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The Most Interesting Man in the Minors

Last year, Rangers prospect Joey Gallo posted a Texas-size strikeout rate. This year, he’s making more contact and maintaining a historic home run pace. Oh, and he hits the ball harder than Miguel Cabrera. So is this Power Ranger a star or a minor league mirage?

In an appearance on MLB Network earlier this year, Braves senior adviser John Hart echoed the sentiment that an army of anonymous front-office types has embraced: “Power is at a premium in Major League Baseball today.” The industry’s hot pursuit of slugging stems from a reduction in scoring; while power hitters aren’t disproportionately valuable during low-offense eras (relative to, say, guys who get on base), it’s hard not to notice when 36 homers leads the National League. Until teams adjust to the new normal, power will seem especially precious, and executives will crave it almost as much as Frank Underwood does. And if GMs are hankering especially hard for someone who can hit the ball over the fence, then Rangers prospect Joey Gallo must be making them break the commandment about not coveting thy neighbor’s extra-base hits.

Gallo’s power has set him apart since the days when he batted cleanup behind Bryce Harper on club travel teams. He set state home run records in high school, tagged a name-brand pitching prospect with one of the longest home runs in Petco Park history at age 17, and led the minors with 40 often majestic round-trippers last season. “When you see him hit something, you won’t forget,” says Justin Mashore, the Rangers’ Triple-A hitting coach, who tutored Gallo at multiple minor league levels from 2012 to 2013. “You’ll tell your grandkids about when you saw him hit those home runs that everybody talks about.”

That home run pace hasn’t slowed this season: Gallo had mashed 23 homers while posting a .320/.459/.745 line across two levels. His superhuman hitting earned him a June 8 bump from Single-A to Double-A, where he has already delivered walk-off homer heroics. Gallo’s breakout has been the silver lining in the Rangers’ lost season, and he could be bashing balls into light towers in a big league ballpark near you next year. Prior to Opening Day, however, no player’s future seemed more uncertain.

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Given Gallo’s success this season, it seems curious that the 20-year-old, left-handed-hitting third baseman barely cracked Baseball Prospectus’s preseason Top 101 Prospects list in January, coming in 95th overall and seventh in the Rangers’ system. His scouting reports exhibited at least some of the hallmarks of a much higher-ranked player. Jason Parks, who produced BP’s rankings, graded Gallo’s Overall Future Potential, or “OFP” — the best possible outcome for the player — as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, giving Gallo a “perennial all-star” ceiling that only 31 of the other top 101 prospects possessed. In that respect, Gallo surpassed several players who finished in the top 30, including some who’ve caused a stir this season, such as Marcus Stroman, George Springer, and Gregory Polanco.

Gallo’s power, his offensive calling card, got an “80” grade, which only two other prospects could claim: Cubs shortstop Javier Baez and Twins third baseman Miguel Sano, who ranked fourth and 14th, respectively, on the top 101 list. Below Billy Hamilton, whose elite speed propelled him to 49th place, top-of-the-scale tools were scarce; Gallo’s pop was one of only two “80” tools on the bottom half of the list, along with Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt’s arm.

Gallo fell as far as he did despite that great strength because of his equally great weakness: making contact. As Parks noted, Gallo’s swing-and-miss was also 80-grade, which threatened to “limit his elite power potential.” As a result, Gallo’s “realistic role” was a 40, the lowest of any player on the list. If a “70” grade spells “top prospect,” a “40” screams “Quadruple-A player” — someone who might mash in the minors, but whose stats seem unlikely to hold up against high-level pitching. No other player in the top 101 had a three-grade gap between his pie-in-the-sky projection and his realistic-role projection. It’s not easy to untangle any player’s future, but Gallo’s in particular looked like a Gordian knot.

In general, scouts do a better job of projecting prospects than do purely stats-based systems, but in some cases — the diminutive Dustin Pedroia’s, for instance — human evaluators can be deceived by a player’s appearance in ways that a computer can’t. Gallo’s 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame is nearly Giancarlo Stanton–size, so he was never in danger of being underestimated because of his build. Yet PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’s Nate Silver–developed projection system, couldn’t draw upon its dispassionate algorithms to cut through the bias and lay bare the abilities beneath. In Gallo’s case, PECOTA was just as uncertain as the scouts.

