There was a time when Joey Gallo’s future as a major leaguer was in serious doubt.
The Texas Rangers prospect was heralded as a major power threat upon his arrival in Arlington in 2015, but in his first go at it, he struck out more than 46 percent of the time. It appeared that he wasn’t quite ready.
After he spent most of last season in Triple-A, general manager Jon Daniels and manager Jeff Banister finally decided to give Gallo his shot. It has paid off. Gallo has acquitted himself admirably at both first and third base, and has continued to run the bases well. For a big power bat, he has displayed very respectable athleticism.
But we’re not here to talk about his glove or his legs. The bat is what is so astonishing. Gallo is running a 126 wRC+ and has hit 32 home runs in 377 plate appearances. He’s walking 13 percent of the time. In other words, his power-and-patience approach is finally paying off.
You notice something weird about that batting line? Of course you do; 32 home runs and a 13 percent walk rate in less than 400 plate appearances should make Gallo elite. He’s very good, but he’s not one of the top hitters in baseball this season. That’s because of his strikeouts.
Gallo is getting punched out more than 37 percent of the time, the second-highest rate among qualifiers. With a contact rate below 60 percent, Gallo isn’t getting the wood to the ball enough to add some doubles and a few singles to boost his overall production.
He doesn’t care. Despite the high whiff and chase rates, Gallo is still disciplined enough to let walks come to him, and pitchers know that if they dare get the ball around the plate, Gallo could launch it into the stratosphere. Home runs are the most valuable hits of them all, so why not swing for the fences every time you step into the batter’s box?
Many have remarked that we live in an era where the three true outcomes — walks, strikeouts and home runs — rule the day. The percentage of plate appearances ending in a true outcome is at an all-time high. Of course, the rise in three true outcomes has been steady since the beginning of the sport. Pitchers know that they can control their fates better when they’re not relying on defenses to make outs, and hitters know that they can control theirs better when they can get on base and guarantee scoring.
Gallo is the poster boy for such an approach. The percentage of his plate appearances ending in a true outcome currently sits just below 59 percent. Think about that. Gallo puts the ball in play less than half the time, and is still a very good hitter.
It gives the lie to the notion that putting the ball in play is the only way to be successful. A home run is worth about 1.4-1.6 runs on average. A strikeout costs about 0.3 runs on average, about the same as an out from a ball in play. If you can increase your chances of hitting a home run knowing that a strikeout is about the same as making an out, why would you ever try to make more contact? Selling out for power works, and players know it.
Of course, it’s not a perfect strategy for Gallo. He still doesn’t make enough contact to make him a truly great hitter. Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees is second in three true outcomes percentage this year, at 56 percent. His contact rate is seven points higher and his strikeout rate is six points lower than Gallo’s. He’s putting the ball in play enough to generate a lot more offensive value. Despite Gallo’s prodigious power and patience, there may be a ceiling to his success relative to his strikeout rate.
Some pundits fear that three true outcomes baseball is boring and will ruin the sport. Others think that a Chris Sale strikeout and a Judge home run are super entertaining, while grounders to second base are not. Gallo is the flashpoint for this debate. His home runs are delightful. His strikeouts aren’t hurting him that much. How does one disincentivize his all-or-nothing approach when it’s working so well?
The maximum efficiency for playing baseball is to try and score — and prevent — as many runs as possible without exposing oneself to chance. That means focusing the game on the pitcher and the hitter. Ballplayers and managers have known this since the beginning of the game. That evolving philosophy has been slow and incremental, but it’s been there. We now know what the effects of the three true outcomes baseball are, so we can be more aggressive in claiming it as a prescriptive method. The only way to stop this is to make walks less valuable, un-juice the ball, or to make the strike zone so small that strikeouts can never be the best way to get guys out.
If those changes never happen, Gallo may one day be viewed as baseball’s savior or destroyer. In the meantime, those home runs will be awfully fun to watch.
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