Joey Gallo, Master of the Accidental Single

Every once in a long while a ballplayer will come along and have a season that mixes batting highs and lows of such extremes that statistical norms are warped and long-held baseball principles go out the window. Joey Gallo, the hulking third baseman/first baseman of the Texas Rangers, is having just such a season and in a very real sense has become the poster boy for this season in which both home runs and strikeouts are way up. If ballplayers had theme songs, Gallo’s might be “All Or Nothing At All”.

A recent hot streak has raised his batting average all the way up to .211, which is still abysmally low, sitting just above the dreaded “Mendoza Line” of .200. If a player spends too much time at or below that line, he no longer has a major-league job, but finds himself plying his trade in places like Altoona or Shreveport. The reason that Gallo is still in the major leagues is that he’s hit 37 home runs, tied with Justin Smoak for second-most in the American League, two behind the 39 hit by Khris Davis of Oakland and hotshot Yankee rookie Aaron Judge. (Judge should have hit 50 by now, but has been mired in a second-half slump since winning the All-Star Home Run Derby. Surprise, surprise – when will they ever learn?)

As you’ve probably guessed by now from his low batting average, Gallo strikes out a bunch – 162 times so far, which is a lot for a whole season, never mind by September. Really dedicated free-swingers will strike out over 200 times a year, and if our boy really puts his mind to it he might get there. Like a lot of sluggers, Gallo partially makes up for this by walking a fair bit – 66 times so far, meaning his on-base percentage is a semi-respectable .335; not bad considering his low average.

But Gallo’s numbers get really freakish when you look at the distribution of his hits. Almost half of his 80 hits are home runs, which is unheard of for a regular. For good measure, he’s hit 16 doubles and 3 triples, meaning 56 of his 80 hits have gone for extra bases. Doing the math, this means he has hit a grand total of 24 singles, which is ridiculous. It’s this paucity of singles that really has baseball people scratching their heads because, since the beginning of baseball time, every hitter – even the big boppers – will have more singles in a season than any other type of hit. There are countless examples, but let’s take one from this year: Giancarlo Stanton. He’s been on a historic home run-hitting tear, hitting 53 already. Even so, he has 63 singles, which is within range of normal. Joey Gallo is nowhere near normal, with him singles are almost accidents, an afterthought. About once a week or so, the ball will hit his bat and go up the middle just out of reach of all the fielders and he’ll trundle down to first base almost in shock. “What just happened? I swung and meant to miss but made incidental contact and the ball only went about 200 feet. I’ll try to do better next time, coach.”

Depending on your point of view, Gallo’s extremes are either laughably bad or really impressive. But either way, the number which best reflects his freakish season is his slugging average of .566, which is the third-best in the American League and extremely high for a player with a batting average of just .211. Excellence in slugging average begins at about .480, and depending on how much power he has, a ‘normal’ player will have a slugging average between 100 and 250 points above his batting average. For example, Kevin Pillar is hitting .255 so far with medium power, and his slugging average is .405. Mickey Mantle had enormous power and his career slugging average of .557 is 259 points higher than his batting average. Richie Ashburn had no power whatsoever, hitting just 29 homers in his whole career, so his slugging average of .380 is just 72 points higher than his career batting average of .308. Gallo is the anti-Ashburn, with a slugging average a whopping 356 points higher than his batting average. This is unprecedented except for the very best power-hitters like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, who had batting averages in the mid-.300s. In Gallo’s case you could argue his slugging average had nowhere to go but up, but the main reason his slugging number is so good is not just the high percentage of extra-base hits, but that these have come in just 380 at-bats. This is quite a low total for this late in the season – usually by September, an everyday player not missing many games will have around 500 at-bats. For example, Justin Smoak has 488, Pillar 518, and José Bautista, 510. Gallo has missed about 30 games’ worth of at-bats either because of injury, or maybe because his coaches got tired of watching him strike out so much. There’s no way around it though, hitting 37 homers in 380 at-bats is flat-out impressive.

