What is Joey Gallo’s Future with the Yankees?
What is Joey Gallo’s Future with the Yankees?
By Chris O’Connor
February 16, 2022
In mid-January, ESPN insider Buster Olney created a minor stir when he noted that Joey Gallo’s Yankees future may hinge on getting off to a good start in 2022. A major trade deadline acquisition last year for the Yankees, Gallo failed to contribute much to the team’s second half rally to sneak into the playoffs. After mashing to a 139 WRC+ in 95 games with the last-place Rangers, he slumped to a 95 WRC+ in 58 games with the Yankees and drew the ire of many fans for his .160 batting average and propensity for striking out. For whatever reason, the New York market is not a fit for some players (Olney notes Sonny Gray as a recent example), and the vultures are clearly circling the Yankees newest, gigantic outfielder heading into next season.
But is Joey Gallo’s Yankees tenure doomed to fail? Here are a few reasons to be hopeful.
Unlucky batted ball luck in 2021
My opinion has evolved on this topic over the last few years. I used to believe that anytime a player underperformed his expected statistics, he was due for positive regression moving forward. It is now my personal opinion that some players are such great hitters that they can consistently outperform their “expected” statistics because of their intelligence and raw bat-to-ball ability (Tony Gywnn comes to mind). On the other hand, some players can consistently underperform their expected stats without expecting positive regression to the mean. Gary Sanchez, who consistently underperforms his expected batting average, is one example of this. After establishing a certain level of baseline performance over the years, players are what they are, even if their underlying statistics suggest they may be due for positive regression. In four out of the last five seasons, Joey Gallo’s batting average on balls in play has been between .240 and .250. That is who he is. With the Rangers in 2021, his BABIP was .275. With the Yankees, it was .193. That is despite his hard-hit rate increasing from 43.2% to 50.5% after the trade. A mid-season trade offers little time to adopt whatever changes the Yankees wanted him to make to his approach, so I would say that he was mostly the same player in New York than he was in Texas. A mid-season trade is difficult for every player, particularly one who has spent his entire career in one place. They have to say goodbye to their old lives, find new places to live, adjust to new cultures, and get to know their new teammates and coaches, not to mention adjust to new pitching in a different division. So while he did strike out a good amount more after his arrival in New York, I do believe that unsustainable bad luck hampered his performance down the stretch. I expect an offensive bounce back in 2022 after a full offseason to become more acclimated with the Yankees.
Exceptional defensive versatility
Despite his size, Gallo has long been a terrific defensive outfielder due to his underrated athleticism and cannon for an arm. He ranked in the 92nd percentile among all outfielders in 2021 in Statcast’s Outs Above Average, with a top 10 ranking in Defensive Runs Saved for both right fielders (2nd) and left fielders (10th) He can also play center field. Among all center fielders with at least 400 innings played at the position between 2015 and 2021, he ranks 5th in UZR/150. The Yankees seemed reluctant to play him there, instead giving the reps to Aaron Judge and putting Gallo in right. The ability to play there in a pinch, however, is incredibly valuable for a team that has three outfielders (Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton) with lengthy injury histories and a lack of centerfield depth.
Not only does his defensive versatility give him immense value to the Yankees, given the dearth of every-day options in the outfield, but his durability should not go unnoticed. Aside from a 2019 season that saw wrist surgery end his year in July, he has not played less than 145 games in a season since his debut in 2017. Even in the shortened 2020, he played in 57 of 60 games. Knowing that a guy will be on the field day after day is a nice comfort to have for a team like the Yankees.
What Happens Next?
If Gallo bounces back with a 4-5 WAR season, things get tricky. Like Gallo, Aaron Judge is in his final year under team control. If he struggles to stay healthy, would the Yankees prioritize retaining Gallo over him? Gallo is two years younger, more durable, and has comparable defensive skills. It is hard to believe that the Yankees would spend big to bring them both back with Aaron Hicks owed $30 million from 2023-2025 and Giancarlo Stanton owed $150 million from 2023-2027. This Yankees regime has shown nothing if not an unemotional, calculated manner in making decisions. Given Judge’s status as a top-5 position player in the game (when healthy) and clubhouse leadership, this decision only becomes difficult if Gallo has a career year and Judge suffers through on injury-plagued year.
If Gallo struggles in 2022, this is all a moot point. The Yankees may look to deal him at the trade deadline if they really do not think that he is a fit in New York. Even if they do not trade him, a poor showing in his walk year means the team will almost certainly allow him to leave as a free agent after the season. Whatever happens, this is sure to be something to watch for this season.