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On Joey Gallo and readjusting your priors

It’s time to consider the fact that Joey Gallo doesn’t simply need more time to work things out. It’s not happening.

MLB: Game Two-New York Yankees at Cleveland Guardians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Sample size rules all in today’s game. As a baseball community, we have been wired in recent years that we can’t understand what a player’s true ability is without a large sample size of games. By “large,” I mean a near-season and a half worth of games. If you can’t already tell, I’m alluding to an argument around Yankees outfielder Joey Gallo.

When the Yanks acquired Gallo, I was ecstatic about his fit in the outfield and in the Bronx in general. It was easy to see a world where the Yankees helped Gallo become the best version of himself. That version was a player with a slightly improved bat path to go along with 99th-percentile feel for the strike zone. He is an extremely talented player who needed only slight tweaks to get closer to his peak form.

However, in his roughly 450 plate appearances with the Yankees, it’s obvious that Gallo is not the same player he was in Texas. Whether you like it or not, his true talent level has decreased. The idea that we need 1,000 plate appearances to know a player’s true talent is well-researched and remains a good approach to take at most times! Yet we can’t be so wrapped up in numbers and sample sizes that we lose our ability to note how slight changes in a player over a shorter period of time have taken over as that player’s dominant trait.

I know that’s a bit of a mouthful, so let me put it like this: Joey Gallo’s best skill was arguably his plate discipline. In my opinion, it was the skill that raised his floor so high that it would be worth trading for him, even if he had below-average outcomes relative to himself. In the first month or two of the season, that tool/trait was noticeably different. We know Gallo is going to take a lot of pitches, including hittable ones, but there came a point when it was clear that his tendency to take was putting him in deeper holes than a hitter of his stature could handle.

Okay, so doesn’t that mean that Gallo can just tweak his approach back to where it was in Texas in the first half of 2021? Usually, I would agree with that statement, but in this case, it’s very difficult for a player with an extremely limited swing to rebound back and rely on another tool to get them there. Struggling stars often have this as an advantage. In theory, Gallo’s rebound would’ve (or still can) relied on keeping his home run rate up while figuring out how to regain his feel for the zone. The huge roadblock in Gallo’s case is that his home run-hitting ability is directly tied to his plate discipline.

I’m not talking power. We know how hard Gallo hits the ball when he makes contact. It’s the idea that his swing is so tailored to a specific zone that if he cannot recognize pitches there as easily anymore, or even get pitches there as frequently, then he is at a huge disadvantage going into just about any at-bat against a pitcher with the right game plan. In the day of Hawk-Eye, when opposing teams know how little swing variance Gallo has, attacking him has become just that much easier.

This all comes from somebody who was and maybe still is a Gallo believer. I’ve written about him countless times in these last few months, but I keep coming back to this tweet from April:

The value of scouting is still real. I’m not saying that I’m a genius pro scout/guru or anything like that, but I think in this case, it’s important to still value the scouting side of baseball and evaluating if somebody has the look or not.

Gallo’s confidence in takes and swings was not the same as early as April and while he has been an extremely hard worker and has shown the willingness to make adjustments, it’s clear as day that his true talent level has decreased, regardless of whether he’s had 450 plate appearances or 1,000 — it doesn’t make a difference. It’s time to readjust your priors. A 129 wRC+ according to ZiPS for the rest of the season is looking like a fanciful expectation to me.