In MLB history, 150 players have qualified for the batting title while posting a batting average of .200 or lower. Of the 150, 147 of them ended with an OPS+ below 100, meaning they were a below-average hitter in that season. While the club has boomed in recent years, 2021 Joey Gallo is the biggest outlier of the group. He had an OPS+ of 121, 21% above the MLB average. All the while, he batted .199. He led the Majors in strikeouts with a gargantuan 213, the second time he cracked 200 in a season.
This is nothing new for Gallo. He is one of 1,215 players in MLB history with a 100 OPS+ over 2,400 plate appearances. He has the lowest batting average in the group by 11 points. If you raise the boundary to Gallo’s career OPS+ of 114, only Gorman Thomas’ .225 average is within 25 points of Gallo’s career .206. As of now, only four players in MLB history have had as many plate appearances as Gallo while posting a lower batting average. Pud Galvin was primarily a pitcher. Mike Zunino and Jeff Mathis are on opposite ends of the modern offensive spectrum. Bill Bergen might be the worst player ever to play 900 games. Gallo is one of the best players in the league, but he operates in this purgatory.
What Makes Gallo So Good?
For someone with a .194 batting average over the last two seasons, Gallo is one of the more valuable players in the league. In 210 games with the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, Gallo racked up 48 home runs and 140 walks. He is third in MLB in walks to Juan Soto and Bryce Harper. He is tied for 13th in home runs (tied with the likes of Aaron Judge and Harper).
At the same time, Gallo is an elite defender. Over the last two seasons, he leads MLB in fielding runs with 28. 2021 Platinum Glove winner Carlos Correa has 27. Defensive studs Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Nolan Arenado have 20 and 19 respectively. Even the gold standard for corner outfield defense, Mookie Betts, only has 15. Gallo deserved two Gold Gloves in a row, and unlike some players, he was not snubbed.
Out of the five tools, Gallo excels in power, throwing arm, and fielding ability. He is an average baserunner (+1 base runs in 2021). As mentioned, he is a legendarily poor contact hitter. He has the sixth tool, plate discipline, as well.
What Makes Him a Bad Player
If you spent any time around Yankees fans in the back half of the 2021 season, you probably heard a fair share of criticism of Gallo. He had a solid decline in his numbers across the board coming from Texas to New York. He slashed just .160/.303/.404 as he slumped to a 93 OPS+ with the Yankees. However, the counting stats are perfectly in line with the expected production from Gallo.
He had 13 home runs in 58 games, a total good for 34 over 150 games. In the same extrapolation, he would have had 96 walks. Both of these were subtle declines from his Texas days (pacing for 39 home runs and 117 walks), but they are still excellent tallies. Regardless, fans will focus on the box score numbers, namely batting average.
If there is any MLB player who can be effective despite failing on 80% of his at-bats, it is Gallo. He brings so much to the table in every other facet of baseball that his .199 batting average in 2021 does not indicate his baseball ability. Would Gallo be a hitter if he sold out to make contact? The answer is likely no. His value in power and plate discipline have fewer contemporaries, and he is an excellent defender.
2021 Contemporaries and the Future
Gallo’s 2021 is a statistical outlier in most senses. He was tied for 10th in fielding runs and home runs. He finished second to Soto in walks. At the same time, he was 134th out of 135 qualified hitters in batting average. Even with his struggles at the plate, he ended with the same OPS+ as Arenado and a better OPS+ than four players that hit .300.
With some batted-ball luck in the Bronx next season (he had a BABIP of .193 with the Yankees, 70 points lower than his career average), Gallo should make a run at a third All-Star nod. Sure, he strikes out a ridiculous amount, but he hits home runs at twice the average rate, and he walks at an elite clip. Gallo is a flawed player, but he is one of the best players in MLB.
Gallo represents the peak of “bad baseball” (batting below .200) with his 121 OPS+. The worst season belongs to our friend Bergen who had an OPS+ of 1 while batting .139 for the 1909 Brooklyn Superbas. He also had the fourth-worst season with an OPS+ of 16. In the middle of Bergen’s horrendous seasons is Will White. White is perhaps most famous for throwing 680 innings in a season, but he spent enough time in the lineup to accumulate ghastly batting stats. As a starting pitcher, White led the league in batter strikeouts twice. This would be the equivalent of Max Scherzer coming to the plate and striking out more often than Gallo.
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