I was all set to write a piece called “On Slugging”, about some common misconceptions regarding slugging average as a stat, in relation to batting average. These include the mistaken notion that the two stats are completely separate, whereas they’re closely related. Or that a player can have a high slugging average by simply hitting gobs of home runs, which is even less true. My main thesis was that both stats measure consistency, but slugging average rewards extra-base hits, and that it is generally impossible to have a high slugging average without also having a high batting average.

To prove this, I was going to compare Joey Gallo’s season to Justin Smoak’s, because they’ve each hit 37 home runs. But Smoak’s batting average of .283 is much higher and he has more of everything than Gallo except homers, so I assumed his slugging average would be quite a bit higher. There was only one problem – when I checked, Smoak’s slugging average of .562 was slightly lower than Gallo’s. Rather than proving my theory, the comparison disproved it, and it was back to the drawing board. Smoak’s SA was about what I expected, but I assumed Gallo’s would be somewhat lower.

In this now-aborted piece, I was also going to compare Gallo to a player on the opposite end of the batting average spectrum: Jose Altuve, the very small, whippet-fast second baseman of the Houston Astros. Altuve is leading the AL in hitting at .351, and also leads in hits with 183. Not all of them are singles either, he has good pop for a little guy – 21 homers, 36 doubles and 4 triples. Because of his very high BA, I assumed he would have a higher SA than Gallo, but Altuve’s is slightly lower at .557 – close, but no cigar, and wrong again. At least Altuve supports my theory that a player can have a high SA without hitting a gazillion home runs, provided his other numbers are all good. The problem is that Gallo’s season is too crookedly extreme to warrant a reasonable or useful comparison with anybody. His very high SA is completely legit, but he has achieved it in a most unconventional way – by hitting hardly any singles.

One other statistical consideration, then I’ll stop boring everyone and go away: the more a player walks, the higher both his BA and SA will be. On the face of it, this doesn’t make sense because walks don’t figure into the formula determining either of these stats. The important thing to remember is that a batter is not charged with an at-bat when he draws a walk. So let’s look at two imaginary players in the context of one game. The first player comes to the plate 5 times, hitting a double and making four outs. He’s charged with 5 at-bats, so his BA for the game is .200 and his SA is .400. The second player also comes to the plate 5 times, hitting a double, walking 3 times, and striking out. Because of the 3 walks, he’s only charged with 2 at-bats, so his BA for the game is .500 and his SA is 1.000. That’s a huge difference. It’s just one game, but the same principles hold over the course of a long season. Walks may be slow and not very sexy, but they do a lot to improve both a player’s hitting resumé and his team’s chances of scoring runs. Drawing a lot of walks is mostly the reason José Bautista still has a major-league job, and also why he’s scored more runs than anyone else on the Blue Jays this year, Justin Smoak included. Just thought I’d point that out to people before they run Bautista out of town on the rails.

Returning to our hero, I’ve poked fun at Joey Gallo’s freaky numbers because it’s hard not to, but this doesn’t mean he’s not a good player, of course he is. He holds down a regular job on a major-league team and the reality of pro baseball is that as soon as they find someone better than you, you’re either replaced or traded. Beyond this, he plays third base and first base equally well and has a good throwing arm, so he has defensive value and versatility. And he could hit 40 to 45 home runs this year, and players with that much power are always valued. Sure, you’d like to see his average go up and the strikeouts go down, but the important thing to remember with Gallo is that he’s only 23 years old. He played small chunks of the past two seasons but he’s a regular now and this is his breakthrough season, at least in terms of hitting the ball out of the park. Presumably he has time to refine his game and make the necessary adjustments, plus he already has two assets that can’t be taught and that won’t fade away soon: great size and great strength. He’s huge – 6’5″ and 225 pounds – and you can see the strength coming off of him in rays, he looks like a swarthier Paul Bunyan. And maybe he can learn the Zen art of hitting the lowly single, maybe his theme song will change to “Nice ‘n’ Easy”. I wouldn’t put money on it, but it could happen. This is because, as his bizarre season thus far has already shown, almost anything in baseball is possible.

 

© 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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