What Should the Yankees Make of Joey Gallo?

On a New York Yankees lineup revered for its 80-grade raw power, Joey Gallo is a man of extremes. The walks. The strikeouts. The home runs. He remains the face of the, “Three True Outcomes” approach, and for good reason.

Approaching Memorial Day, Gallo is slashing .171/.287/.324. He’s posted an 85 wRC+ and has a lower fWAR than you and I. His woeful lack of production has raised a flurry of questions regarding New York’s lineup, his impending free agency, and the presence of analytics across Major League Baseball

We know who he is. But what do we make of him?

Why is Gallo struggling?

The justification for Gallo’s swing-(and miss)-heavy approach is that the power output outweighs the drop-off in batting average. Theoretically, the increase in extra-base hits and walks would generate production at a similar, if not greater, clip than an equally talented player with a more traditional plan of attack. 

That simply has not been the case this season. But, why?

At first glance, not much has changed. Gallo’s typical strikeout and walk numbers have remained consistent. His batted ball data shows an unsurprisingly high flyball rate and an uptick in line drives.

There also isn’t much to suggest that Gallo is unluckier than seasons past. Sure, he’s dealing with shifts on 94% of his plate appearances and an extra outfielder when the Yankees play the Toronto Blue Jays, but Joey Gallo has always dealt with these adjustments.

The biggest change in Gallo’s game is his aggression. Before Wednesday night’s contest against the Baltimore Orioles, he swung at 48.8% of pitches thrown, a significant increase from last year (40.4%) and his career average (44.7%). What’s worse, his O-Swing% has risen to 29.3%. For most, that number is insignificant—it isn’t an outlier and doesn’t even surpass the league average. 

However, chasing more than usual spells trouble for Gallo. Pitches outside the zone are inherently worse to swing at, and for someone whose quality of contact is so important to his game, each ill-advised chop takes him farther away from the slugging benchmarks that New York expects of him. When you swing and miss at as many pitches in the zone as Gallo, limiting your free strikes (and outs) outside the zone is imperative. 

More than just an approach issue

Clearly, Gallo is in the midst of a nasty slump, and it’s a battle he’s fighting on two fronts. The former Texas Ranger has a career 108 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers. This year, that mark has dropped to a near incomputable 18. 

Furthermore, while Gallo has been good (117 wRC+) against right-handers, there is still a lot of room for improvement, largely because he’s been absolutely dreadful against breaking balls.

Per Statcast, Gallo is batting .040 against breakers, with an xBA of .086. His wOBA on these pitches, .163, would easily be the worst mark of his career. Surprisingly, this isn’t a platoon issue—his lone hit came against a southpaw. His aggression is evident here, as he’s swinging at more breaking stuff out of the zone. On those swings, he’s swung and missed at an 86.4% rate.

He’s just not seeing the ball well right now. It’s manifested itself into a cycle in which he’s getting behind early, missing mistakes, and living in a perpetually vulnerable state. That’s a scary place to be in. Thankfully for Joey Gallo and the Yankees, there’s a pathway back to adequacy.

The Case for Joey Gallo

The simplest factor in favor of New York’s Sultan of Sabotage is that we’ve been here before. Everyone goes through slumps, they are just a little more pronounced when one sits atop the wrong side of the strikeout leaderboard.

By looking at Gallo’s slugging percentage over time, we can see he’s experienced brief power outages before. He’s also gone on some absolute tears. Additionally, the majority of his time is spent well over that league-average indication. Perhaps the days of 2019 Gallo are long gone, but the inevitable hot streaks are not. 

At some point, Gallo will start capitalizing on mistakes and the scorched line drives will dodge the shifted outfielders. Eventually, New York will see a three-man battalion of Judge, Stanton, and Gallo terrify opposing pitchers and the law of averages will reign supreme.

Of course, hot streaks aren’t composed solely of positive variance. It’s largely fruitless to hypothesize about the adjustments professionals make, but such a slump demands consideration.

Making the necessary adjustments

One adjustment Gallo may make is taking the first pitch against left-handed pitchers. Gallo isn’t going to cut his swing rate in half. However, an intentional tinker to his approach could go a long way.

Southpaws have thrown breaking pitches (predominantly sliders) to Gallo in 0-0 counts about 62.5% of the time. It’s not a huge sample size, but given his struggles, it’s a trend likely to continue. Many of these offerings have been out of the zone, and almost all of them would be considered pitcher’s pitches. 

By becoming more conservative in this situation, Gallo helps himself in multiple ways. We know he’s not a breaking-ball hitter. Decisively taking these pitches increases the likelihood of reaching a 1-0 count, where he’s more likely to see a fastball. Even if it does fall in for a strike, he saves himself the trouble of rolling over on a well-placed slider. Sure, he’ll miss out on some heaters, but he’s given pitchers every reason to throw a waste pitch to start the at-bat. 

Likewise, this gives him an additional cleaner look at sliders out of the hand, helping him identify and differentiate the pitch later in the at-bat. If opponents end up countering with more fastballs, Gallo has successfully earned himself a pitch to hit and can retire the approach. He’s slugging .625 on lefty-lefty heaters this year—let it rip!

The best way for Gallo to get back on track is by putting himself in advantageous situations. Getting more comfortable with same-handed breakers and earning more fastballs, all while (mostly) maintaining his aggressive style of play, may be the happy medium that best gets Gallo back on track.

What is left for Joey Gallo and the Yankees?

Another adjustment to consider may be out of his hands and in those of Aaron Boone. Gallo has long been a strong defender in the outfield, but his best seasons came in right field. There, he’s more used to the spin of the ball off the bat and the routes he has to take.

It’s clear he’s still getting used to left field, a decision that seems to stem from a prioritization of Stanton’s health. If possible, getting Gallo back in his preferred spot can both make up for his poor defensive production (-3 Outs Above Average) and mitigate the risk of offensive woes bleeding into his fielding and vice versa. 

Ultimately, Joey Gallo will find his way out of these murky waters and help the Yankees win some games. His incredible average flyball exit velocity of 98.8 mph is third across MLB, and he’s still lifting the ball with ease. Once he gets his strikeouts and O-Swing whiffs down just enough to showcase his power, it’s off to the races. At least until his next slump.

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