Joey Gallo hasn’t changed since arriving in the major leagues. The Texas Rangers slugger might be a little smarter of a baserunner and a tad better on defense, but he is still the exact same hitter. No, Gallo has not changed, but Major League Baseball and the sport as a whole have changed with him, and his unique and unorthodox skill set have been given the environment it needs to succeed.
Entering June, Gallo has firmly driven himself into the race for the American League Most Valuable Player Award, and the notion that someone like Gallo could win the most prestigious end-of-year accolade the game has to offer is a sign of the good in baseball’s ever-evolving landscape.
Since jumping into the majors, Gallo has been an intriguing and fascinating hitter to watch. A big, burly left-handed batter with next to no plate discipline, but who could majestically torch any ball he gets a hold of. He was touted as the next Chris Davis (this was back when Davis was a premier hitter), but looked more like an Adam Dunn with better defensive skills. In his 2015 debut season he struck out in 57 of his 123 plate appearances (46 percent), but maintained a godly 52.1 hard-hit percentage.
In his first full MLB campaign Gallo cracked 41 home runs at just 23 years old, but whiffed 196 times. The next season he finished third in all of baseball in long balls, hitting 40, while striking out 207 times. His batting average hovered around the Mendoza line over the two seasons, as he slashed .208/.322/.516 over 2017 and 2018 with his pull-heavy batting style, making him an easy out for the shifted opposing defense (over the past two seasons, Gallo faced a defensive shift in 83.2 percent of his at-bats) when he wasn’t going yard.
Like any young player leaping into the big leagues, he was expected to get better over time, but experts never predicted he’d change at all. Not for Gallo to become a more contact-oriented hitter, or someone who can wait on a fastball to drive it for an opposite-field hit, just for him to remain as the robotic Adam Dunn prototype he was since his first big-league at-bat. He is still the same guy in 2019.
Only this season Gallo is a legitimate candidate for the AL MVP Award. Few players in the AL can match his production through the first third of 2019, as the 6-foot-5 behemoth has carried the surprising Rangers, who currently own the second AL Wild Card spot. The outfielder has slashed .276/.421/.653 with 17 home runs, 41 RBIs, three steals, 42 walks, an AL-best 1.074 OPS, and a 166 OPS+.
In addition, Gallo leads the major leagues in strikeouts, taking 76 third strikes. That is right around his pace for his career single-season average, and he will likely have another 200-strikeout season. There have only been 13 seasons of 200, or more strikeouts by a hitter in MLB history, and Gallo is on pace for his second in a row. With that in mind, he almost certainly should not be an MVP candidate, but in baseball’s changing landscape — in which strikeouts are more acceptable and the risk/reward factor of home runs is too good to pass up — Gallo can be the most valuable player in the AL.
His three-true-outcome approach encapsulates the world of baseball in 2019 like nobody else. Both strikeouts and home runs are occurring in MLB at record rates, and the disciplined, work-the-count, hit-for-average batter is a dying breed. All of those 13 200-strikeout seasons have been recorded in the last 11 years. And, of course, Gallo is the guy who hit 100 home runs before he recorded 100 singles.
If baseball was the sport it was 20 years ago, Gallo would have never made a big-league team without becoming a high-average player who could hit against the shift. His lack of versatility as a hitter would have plagued him, and his inability to produce without smacking dingers would hinder his entire career. Take the aforementioned Dunn for example. Although Dunn was a lackadaisical defensive player, he was a comparable hitter and essentially laughed out of the game at 34 years of age with 462 home runs under his belt.
The dude was ahead of his time somewhat, always aiming for the seats, regardless of the situation. But that approach was unacceptable at the time, and as baseball has — very rapidly — evolved, Gallo’s hitting repertoire, which is similar to that of Dunn, is now the envy of the rest of the game. His 96.3 mph average exit velocity and 28.4 barrel percentage both rank first in the major leagues, indicating how hard he’s driving the ball and how much more difficult it is to pitch to someone like Gallo in a hitting-friendly environment that is MLB in 2019.
If Gallo continues on his torrid offensive pace and strikes out 200 times, I don’t think the gaudy accumulation of strikeouts will matter. Mike Trout, Jorge Polanco, and Alex Bregman might have a say at the end, but Joey Gallo could win the MVP with a stat line never before seen, and that would have never happened without the evolving state of the game of baseball.