For weeks, I've been holding out hope that Rangers star (yes, star) Joey Gallo would return from his wrist injury, but it looks like that is not going to happen. Here's what Rangers manager Chris Woodward said two days ago, via dallasnews.com:
"It still doesn't feel good," Woodward said. "I want him to play. He wants to play. But we will have to decide what makes sense. The grip strength still isn't there. There is no guarantee. We might shut him down. With Joey, you are also looking at the future."
It's a shame, because Gallo back in July was in the midst of a breakout season in which he became the face of the Rangers. It seemed unlikely, as Gallo was little more than a punchline for a few years.
We can rattle off the names on the list of stigmatized sluggers through the years. Dave Kingman. Rob Deer. Adam Dunn gets thrown in there. Maybe we throw in Chris Davis, Russell Branyan or Pete Incaviglia. What do you think when you hear those names? Five things, usually:
- Home runs.
- Low batting average.
- Lacks defensive value.
That's it. That defines you as a player. Notice I said there was a stigma above and that's because while several of those players listed above had some very productive and successful seasons, if a casual fan compares a player to Dave Kingman, it's meant as an insult. "Pssh, he's basically Dave Kingman!" is not a compliment in the least.
Now, let's talk about Gallo. He hits lots of home runs. He strikes out a lot. He's huge at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. He looks bigger than that in person and on TV when he's in the batter's box. He's a titan in there. When he first came up and the baseball world got a glimpse of him, yep, we heard many of those names above.
Through 2018, he hadn't done much to alter the perception of him in the batter's box. He had hit .203/.317/.498 (109 OPS+, so that's above average!) and had back-to-back 40-homer seasons, yet taking the temperature of the public perception of Gallo on social media showed he was little more than the aforementioned punchline -- thanks in part to a 196-strikeout season followed by 207 strikeouts. It wasn't fair, but that's what happens with the low batting average and high-strikeout home run guys.
Gallo isn't going to apologize about hitting home runs, either. I asked him if he tries to hit a home run every single time since he seems to have such a new-school game. He started to nod.
"Ninety percent of my at-bats," he said. "When I see a pitch coming in, I just try to hit it as hard and as far as I can."
Fortunately for Gallo, he came up in an era in which teams, based on so-called analytics (a topic for a different day is how much stigma that word carries with the old guard), now correctly realize how much more value a home run carries than a single and that slugging percentage is more important than batting average.
"I always thought a home run was more important than a single," he said. "It's much more important. In terms of the old mindset, it was [batting] average. They didn't view it the way they view it now. I always had power and I thought, 'I'm just gonna use it every at-bat.' I would be stupid not to.
"So, I think, I was a little bit ahead of the thinking my whole life. I've always thought this way."
I've long said with as many walks as Gallo takes along with his raw power, he didn't need to carry a high batting average to be a star. It's a tough mindset for many of the aforementioned old guard to grasp, but Gallo is getting on base at a .389 clip this season and the league average is .323. His .589 slugging percentage dwarfs the .436 league average. Getting on base is more important than batting average because it's basically "not making outs" and that's way better than excluding walks from the conversation. Walks help the team. Not as much as home runs, but they help.
Speaking of which, slugging is also better than average because, as Gallo said above, a home run is better than a single. No one who knows anything about baseball would dispute this, but batting average treats a home run the same as a single. The same obviously goes for doubles and triples. They don't carry the same value, but, again, batting average acts like they do.
I know it's tough to step outside the mindset some fans have had for five, six or seven decades, but average is very clearly an inferior stat to OBP and slugging just by using simple logic and it's hard to believe it took so long for teams to realize this.
Plus, when it comes to Gallo, he's made adjustments and the average was coming up before the injury. He's at .253 and the league average this season is, yes, .253. I've long said all Gallo has to do to be a star is hit for a decent average and he's exactly average now. That's a star hitter, given his on-base and slugging chops.
Then there's the other aspect of Gallo. He's big. He strikes out a lot. He hits lots of home runs. He must be slow and terrible at defense, right? Even when he was first coming up as a prospect at third base, there was a widely-held notion that he has to eventually be a first baseman or even a designated hitter. I spoke with a scout that said many teams viewed him as a third baseman who might need to move to first within a few years of hitting the majors.
At the time of his injury, Gallo had become an everyday center fielder.
"If you would have told me in 2011 that Joey Gallo would be playing center on a regular basis after I watched him in a tournament in North Carolina, I would have had no choice but to place you under citizens' arrest," said prospect expert Chris Crawford.
He's not faking it, either. Using defensive runs saved, he's at +1 and in Fangraphs' ultimate zone rating he scores above average as well. Baseball Savant has Gallo on the 67th percentile in outfielder jump. The arm will play, too. Here he is throwing out none other than the Twins' speedster Byron Buxton:
I can't help but chuckle in watching that at Gallo's freakishness. He just looks like a tree out there in center but he moves around so adeptly and set himself up perfectly for that throw.
Again, this is a guy who almost zero talent evaluators thought could play outfield, let alone center.
And yet, Gallo is doing it at an above-average level. How did this happen? For one, it was just his size getting in the way, he thinks.
"People didn't really know me. I was very stereotyped," Gallo said. "It was frustrating. I understood it, but it was frustrating. I was drafted and people were like 'he's a DH,' and I'm like, 'I don't DH. I've never DHd.' I was then assumed to be a first baseman, but I'm very athletic. I took pride in that. I always had a good arm, I always had good instincts on defense. It was just that I struck out and hit a lot of home runs so they would say 'you're Adam Dunn, you have no defensive value.' Hopefully I'm changing that narrative.
"I never really thought I'd play center field, but as soon as I got there, I was like 'I think I can do this' and so far it's been pretty good."
He actually smiled really huge when he said the "pretty good" part and it was obvious he feels a huge sense of pride in the success he's having out in center.
"What's not surprising is how many players who get things figured out at the big-league level are better athletes than many previously believed," said one scout.
Gallo noted he's very athletic and that translates on the bases, too. He's not a huge base-stealing threat, but he has four steals this year and stole seven in 2017. He has taken the extra base (first to third on a single or first to home on a double) 71 percent of the time, which ranks second among players with at least 250 plate appearances behind Javier Baez. Baseball Savant has Gallo at the 68th percentile among all baserunners in sprint speed.
So let's see. Gallo is above average in batting average, defense and baserunning. He's great at getting on base and exceptional at hitting for power. I think that sounds like a star to me. Superstar is subjective and in the eye of the beholder, but I wouldn't argue against it.
If you're still one of the people pointing and laughing at Joey Gallo while taunting with Rob Deer jokes, the joke is on you. He's a legitimate star when healthy. He falls short of the "five tool" label, but not by much. He's good at a hell of a lot more than hitting home runs. Get past the stigma and enjoy him, lingering naysayers. It's a shame we might not see him again this season, but the Rangers now have a centerpiece heading to 2020.