According to PECOTA, Gallo’s most comparable player prior to the 2014 season was Stanton, the Marlins outfielder who hits home runs farther than anyone else; his second comp was Sano. Gallo’s third-closest comp, though, wasn’t quite as encouraging: Cody Johnson, the Braves’ failed 2006 first-round pick. Johnson, who hit .245/.320/.475 over eight professional seasons, topped out with a short stint in Triple-A last year. At age 17, he was one of the best power prospects in the country; at age 25, he’s out of baseball. And if his career had an epitaph, it would read, “He couldn’t make contact.” In a preseason poll at MinorLeagueBall.com, 28 percent of respondents said that Gallo’s career would more closely resemble Johnson’s than a host of other potential comps.

As the above hodgepodge of superstars and scrubs suggests, even Gallo’s most comparable players weren’t a lot like him. PECOTA grades player similarity on a 100-point scale; the higher the number, the more alike two players appear based on their age, performance, and position, among other factors. The average similarity score for a player’s top comparable is 94, and the average sim score among a typical player’s top 100 comparables — his “Similarity Index” — is 84. Mike Trout, by some measures the best position player ever through age 21, is predictably peerless in PECOTA’s eyes: His top comp gets a grade of 68, and he has a Similarity Index of 40. Compared to Gallo’s best matches, though, Trout and his comps look like identical twins. Gallo and Stanton earned only a 65 similarity score, and Gallo’s Similarity Index was 27. Of the 7,100-plus players for whom PECOTA generated projections, none was less like all of the others than Gallo. Writers apply the “unique” tag to players too often in a sport whose history extends as far back as baseball’s does, but as far as PECOTA is concerned, Gallo has as strong a claim to that label as any current player.

Both projection systems and scouts rely on their knowledge of previous players to inform their future projections for current players, so the harder it is to come up with examples of players who’ve succeeded with the same profile, the less accurate (and often, the more pessimistic) the projection. Using statistics instead of scouting insight, PECOTA came to the same conclusion as Parks: Gallo could blossom into a star or become a career minor leaguer. Talk about big error bars. PECOTA forecast that Gallo would eventually hit close to 50 homers and shatter Mark Reynolds’s strikeout record. In the same season.

The problem with projecting Gallo heading into 2014 was that he did one thing well enough to look like a lock for stardom, and another so poorly that history suggested it would be virtually impossible for him to flourish. In 2013, as a 19-year-old playing for the Hickory Crawdads in his second professional season, Gallo hit 38 homers; he added two more on a rehab assignment in the Arizona League to bring his season total to 40. Gallo’s Isolated Power, or ISO — a measure of extra-base power production calculated by subtracting a player’s batting average from his slugging percentage — was .365, more than three times the .116 South Atlantic League average.

According to the BP database, which contains complete minor league data back to 1978, the only other player to post an ISO that high relative to the league, while making at least 400 plate appearances in a season below Double-A, was Eric Anthony, who did it for the Asheville Tourists in 1988. Anthony, though, was a year older than Gallo was in 2013, and Anthony played half his games in McCormick Field, one of the best hitter’s parks in the minors. Adjusting for Gallo’s offensive environment, his power display in Class-A was unprecedented.

That’s Gallo’s good side, where his stats look like Stanton’s. From another angle, the Johnson resemblance sticks out. Gallo struck out 78 times in 260 plate appearances in his 2012 post-draft debut. Last year with Hickory, he batted .245 — Johnson’s career average — and whiffed in 37 percent of his plate appearances, walking once for every 3.4 K’s. For context, last season’s major league leader, Carter, struck out 36.2 percent of the time. Since 1985, only three players (Mike Simms, Charlton Jimerson, and Josh Booty) have made the majors after a Class A season with a strikeout rate as high as Gallo’s, relative to the league, and they combined for less than one Win Above Replacement Player.1

If you’re wondering why your favorite high-strikeout slugger isn’t on that list, it’s because most big league strikeout kings made much more contact in the minors. Gallo has drawn Adam Dunn comparisons since before his first pro plate appearance, but Dunn hit .292 in Class A, and he struck out only 19 more times than he walked. In Carter’s lone full season in the South Atlantic League, he hit .292 and struck out in 20.6 percent of his plate appearances, barely above the league-average baseline. If a player strikes out at a reasonable rate in the low minors, he has room to miss more as he moves up the minor league ladder. If he starts out where Johnson did, with a strikeout rate in the mid-30s in his first full season, there’s not much margin for (additional) error.

