MLB's Most Unusual Superstar Joey Gallo Hits More Homers Than Singles

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 21, 2019

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 23: Joey Gallo #13 of the Texas Rangers watches his solo home run shot in the eighth inning of a game against the Seattle Mariners at Globe Life Park in Arlington on September 23, 2018 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Joey Gallo's way of playing baseball isn't easy to recommend, but it sure works for him.

Increasingly so, in fact. After slamming 81 home runs across the 2017 and 2018 MLB seasons, Gallo is already up to 14 in 2019. The Texas Rangers' 25-year-old slugger is also working on a career-best 1.079 OPS.

The highlight of Gallo's season came May 8 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. He hit the 100th home run of his career, and—naturally—it was a moonshot:

Now that he has that out of the way, all Gallo needs to do is hit the 100th single of his career.

OK, "needs" is probably putting it too strongly. But it is true that Gallo has more homers (102) than singles (98) to this point, and that's as strange as one would think.

Of the 4,021 players who've had at least 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, Gallo is the only one with a homer-to-single ratio greater than 1.0. Moreover, the next-closest guy is not particularly close:

  • Joey Gallo: 1.04 HR/1B
  • Mark McGwire: 0.74 HR/1B
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Appropriately, McGwire is also the guy whom Gallo passed in becoming the quickest player to 100 home runs in American League history. But the whole more-homers-than-singles thing has been sticking to him for a while, and that didn't stop with his record-breaking day.

"As soon as I opened my phone, that's what it was about, instead of being that quick to get there," Gallo said, according to Jake Crouse of MLB.com. "But it is what it is."

To be fair, Gallo's frustration over the preoccupation with his homer-to-single ratio is, well, fair. He actually has hit more singles (16) than homers in 2019, and that's one of the least interesting tidbits of his season.

Mike Stone/Associated Press

Though he is no Cody Bellinger, Gallo ranks fourth among qualified hitters in OPS. According to Baseball Reference, Gallo also entered Monday ninth with 2.5 wins above replacement.

Gallo's WAR traces partially back to his athleticism. He's a natural third baseman who's made his way to the outfield, where he's already racked up five defensive runs saved. He moves well for a guy listed at 6'5", 235 pounds, and baserunners must fear his arm strength.

But more so than that, the story of Gallo's season is that of a player who's perfected an imperfect hitting style.

Strikeouts remain the fundamental flaw of the Henderson, Nevada, native's offensive game. He is tied with Bryce Harper for the MLB lead with 63, and his 35.2 strikeout percentage is right in line with what he did in 2017 and 2018.

But whereas Gallo's whiffs were a genuine problem before 2019, it's hard to see them as such now relative to his solid .285 batting average and outstanding .419 on-base percentage. Feeding into those improvements are not only a better walk rate but also a higher batting average on balls in play.

Unlike Pirates slugger Josh Bell, Gallo hasn't made any obvious changes to his hitting mechanics. The real difference is merely in how he's approaching hitting.

Gallo has been much more disciplined with his swings but not to the point of passivity. Per Baseball Savant's most detailed strike zone, he's found an ideal balance of swinging at more pitches in the heart of the zone and at fewer pitches that are clearly outside the zone:

Note: Gallo's 2015 and 2016 seasons were combined because he had only 153 plate appearances between them.

According to Jeff Passan of ESPN.com, this is what the Rangers wanted to see from Gallo this year. Still, the difficulty he faced in making their wish his command can't be understated.

"It's hard as f--k," Gallo told Passan. "It's really hard. Especially nowadays when pitches are starting down the middle and end up three inches off the plate at 100 mph. It's pretty tough to do. But experience helps. You see it over and over again, and it starts to become the norm."

Gallo's improved discipline offers a straightforward explanation for his walk rate spike. But contained within is also an explanation for his BABIP improvement, which can't be separated from the decrease in his average launch angle to 19.2 degrees.

Generally, launch angle is a good thing. But Gallo knows all too well that too much of it can be a bad thing. To wit, he had a .051 average and .184 slugging percentage on batted balls with launch angles of 40 degrees or more across 2017 and 2018. Given that those comprised an MLB-high 24.9 percent of his batted balls, that was a problem that needed fixing.

Gallo must have noticed his batted balls with extremely high launch angles came mostly against high pitches. Because, on average, his swings are now happening against lower pitches:

  • 2017: 2.37 ft
  • 2018: 2.40 ft
  • 2019: 2.30 ft

Sure enough, Gallo's rate of batted balls with launch angles over 40 degrees is down to 18.8 percent. Practically speaking, that means fewer fly balls and infield pop-ups, which is good for the ol' BABIP.

Gallo's power hasn't suffered, however, in part because he's still excelling at keeping the ball off the ground but more so because his power simply can't be held in check. He's built his reputation on hitting lasers. Per his MLB-best 102.5 mph average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives, those lasers remain Death Star-like in their potency.

It's a good thing for pitchers that they can still strike Gallo out—especially since he teased the end of that habit early in the season. If that had continued, facing him would be a nigh impossible task right now.

As it is, it's certainly hard enough. And the longer Gallo keeps up his newfound talents, the sooner he'll be treated less like an oddity and more like a bona fide superstar.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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