What went wrong for Joey Gallo in New York?

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The Yankees thought they knew what they were getting in Joey Gallo.

When the trade with the Rangers went through on July 29, the Yankees, in theory, had shored up two of their most gaping holes. Gallo was a left-handed bat (something they usually had one of in the lineup before his and Anthony Rizzo’s arrival) who could play left field (a place where they’d already fruitlessly cycled through Clint Frazier, Miguel Andujar and Tim Locastro).

The team understood that Gallo was never going to hit .300, or even .250. This is a king of either hitting the ball where no one can catch it or not hitting it at all. The value that Gallo provides lives in defense, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The first thing traveled with him from Texas to New York. The final parts did not.

In his first 95 games of the season, spent with the Rangers and their papier mache lineup protection, Gallo’s .379 on-base percentage was tied for fifth-highest in the American League. After the trade, his shrunken .303 OBP was tied for the twelfth-lowest among qualified AL hitters. The walks were still there (19.1 BB% in Texas compared to 16.2% in New York) but the hits were not. While the Yankees plainly understood that their weighty trade deadline acquisition with the tree trunk legs and Italian name was never going to hit for average, they were probably banking on something a little better than .160.

That’s exactly what Gallo gave the Yankees in his 58 games down the stretch, often from the second, third or fourth spot in the lineup. He spanked just 30 hits in 228 plate appearances — by comparison, little-used utilityman Tyler Wade collected 34 hits in 145 plate appearances — and those didn’t pack the same punch that his hits with the Rangers did.

Gallo’s slugging percentage cratered by nearly 90 points after swapping the Rangers’ shade of blue for the Yankees’. Curiously, his home run/fly ball ratio hit a new low as soon as he started playing home games in Yankee Stadium, a venue where power-hitting high schoolers can get it over the right field wall.

Removing the wackiness of the 2020 season, Gallo’s 23.2 HR/FB% with the Yankees was the lowest it’s ever been in his seven-year career. It’s not that he wasn’t hitting fly balls, either. As a matter of fact, 58.3% of the balls he put in play as a Yankee were in the air. They just weren’t doing any damage. Gallo was still hitting the ball hard, too. According to Statcast, Gallo’s career hard-hit percentage (the amount of balls hit 95 miles per hour or harder) is 48.7%. That figure bumped up a few ticks to 49.5% after the trade.

The problem with many of the balls he put in play was that they weren’t finding holes. Part of that is due to the shift, for sure, but Gallo has been shifted for his entire career. Only a cluster of historically bad fortune can create a .193 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is precisely how Gallo began his Yankee career. For context, the league-average BABIP in 2021 was .292. If we treat Gallo’s 228 plate appearances in pinstripes as though they are their own season, his .193 BABIP would rank among the 15 lowest any hitter has had in the Wild Card era (minimum 200 plate appearances).

That screams fluke. It is likely something that will stabilize next season. His strikeout numbers have already stabilized, though. Gallo will strike out more than a third of the time he hits. That’s something that he, the Yankees, and the league are comfortable with. But again, the high frequency of sulking walks back to the dugout — bat unused and still in hand — that Gallo made in August and September was also a career-worst. In striking out 38.6% of the time, Gallo set what would be a personal record if stretched across an entire season of work.

His approach didn’t change much in terms of swing selection. Gallo’s overall swing percentage and swing percentage on pitches in the zone were virtually the same with the Rangers and Yankees. He even swung at pitches outside the zone at a slightly lower clip after changing addresses. What really destroyed him were breaking pitches.

In August, his first complete month with his new team, Gallo slugged a putrid .333 on breaking balls. According to Baseball-Savant, his slugging percentage on breakers in July was .500. In June, that was all the way up at .846. Whether it was the pressure of the pennant race, a relative lack of familiarity with the curveballs and sliders of the AL East, or just a general slump, Gallo had a miserable time picking up spin in the season’s final months. For September, the month when Yankee fans turned on him, Gallo slugged .250 on breaking stuff.

Paired with the fact that he was fed a steadier diet of pitches in the strike zone once he was no longer supported by the Rangers’ idle offense (over half the pitches Gallo saw in September were in the strike zone, the first month of his season that number crept above 50%), Gallo was consistently vexed.

In Texas, opponents could pitch around him, manufacturing a situation where both they and Gallo were okay with a walk. In New York, pitchers went right after him and were not scared to do so.

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