corner away for the strikeout.

A common thread in a lot of these strikeout videos, as noted before, is how much Gallo swings and misses. In order to swing and miss a lot, of course, one has to swing a lot, and that tendency seems to get Gallo in trouble. At this stage, he seems largely unsatisfied with the base on balls as an end of a plate apperance, swinging at nearly everything within the confines of the strike zone, even borderline offerings that he can’t do much with in hitter’s counts. He’s not a total chaser at the plate, but mere adequacy at laying off of pitches likely won’t be enough to make up for Gallo’s lack of contact skills. He needs to excel at amassing balls and walks. That’s the ticket to success for high-strikeout hitters, and while Gallo shows some promise in attaining that, he has a long way to go. Fortunately, it does seem more realistic for Gallo to get his walk rate into the mid-teens than it does for him to get his strikeout rate below 30%, and a mid-teens walk rate combined with his otherworldly power output might even render a 37% K-rate acceptable. Heck, Chris Carter‘s put up a 109 wRC+ this year with a 37% K-rate and an 11.9% walk rate–add a couple ticks to those free passes and you have a really solid hitter.

Speaking of Carter, Dunn, Cust, and their ilk, one common theme among the high-walk, high-K, high-power lot has been a total lack of defensive acumen or value. Obviously, the better Gallo’s glove is, the less pressure will be on his bat. What can we say about the elements of his game that don’t occur in the batter’s box?

Speed and Defense

Entering the season, Joey Gallo was considered a nominal third baseman who was almost certain to move to first, or at least a corner outfield spot, by the time he reached the majors. His arm has received widespread acclaim–he worked in the mid-90s as a high school pitcher–but with a huge, hulking 6’5″ frame, most projected that he’d end up as a slow-moving first baseman much like the aforementioned Three True Outcomes group.

The most pleasant surprise of his 2013 campaign, other than how incredibly well his power played in spite of the massive strikeout issues, was that this reputation proved to be unfounded. As the season progressed, more and more evaluators dropped their sour evaluations of Gallo’s athleticism and defensive ability, myself included. I usually clocked him in the 4.2-4.3 second range from home to first, which isn’t anything near plus speed but is actually somewhere in the neighborhood of average, which sounds about right for a third baseman. Gallo is a smart, heady baserunner who managed to swipe 14 bases in 15 attempts, and he’s a high-energy player who goes full-out on the bases on any batted ball. You can get a good sense of both his speed and effort level on this triple off of Oakes:

Defensively, Gallo battled third base to a .924 fielding percentage, which sounds bad but is actually quite solid for a Low-A third baseman, especially a teenage one. He ranked sixth out of 14 in fielding percentage among SAL 3Bs with at least 50 games played. Here’s a look at every defensive play I saw him make (or not make) over the course of the season:

You can see Gallo has decent range to both sides and has some ability to charge bunts as well. More impressive in the video is how under control he plays. Sure, he has a big arm, but you actually rarely see him unleash its full force, as he eschews trying to throw the ball through a wall in favor of just getting the ball to first base accurately. He has the arm strength for long throws and tough plays if he needs it, but his ability to play smart at third is very advanced for his age and should serve him well going forward.

Mind you, the underlying issues of Gallo’s big frame still remain, and much of his final defensive ability will be determined by how his body fills out. If he balloons up to Dunn’s size, obviously much of the agility he currently possesses will be lost, and he won’t be much of a defender even at first base. It does seem, however, that Gallo should be able to hold down third base well into his late twenties barring a significant thickening of his body. I don’t think he’ll be more than a fringe-average gloveman at the position in the majors, but a fringe-average third baseman fits much more neatly on a roster than a DH-only or fielder-in-name-only type.

The underlying currents of these elements of Gallo’s game suggest a smart, hardworking player who is going to do everything he can to improve; obviously, it would be great to see that work ethic and ability to keep the game under control surface more clearly when Gallo is in the batter’s box. The power is so, so intriguing on its own, and there are several concrete adjustments Gallo could make that could allow it to play even better while minimizing his clear weaknesses. If Gallo is able to go 4-for-4 on those adjustments–he cuts out the absurdly overstated load, improves his barrel accuracy, and develops a better two-strike approach and a discerning batting eye–he could win multiple home run titles and be a perennial All-Star (especially when you consider the home park he’s headed toward). With meaningful improvements in some of those areas, he could have a Branyan/Cust/Carlos Pena career as a wandering slugger who alternates torrid production with stretches of silence. There is, however, the risk that Gallo is unable to make any significant inroads to eradicating these problems and simply becomes another Cody Johnson or Kyle Russell.

No player in organized baseball offers such a polarizing combination of jaw-dropping power and inability to square pitches up with any consistency. Clearly, though, there are a lot of elements going on here that create the fascinatingly extreme statistical profile, and his development from this point forward will be equally if not even more fascinating. I look forward to seeing what sort of adjustments Gallo will trot out next year, as he’ll likely be promoted from the SAL to the High-A Carolina League, where he’ll find himself in a much tougher home park against more advanced pitching. Expect the homers and strikeouts to still come in bunches, but watch that walk number–as he develops, his ability to offset the whiffs with walks may decide how rosy his career trajectory is.