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On Joey Gallo and defensive comfort

Will playing more right field wake up the slugger’s bat?

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Joey Gallo has been appearing in right field for the Yankees more often lately. Although he moved around the field in the beginning of his career, it was always clear he was best suited for right field. His route running and reads are better there than any other position. His reputation of two gold gloves is legit. This is one of those cases where defensive metrics and the eye test match up well.

His Yankee career has mainly been played in left field, though, as Gallo had no chance of superseding Aaron Judge in right field. Judge too is a strong defender, a far better hitter, and well, the stands out there are named after him. It was going to take a lot of convincing to shift Judge to the left on more than a part-time basis. For one, it wasn’t clear it was worth playing Judge in center field often with the potential of Aaron Hicks rebounding, but with Hicks’ abilities declining as low as they have, it makes more sense for Aaron Boone to explore Judge in center and Gallo in right.

Perhaps more time in right field is the boost Gallo needs. He hasn’t played well, in every phase of the game. The latter is the more surprising part. He can’t afford to not hit and play below average defense. It’s not an option.

It’s also clear the Yankees best lineup does not have Aaron Hicks in it, making the best outfield construction look like a combination of Gallo, Judge, and Stanton. Judge’s burst speed and read advantages make him the only viable option in center. While that is probably not what the Yankees expected going into 2022, it’s more than worth trying it out at least half the time if it gives number 13 more confidence and comfort. The Yankees have seen what a player being in their natural physical space on the field can do for them offensively.

Last year, Giancarlo finally had a shot to play the outfield with consistency. The returns on offense were palpable. tOPS+ compares a player’s OPS in a given split versus their overall OPS+. Stanton ended the season with a 148 tOPS+ while playing left field and a 116 tOPS+ while playing right. This means he was the best version of himself on offense while playing left field. It represents a small sample, but it’s still a nice stat to back up what we saw from him.

There have been similar returns for Gleyber Torres in his return to second base this year too (also in a relatively small sample). With big expectations attached to his move to shortstop, he struggled. He has the most defensive value as a second baseman. He doesn’t have great range, but he is smooth and has a strong enough arm to turn just about any double play. Having second base handled has put him in a better head space to figure out his swing and approach. His power is the biggest bright spot, as his slugging percentage this year has been creeping closer and closer to .500. Beyond that, his demeanor is back at 2019 levels.

We know how this type of move can pay off even if it means moving other players out of their natural positions. Aaron Judge is going to be Aaron Judge. He’s just one of those players where the environment or position doesn’t matter. Gallo isn’t that level of player, and that’s fine. We shouldn’t expect him to be. It’s the job of him and the coaching staff to communicate with each other to find the best situation that brings the most out of him. If that means more playing time in right field, so be it.

Okay, you might wonder whether Gallo’s situation is much different than that of Torres and Stanton. Those two hitters have, and always had, incredible swings, even in their prolonged struggles. You’ve heard me say it a bunch: Gallo’s swing has limitations. So why draw the parallel here? Well, when you have the opportunity to best contribute on one side of the ball, you can focus your headspace on one thing that you need to improve. If Gallo returns to gold glove form in right, he will be in a better place to contribute offensively.

Sometimes you just have to switch things up. It’s sorta like a change of scenery, if you think about it. He may not be switching teams, but perhaps being in his most comfortable defensive home more often can give him the confidence he needs to get it going with the bat. I’m sure he is certainly happy with it. Let’s hope this is a similar case to Gallo’s two teammates and he gets it going with some time.