Once Gallo had recorded a strikeout rate on the wrong side of history, anything else he did was liable to be discounted, which explains how he managed to become the first teenager to hit 40 home runs in a minor league season since 1962 and still be regarded as only the 95th-best prospect in baseball. Like Lost’s John Locke, many successful athletes feed off of being told what they can’t do. The few without any obvious flaws have to go out of their way to find doubters, seizing on an opponent’s idle comment or a trolling analyst’s hot take. Others, like Gallo, don’t have to manufacture motivation after looking at prospect lists, or remembering the widespread scouting belief that hitting ability is largely innate.

“I was going to improve on all those things to show people that just because you have one year like that at the age of 19 years old, that it doesn’t mean that’s the kind of player you are,” Gallo says, describing his mind-set this spring. “It’s possible you can make adjustments and be a different player. It was frustrating, obviously, only being 19 years old, being the first full season, that people were already writing you off not just as a prospect but as a guy that can make an impact in the major leagues.”

Gallo is a man on a mission to address his Achilles contact rate, and if he succeeds, he might answer some key questions about prospect predestination: Is a player’s path set in stone after one extreme-strikeout-rate season, as a few decades of flops would suggest? Or can a combination of good makeup and proper coaching enable a prospect to turn his career around?

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If not for the strikeouts that they’re now trying to curtail, the Rangers might never have gotten Gallo. The lefty from Las Vegas hit .466 with 67 home runs in 569 plate appearances in his four years on the varsity team at his hometown Bishop Gorman High School, batting .509 with 21 homers in his 2011-12 senior season. Despite those stats and his obvious athleticism — Gallo pitched, too, and could touch the high 90s — he fell to the Rangers at pick 39 of the 2012 draft.

Some of the teams that passed on him had signability concerns; Gallo was committed to LSU, and it took the Rangers $2.25 million, well over the $1.325 million slot, to sign him. Others weren’t sure that he’d hit for a high enough average at the upper levels and preferred him as a pitcher, an occupation Gallo had no interest in pursuing. In late March of Gallo’s senior spring, he attended a high-profile event for amateur prospects, the National High School Invitational in Durham, North Carolina. He went 1-for-8 with four strikeouts in three games, and some of the many scouts in attendance didn’t like what they saw.

“He really struggled,” says Todd Guggiana, the Rangers area scout who signed Gallo. “We had guys back there and he swung and missed a ton … I think that tournament scared a lot of teams off.”

The Rangers weren’t as worried. Guggiana had been watching Gallo since the previous summer, and while he’d seen some swing-and-miss, he’d never seen him look out of his league. Although the Rangers’ national cross-checker and scouting director attended the Durham tournament, the organization went with Guggiana’s longer look over its own small sample and, Guggiana says, “rearranged the draft to get [Gallo].”

The more homers Gallo hit, the happier the Rangers were that they’d done so. Even when Gallo stumbled, the organization didn’t doubt his skills.

“Never from the first day I saw him have I really felt that he was going to have a ton of issues,” Mashore says. “A lot of it just was the ‘first whole season’ experience, how much pressure he put on himself. Physically, there wasn’t a whole bunch wrong with him as much as it was just mentally being ready.”

Gallo acknowledges that prior to this season, he had only one plan at the plate, which contributed to his contact woes. “Last year I just kind of went up and swung, hoping everything would be a fastball,” he says.

Mashore tried to get Gallo to adjust to the pitch he received rather than fixate on the one he wanted, and he found Gallo to be an attentive student. However, as Mashore admits, advice “doesn’t always exactly resonate when it comes from a coach.”

Fortunately for the Rangers, it does when it comes from an active player with more than 400 career homers, and Gallo happened to have one on hand. When Gallo was in grade school, his father, Tony, worked at batting cages owned by Jason Giambi. Gallo’s talent caught the former MVP’s eye, and the two stayed in touch after the economy tanked and the cages closed. Years later, Gallo gravitated to the Philippi Sports Institute, where Giambi was a regular, and began training under Mark Philippi, a former America’s Strongest Man. Gradually, Gallo and Giambi grew closer, and after his high-strikeout season in Hickory, Gallo sought Giambi’s assistance.

“We were working out, and he just asked me, ‘Hey, can you help me with my hitting this year?’” Giambi recalls. “And I said, ‘Yeah I’d be more than happy.’ So we started going to the cage three or four times a week, and we really sat down and started talking, going through and helping him with his mental approach at the plate.”

