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Examining Joey Gallo’s criticism of the shift

Was the lefty slugger penalized by the shift as much as he claims?

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New York Yankees v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In a season full of disappointments for the Yankees, few stand out more than Joey Gallo’s offensive futility after joining the team. OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh — his 97 wRC+ with the Yankees represented basically league-average production — but it’s safe to say Gallo failed to deliver on par with the expectations. That said, a .160 batting average and 38.6-percent strikeout rate with the Bombers was bound to rankle even the most analytically-inclined Yankees fan.

Gallo is one of the most polarizing players in baseball. In a way, he is the face of the revolution that has changed the game’s offensive aesthetic profile. A prototypical three-true-outcome (TTO) hitter with an extremely lofted swing that generates power but also a ton of whiffs, 373 of his 616 plate appearances in 2021 ended in a home run, walk, or strikeout. That’s a TTO rate of 58.9 percent, the highest in MLB among batters with at least 100 plate appearances.

And now, Gallo finds himself back in the national spotlight after his comments were published alongside other ballplayers in an article from The Athletic. Speaking with The Athletic’s Jayson Stark last summer, Gallo criticized certain elements of the shift.

“I get the defensive strategies, I do. I’m 100 percent not against that. But I think at some point, you have to fix the game a little bit. I mean, I don’t understand how I’m supposed to hit a double or triple when I have six guys standing in the outfield... I think (that no-infielders-in-the-outfield rule) would be huge for the league. You can still shift, but you can’t put multiple guys in the outfield. And at the end of the day, I think extra-base hits are important. And line drives to the outfield should be hits.”

Gallo feels that shifting infielders onto the outfield grass is responsible for his perennially low batting averages. According to Stark’s investigation, Gallo experienced the third-worst net loss of hits to the shift, with 29 hits taken away against only 14 gained by being shifted.

What’s more, it appears Gallo is insinuating that, along with his approach at the plate, the shift bears some of the blame for his status as a TTO hitter. Naturally, the minute I read this, I wanted to investigate the validity of the claim. But before we do that, we have to establish some baselines.

Why do teams shift? At its simplest, it’s to position infielders in locations where they have the highest probability of converting an out based on the batter’s tendencies. Gallo is an extreme pull-hitting lefty — his 49.5-percent pull rate after joining the Yankees was 12th-highest in baseball among lefties — so defenses are going to put three men on the first base side of second or an infielder in shallow right field.

This is the natural point where some might spout out, “Just hit the ball the other way!” Putting aside the rudimentary misunderstanding of how difficult that task is, it’s also an approach that just doesn’t make sense for Gallo. In 2021, Gallo had a .627 xwOBA when pulling the ball. That fell to .130 when going the opposite way. Gallo has found a model that works; there’s no point in changing it. It’s why he’s going to earn close to an eight-figure payday in 2022 even with sub-Mendoza-line batting averages and league-leading strikeout totals. It’s also why teams shifted him at the fourth-highest rate of any hitter in baseball with at least 100 plate appearances.

I’d like to zoom in and evaluate Gallo’s specific claim that the infielder in shallow right was the most damaging aspect of the shift for his production. Gallo is adamant that “line drives to the outfield should be hits.” So, I looked at every pulled line drive Gallo hit after joining the Yankees.

It turns out that there were only eight. Of those eight, three were converted into outs by infielders positioned in the outfield.

On one hand, convert those outs into hits and Gallo is still only batting .176 in pinstripes. On the other hand, a 37.5-percent out conversion rate on balls that would be hits with Gallo’s proposed changes in place is a significant portion. I fall into the former camp. Gallo has plenty of areas of his game to improve before blaming the shift for his struggles. For example, after joining the Yankees, Gallo had the fifth-highest whiff rate on pitches in the zone and 13th-highest whiff rate overall out of all players with at least 100 swings. Maybe focus on making contact with the ball before worrying about what happens after contact.

On a final note, I’d like to take a step away from the metrics for a second. Gallo is the quintessential lefty power hitter that Yankees fans have been falling over themselves clamoring for over the last few seasons. He’s practically custom-built to take advantage of the short porch in right. And now you want him to poke a dribbler the other way when the other team shifts? It boggles the mind.

Joey Gallo still has time to turn his Bronx tale around. Brian Cashman paid a hefty price to acquire his salary-free services at the trade deadline last season. Gallo can make that return look like a pittance with a successful 2022 campaign.