The Texas Rangers are playing the long game in their push to return to contention and their success is resting heavily on Joey Gallo’s 2020 campaign.
The Texas Rangers made it one of their priorities to add a star player to their lineup this offseason. However, the Rangers are playing the long game in their push to return to contention and were cautious in their approach in free agency. Having come up empty, they still have a lot riding on how the 2020 season goes with much of their success now and in the future relying on what steps Joey Gallo can take towards stardom.
For some, seeing Joey Gallo referred to as a star might be somewhat off-putting. Admittedly, he is a career .212 hitter and for a power threat, his OPS sits at a rather modest .847 across parts of five seasons. However, even in just 70 games in 2019, Gallo proved to everybody what kind of production he can provide at the plate earning his first All-Star nod at 25-years old while hitting .253 with a .986 OPS. He was on pace for this third consecutive 40 home run season with the Texas Rangers and had a shot at hitting 100-plus walks for the first time in his career. He still strikes out, on pace for a career high in 2019, but what he did when the ball was put in play was nothing short of star-like production. Gallo’s BABIP, batting average on balls in play, was .368 in 2019, up 119 points from 2018. He had a wRC+ of 144 last season, well above his career-high 119 posted in 2017.
Beyond his numbers at the plate, Gallo also showed that he has the elite athleticism to be a stout defender in the outfield as well. He predominantly worked in center field in 2019 with 409.2 defensive innings and a UZR/150 of 11.5 which was sixth among those who logged 300 innings or more in center last season. In 2020 though, he is set to feature in right field for the Texas Rangers, a position where he has the potential to be one of the best in the game. He only has 128 career innings under his belt in right field, all in 2018, but he was elite statistically and his top-end arm along with good speed to the ball give him the profile of a strong defensive outfielder.
Projection Formulas Remain Unkind to Gallo
The question the has to be addressed when looking at Gallo’s 2019 production and his 2020 expectations is whether what he accomplished last season was the product of a small sample size, or is that indicative of changes for Gallo that will reap long-term benefits. From the organization’s perspective, it’s the latter, as Gallo seems to have bought in to the mentality and approach brought in by new manager Chris Woodward last season. However, many of the projection formulas for 2020 have Gallo regressing considerably.
In the 2020 Steamer projections which can be found on FanGraphs, Gallo is projected to hit .231 and see his OPS drop by 106 points from last season. ZiPS, also available on FanGraphs, isn’t much different although by that metric his power is expected to stay with ZiPS projecting a .933 OPS compared to Steamer’s .883 mark. Both project a significant drop in BABIP from his .368 mark last season with Steamer at .291 for Gallo in 2020 and ZiPS at .287.
There is also a significant drop in WAR projections for Gallo in 2020 as well. Last season Gallo finished the year with a 3.3 fWAR in just 70 games. Steamer projects Gallo with a 3.0 WAR in 134 games while ZiPS has Gallo playing 117 games with a 2.5 WAR. Last season, Gallo obviously had already eclipsed those marks and while it can be assumed that those WAR projections would be higher if Gallo was projected to play closer to a full season of games, neither has him in the superstar category. For reference, FanGraphs defines a 2-3 WAR position player as a ‘Solid Starter’ while a 3-4 WAR player is categorized as a ‘Good Player’. Gallo, as an All-Star last season, was likely on pace to eclipse the ‘All-Star’ designation of 4-5 WAR and fall near the 5-6 WAR range of a ‘Superstar’.
The above projections clearly feel that Gallo’s offensive numbers were somewhat unsustainable, specifically his BABIP. But they also mark him as a minus defender in 2020, a curious projection for a player that was a plus defender in center field last season. His positional demand is set to drop significantly in 2020 with the switch to right field which could see his defensive ability skyrocket in value. Up until last season, Gallo was a minus defender which could factor in to the projections to an extent that his overall value is pulled down.
Which Joey Gallo Will We See?
So which Joey Gallo are we likely to see next season? The one that was a legitimate MVP candidate prior to his injury in 2019 or the one that regresses because of unsustainable production last year. Will we see the Gallo that is ready to be the face of the franchise or will we get a power-hitter who is better served playing Robin to someone else’s Batman? For now, I’m willing to bet on the former. While projections are founded in advanced metrics and measurements which generally are the best follow for true evaluation of a player, there is a case to be made that the eye test should play a bit of a role in Gallo’s case. Last season Gallo was a visibly different hitter that in year’s past. His pitch recognition was better as was his discipline. He walked more and also attacked pitches in the zone with more skill. Whether 2020 is the year that he makes a case as a superstar in the league is yet to be seen but his talent alone is worth banking on for a club in the Texas Rangers position.