Giambi, who has transitioned from long-haired, steroid-enhanced party hound to respected clubhouse leader and manager-in-waiting, might have been the perfect person to polish the unrefined areas of Gallo’s game. Obsessed with hitting from an early age, Giambi came out of college as a fully formed product, accumulating 26 more walks than strikeouts in his first full minor league season. Gallo needed that kind of knowledge, and Giambi, who has already received multiple offers to become a big league batting coach, had the passion to pass it on.

“The biggest thing I wanted to teach Joey was self-awareness of his swing, where he didn’t really need anybody to help him,” Giambi says. “Where he could get that mind-body connection. We’d hit a lot on the tee, and I put the tee really close to him, really tight on his body, so he could feel like hitting that inside pitch.2 And if he got his hands down, he could load them up and not have so much loop in his swing, to create more contact without losing his power.”

Giambi drilled Gallo on diagnosing his flaws, and he emphasized that walks are a weapon. When Gallo wasn’t getting hitting tips from Giambi or training with Philippi, he was receiving fielding instruction from Gold Glover Troy Tulowitzki, who helped him improve his footwork to make the most of one of the strongest infield arms in the minors.3 The offseason regimen was like finishing school for superstars, and Gallo soaked up the whole syllabus.

“We left it at, ‘Listen, I’ll always be here to talk, but go with it,’” Giambi says. “I gave him a bunch of keys to work through the year, to kind of give him like a little sheet, like a cheat sheet, to help him with his swing when he’s not feeling right.”

When Giambi pushed the prospect out of the nest, Gallo flew. Promoted to High-A Myrtle Beach (former home of — who else? — Cody Johnson) to start the 2014 season, Gallo picked up where he’d left off in the power department, launching a minor league–leading 21 homers in his first 58 games despite playing in a park that slightly hampers home run hitting. This time, though, the power didn’t come with any contact-related caveats. Gallo’s walk rate nearly doubled, rising from 10.8 percent to 20.7 percent. And despite facing more advanced competition in a league where only one of his plate appearances came against an opponent who was younger than he was, his strikeout rate declined from 37 percent to a much more manageable 26 percent, which helped boost his batting average to .323.

“My swing last year was way longer, so I’d miss pitches that were thrown 88 miles an hour down the middle just because I had so much movement going on,” Gallo says. “Now, I really don’t miss too many of those pitches. And it’s a little bit of knowing what a pitcher’s mentality is and how a team’s going to pitch to you. Now I kind of have a plan of what this guy’s best pitch is, what he’ll throw, and am a little smarter than last year. So that helps putting balls in play.”

Compare the following clips, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus author Ryan Parker, who recently examined Gallo’s swing. The top one comes from 2013, and the bottom two were captured this season.

Gallo’s stride and load are a lot less pronounced in 2014, which has made him quicker to the ball. The end of his bat still tips toward the pitcher as his leg lifts, but not nearly to the degree it did last year, when it pointed almost straight toward the mound. His hands start out lower, and while they reach essentially the same position by the time he triggers his swing, they then rise slightly instead of sinking. Even with a stripped-down swing, Gallo’s weight transfer, bat speed, and natural strength supply plenty of pop.

“[I’ve] definitely cut back on [the load] a lot,” Gallo says. “Just trying to keep things as simple as possible, really. Without a big load and without too much movement at all.”

One day, we might judge that swing, as Mashore suggests, by how much it makes us want to bore our grandkids with Gallo GIFs.4 For now, we have numbers. The Rangers use PITCHf/x and HITf/x ball-tracking technology — the same systems installed in every major league park — at Hickory and Myrtle Beach, which tells them how pitchers have attacked Gallo and how his batted balls have behaved. The output isn’t publicly available, but the Rangers were willing to give us the goods.

Minor league f/x info isn’t shared freely among all teams, so the samples are somewhat limited, encompassing one park and 31 players from Class-A in 2013 and four parks and 115 players from 2014. Still, that’s enough to come to some clear conclusions about how pitchers have approached Gallo, and how he’s responded.

Fastball Rate
Level Gallo League Average
A (2013) 57.7 58.1
High-A (2014) 58.1 60.2
In-Zone Rate
A (2013) 33.9 38.3
High-A (2014) 32.6 38.1
Vertical Launch Angle
A (2013) 28.8 12.9
High-A (2014) 24.9 11.8

Gallo hasn’t seen significantly fewer fastballs (pitches classified as four-seamers, two-seamers, or sinkers) than the typical hitter, but because opposing pitchers are afraid of being burned, he has seen a lot fewer pitches inside the rulebook strike zone, which suits him fine. As Josue Perez, Gallo’s High-A hitting coach, reminded him repeatedly, “They’re not going to pitch to you? Perfect.” With his newfound patience, Gallo can feed off that fear and work favorable counts.

