MLB scouts decided a long time ago to rate prospect attributes like speed, hitting ability, power and arm strength on a scale of 20 to 80, with the latter being the best score someone can achieve. A player’s power is actually broken into two sub-categories, dubbed “raw power” and “game power”. Raw power correlates highly to overall strength, and top scores are usually reserved for burly sluggers with intimidating frames. Game power measures how a player is able to utilize their strength in game situations, and high rankings do not necessarily tie to physical strength. For instance, someone like the 5’9″, 180lbs Jose Ramirez would not grade highly on raw power, but is able to effectively hit for power in game situations due to terrific bat speed and strong mechanics.
Joey Gallo, a third baseman by trade who also plays first and left field for the Texas Rangers, was one of the few prospects to receive an 80 grade raw power score prior to being drafted. His hulking, 6’5″ frame, combined with a advanced body control and athleticism that enables a simultaneously smooth and destructive swing, had scouts frothing at the mouth. The Texas Rangers selected Gallo 39th overall in the 2012 draft, and he wasted little time in proving the scouts right, cruising to slugging rates in the .500s, .600s and .700s across the minors. Now, with 150 MLB games to his name, Gallo is delivering on his 80-grade raw power and quickly becoming one of the preeminent power hitters in the game.
When he hits the ball, it goes far
Gallo had his first MLB cup of Starbucks in 2015, coming to the plate 123 times across 36 games for Texas as a 21-year old. While Gallo struck out an unsightly 46% of the time, the power potential was immediately on display with six home runs, three doubles and a triple. He spent most of the 2016 season in AAA Round Rock further refining his approach, with a disastrous 30-plate appearance MLB call-up mixed in.
Gallo was set to start 2017 with Round Rock again, however an injury to Adrian Beltre in spring training propelled him into the starting third base slot to open the season. Joey hasn’t looked back since, seizing the opportunity and accruing 28 home runs, 52 RBIs and a .542 slugging percentage while typically batting in the eighth or ninth spot in Texas’ lineup. But Gallo’s 28 home runs are tied with Logan Morrison and Khris Davis for seventh in the MLB, which, while impressive, doesn’t really support the thesis of Gallo having one of the best power seasons of all-time.
However, considering that Gallo’s plate appearances are restricted due to his place in the batting order, and that Gallo walks and strikes out a lot, a nominal home run count of 28 looks more impressive. To get a gauge of a Gallo’s ‘pure power’ this season, I divided his home runs by his batted ball events (BBE), which are simply all the balls off Gallo’s bat that results in hits or outs (at bats – strikeouts + sacrifices). The resulting 17.2% HR/BBE rate means that Gallo hits a home run more than 1/6 of the time when he makes non-foul contact with the ball.
That seemed high. Turns out it’s not just high, it’s bordering on statistically improbable. Gallo’s 17.2% rate is by far the highest in the MLB (compared to players with at least 200 PA), with Aaron Judge in second at 14.7%. The z-score, which measures the amount of standard deviations an observation lands from the mean, of Gallo’s 17.2% HR/BBE rate is 4.2. This means that if hitting a home run on a batted ball were a purely random process (which it’s not, but go with it), a rate of 17.2% would be attainable in one out of roughly 10,000 player seasons, or about once every 25 years.
Mark McGwire and Joey Gallo
It’s one thing to compare Gallo’s ability to hit home runs against his peers in a given season. But how about against every hitter season since 1913? Gallo’s 2017 performance in turning batted balls into home runs ranks fourth all-time, alongside names like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Jim Thome.
(Before discussing Gallo more, let’s take a moment to appreciate Mark “Big Mac” McGwire’s ability to murder baseballs. He owns seven of the 10 best HR/BBE seasons ever, and he accomplished all of them in consecutive seasons from 1995 to 2001.)
Clearly there is some bias in this list. Home runs peaked in the mid-90s to early-00s, and are re-peaking in 2016 and 2017. So naturally, any list that purely focuses on unadjusted home run rate as a proxy for power will favor players who played in these seasons. I’m sure there were a lot of players in the dead ball era of the 1960s, or back when Babe Ruth played, that are underrepresented. But who really cares? Home runs and are sexy and majestic, and what people pay to go see.
While Gallo still has another 150-200 plate appearances to go in this season, he has a good shot at rubbing shoulders with the all-time greats in terms of power output if he can maintain his current pace.
How does Gallo do it?
At this juncture it’s obvious that Gallo absolutely destroys baseballs in a way that no one else in the league does currently and that few have ever done. But how does he manage it? As FunGraphs explored in early May, Joey Gallo’s approach is one of the most unique in baseball history, leading to three outcomes roughly 60% of his plate appearances: either strikeout, walk and home run.
Gallo is a selective hitter, evidenced by his double digit minor league walk rates and 12.8% walk rate in 2017. However, when he does choose to swing, he swings hard. And he swings with a massive uppercut. The results are twofold: Gallo often swings right through the ball and misses, but when he does make contact, the ball gets propelled in the air at far distances. Plenty of players have a similar style to Gallo, he just does it at the most extreme levels. His 12.8% walk rate is in the 87th percentile of the league, while his 38.4% strikeout rate is 100th (meaning he has the highest strikeout rate in baseball).
Meanwhile, the looping uppercut swing that Gallo utilizes results in a flyball rate of 60.1%, which is also the highest the league…by a lot. Gallo’s teammate Mike Napoli is second with a 52.8% flyball rate. The corollary to hitting that many flyballs is that few are hit on the ground, with Gallo’s 25.2% groundball rate scoring as the MLB’s lowest. Since a groundball has never gone over the fence, Gallo’s heavy flyball approach is ideal for home-run hitting.
Now, lazy flyballs to short-right field, despite being hit in the air, are not very valuable. Consistent home run hitting requires a steady diet of hard-hit flyballs, and Gallo grades out positively here as well, with his 44.2% hard-hit rate is in the 97th percentile in baseball. Gallo’s hard-hit rate is supported by propensity to hit ‘barrels’ (Brls). Barrels, as measured by Statcast, are batted balls hit at the ideal exit velocity and launch angle to produce extra-base hits (more specifically, Statcast defines barrels as balls that result in a batting average of over .500 and slugging percentage of over 1.000). Gallo’s 36 barrels in 163 batted ball events results in a 22.1% Brls/BBE rate, which is second in the league to Aaron Judge.
The next steps
At this point in his career Gallo is a bit of a one-trick pony. Typically, hitters that strike out in over 35% of their plate appearances are not viable MLB hitters. But Gallo is so damn good at his one trick – hitting the ball hard in the air – that’s he’s able to overcome his league worst swing and miss tendencies with his prodigious “pure power”.
Despite improved front office and fan baseball education, it will be difficult for Gallo to be taken seriously with a 38% strikeout rate and a batting average that hovers below .200. And, in reality, MLB pitchers will likely begin to adapt and figure new ways to prevent Gallo from hitting so many home runs. So if Gallo wants to graduate from a player that is viewed as a part of a Circus act to a legitimate MLB hitter, and if he wants to maintain his viability in the MLB, he’ll need to diversify his approach and cut down on strikeouts.
If that happens? Gallo can be one of the best hitters in baseball, up there with Aaron Judge and Mike Trout. If it doesn’t? Gallo’s raw power tool is so good that he can likely craft a career for himself as a one-dimensional home run hitter. Either way, he’s one of the most interesting players in baseball and worth watching on any given night.