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April 20, 2017

Circle Change

Pico de Gallo?

by Zach Crizer


Along an arterial road in the Dallas-Fort Worth sprawl, a hulking 6-foot-5 man in a black v-neck t-shirt simply seeks a burrito. At the local Chipotle, he finds a line of a half-dozen already formed, and silently takes his place behind a much more modestly built man of similar age.

Sporting a scraggly beard, a slightly too large Dallas Stars sweater, and a backwards hat of indiscriminate origin, the smaller man glances away from his phone and, a beat later, realizes he recognizes the specimen now standing behind him.

“Are ... uh, ‘scuse me,” he stammers, lowering his voice. “Are you Joey Gallo?”

“Oh, yeah,” Gallo says, wondering whether this will be an autograph-seeker or selfie-taker.

“Wow, cool,” the fan says, before revealing himself to be neither. “Man, if you learn to lay off the trash stuff you’re gonna be deadly.”

Now, this is the story of an interaction that didn’t happen. But it is also the story of Gallo’s professional life, in a way. Everyone thinks they know the problem. Some write him off. Some think they have an answer. Some just want to look smart when he does whatever he will do.

After a stunned pause, Gallo forms a response to the unexpected, simplistic pro tip.

“Alright, man,” he says. “What stuff is it you think I should lay off of?”

It’s at this point the fan realizes he might be in over his head. He envisioned Gallo inhabiting a headspace built around hitting massive homers, with little regard for any other part of the game—sort of like a slam dunk contest champion who can’t shoot, dribble, or defend. He didn’t plan for follow-up questions. Still, he forges on.

“Like, changeups and sliders and stuff,” the fan says, gaining steam. “Just wait for those fastballs and then you can crush them!”

“Well,” Gallo says as they inch forward toward the counter, “I actually hit sliders pretty well. Right-handers hate throwing me sliders that break in toward me, and I already hit a lefty’s slider out this year, too. Changeups, yeah, those are rough. But it’s not so easy to lay off them when you’re looking fastball a lot of the time.”

“Huh. Is there, like, a specific pitch you—sorry, hang on,” the fan says, turning to the counter. “Yeah I’ll do a burrito to go.”

He rolls through the line, and then Gallo steps up, loading a bowl with rice and vegetables and all manner of white meat, and with lettuce and corn and hot and medium salsa and pico de gallo, no cheese, no sour cream.

“Alright, uh, good to meet you, man,” the fan says, abandoning his line of questioning as he walks away with his burrito. “Go Rangers.”

Damn, he tweets when he gets to his car, I just met Joey Gallo in Chipotle and totally forgot to get a selfie. Gonna be real mad if he makes it big.

***

Google believes that pico de gallo translates to Peak Gallo. Seriously, go punch it in. I’m not making this up.

If you’re puzzling over what that means, welcome to the club. Perhaps, if your brain fired a certain way and gazed into the future from 2015—when Gallo set out on his fitful, sporadic mission to hack it in the majors—you would view our current micro-era of high-fly-ball, low-contact hitters, from afar, as Peak Gallo. And then when your eyes zoomed in on the details of our present time, you would have some questions.

Some of these guys had 30 percent of their hits go for homers? Mark Reynolds is still finding employment, huh? The Brewers non-tendered the NL homer leader? What’s a Ryan Schimpf?

And finally …

Wait, where’s Gallo?

Gallo has accumulated a respectable reel of gargantuan homers in his 200 or so plate appearances—including one just last night against the A's—but struck out so prolifically that he’s never managed to stick around on the oft-contending Rangers. Which brings us back to the trash stuff.

In a lot of ways, any fan who can watch a game or look up a stat or recognize Gallo in a fast-casual restaurant can figure out the problem: When he swings, he is incredibly unlikely to hit the baseball that is flying toward him, at least within the context of people paid to do that professionally.

Over the 837 pitches that comprise his career thus far, Gallo has missed on 47.5 percent of his swings. If you focus on the very small sample of this season, he’s improved to a 39.3 percent clip.

That’s actually within range of rookie-year George Springer or rookie-year Miguel Sano, names you used to hear alongside Gallo’s. Springer and Sano both corrected course, and it should be noted that their corrections came with more plate appearances than Gallo has been afforded. Springer’s zone-contact rate jumped upward in his second season, while Sano cut down on his particularly horrible chase swings.

The overall swinging-strike numbers don’t fully explain Gallo’s plight, though. Swinging at a pitch inside the strike zone is supposed to be a winning proposition for the hitter. In 2010, Mark Reynolds made contact on only 67.3 percent of his swings at strikes—the low-water mark for hitters seeing 1,000-plus pitches in any season since PITCHf/x was installed. The only other hitters to register seasons below the 70 percent line are Springer, off-year Chris Davis, Melvin Upton, Jack Cust, and Reynolds two other times.

As of right now, Gallo’s career zone-contact rate is 58.8 percent (!), though in 2017, he’s pushing 70 percent. He started from a very, very low place, but he is showing improvement. (He even has a double and a homer against lefties already this season, despite the ongoing 50 percent strikeout rate.)

How do you fix this one thing that renders a preternaturally gifted athlete less useful than a 5-foot-10 Khris Davis? Gallo is probably tired of thinking about it. There’s no surefire answer, because there likely isn’t a “solution” so much as a delicate balance he will have to strike with his swing and his approach.

It should be increasingly clear, in this landscape, that a breakthrough needn’t be built around good contact ability. Rather, he must maximize contact when it’s made. He’s an especially limber statue that can walk, talk, and make baseballs disappear—so the trick is (probably) deciding when to leap into action. It seems he could use some reassurance that watching some strikes go by is OK. For whatever reason, he’s swinging aggressively on anything in the zone, maintaining reasonable discipline but throwing selectivity to the wind.

We can’t expect to pinpoint Gallo’s comfort levels with each pitch or location from the sample we have thus far, but we can be pretty sure the levels do vary. And his swing rates don’t seem to indicate that at the moment.

He’s swinging away at high, inside heat, for instance. Early in counts, late in counts, whenever. And it’s not paying off. Off-speed pitches are, of course, also net losses. Sliders, however, seem worth the risk. Fastballs low and/or away, perhaps because of some effect of his swing path or his length, appear to allow him to get the proper leverage for fly balls.

If he can finetune and prioritize his swings, turn some of those doomed high-fastball swings into takes, a couple things can happen. Some of those pitches will be called balls. Others change from weak contact to strike two, say. And maybe the next pitch is a slider that stays up just enough. Other times, he’ll strike out.

Even with a five-percentage-point bump in zone-contact rate, Gallo could reach normal-year Chris Davis territory. It’s a small thing, but the result could be significant. Gallo currently leads all players (min. 40 PA) in fly-ball percentage in 2017, putting a full 50 percent of his batted balls high in the air. He’s also third-lowest in terms of ground-ball percentage (behind Schimpf, the human uppercut, and Ryon Healy), and has popped up only twice. More chances to roll the fly-ball dice mean more chances for the HUGE DINGER sides to land face up.

There’s still a real possibility that he is Cust, or Mike Olt, but there’s also a chance incremental improvements change things just enough. The questions are not going away, and he’s probably never going to answer them. But with enough pitches, and enough patience, Gallo’s strengths might overwhelm them—so that he can be the guest star of some prized selfies, or at least get a burrito in peace.

Zach Crizer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zach's other articles. You can contact Zach by clicking here

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  Twitter,  Strikeouts,  Joey Gallo,  Dingers,  Chipotle,  Burritos

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