When Gallo does swing and connect, he hits the ball much higher than the typical player, at close to the optimal angle for hitting home runs (roughly 28 degrees). Although Perez has worked with him on “hitting the ball to the big part of the field, driving the ball the other way, left-center,” however, the slugger is still primarily a pull hitter. For HITf/x purposes, “up the middle” equals 90 degrees, with lower numbers to the right side of second. Gallo’s horizontal launch angle has climbed from 78.8 in 2013 to 81.1 this season, which puts him on par with David Ortiz. He’ll soon start seeing the shift.5

That’s all a prelude to the big reveal: how hard Gallo hits the ball.

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Among players with 25 or more measured batted balls (including fouls) — a pool of 31 A-ball batters in 2013, and 115 High-A hitters in 2014 — Gallo’s batted-ball speed was the best, and it wasn’t particularly close. For reference, the average exit speed among major league non-pitchers last season was 75.9 miles per hour, and Miguel Cabrera led the league at 84.9 … 0.8 mph slower than Gallo’s exit speed this season. With the aid of his revamped approach, Gallo has hit the ball harder this season than any major leaguer did in 2013, including the two-time MVP. While it’s certainly true that it’s harder to get good wood on balls in the majors than it is in High-A, it’s also true that Gallo is still getting stronger.

His exit speed is the sort of stat that justifies superlatives, which aren’t in short supply.

“He has the frame to be everything you want in a player,” says a talent evaluator from another organization. “Good actions, strength in his forearms, and potential for lots of upper-body strength.”

Gallo always had that hardware. All he needed was an upgrade to his operating system, and he got that over the winter.

“I think Joey Gallo’s ceiling is unlimited,” Giambi says. “I think [he] can be whoever he wants to be. He has the potential to be a .300 hitter, he has the potential to hit 50 homers, he has the potential to drive in 140. He runs really well for a big guy. He can play defense at third base. He’s a pretty special player; you don’t see players like this come along very often. And he has the right makeup and the right attitude … I think that’s the greatest thing about Joey, is that he’s really receptive to learning.”6

Often, when a prospect’s stock inflates this fast, it’s time to pump the brakes. Gallo isn’t far removed from that 37 percent strikeout rate, and he has yet to prove himself at the upper levels. As Guggiana says, “I try to downplay this stuff until these guys start really dominating in Double-A, and then from there make steps to Triple-A and the big leagues.”

Still, it’s always a positive sign when the scouting reports back up the stats. Shortly after labeling Gallo the 95th-best prospect in baseball, Parks said, “If he takes a step forward with his swing mechanics without losing any of his raw power and shows a little bit more bat control, a little bit more ability to stay with pitches and maybe take a double or take a single every once in a while, he could be a guy who goes from no. 95 to no. 25.” There’s a good chance that that’s going to happen. ESPN prospect evaluator Keith Law, who left Gallo off his preseason top 100 list, bumped him up to his top 25 in an updated list last month, and other analysts have published positive reports.

We’ll learn much more about Gallo in the coming weeks. Satisfied that he’d done enough damage to the self-esteem of his High-A opponents, the Rangers promoted him to Double-A Frisco on Sunday. Batting fifth for the RoughRiders in his Monday debut, Gallo began with a groundout. In his second through fourth at-bats, he struck out, twice swinging. (Perhaps he was pressing, as he had at the NHSI.) In the bottom of the ninth, though, Gallo got another chance, with two outs, two on, and the game tied at four.

That Perez-approved walk-off shot to left-center, which extended Gallo’s minor league long-ball lead since the start of last season to 16, was his 84th home run as a professional. Through the kind of statistical lightning strike that could happen only to him, Gallo’s career singles total also stood at 84. He broke that tie on Tuesday, when in his second game at the level that often separates the 70-grade players from the 40-grade players, he doubled, walked twice, and homered again, extending his minor league long-ball lead since the start of last season to 17.

“He’s doing things that no one has done,” Guggiana says. How predictable. 

Riley McAtee provided transcription assistance for this article.

Filed Under: MLB, Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers, MiLB, MLB Prospects, MLB Stats, Home Runs, Jason Giambi, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh

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Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh

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