Gallo's goal: Raise batting average without sacrificing power

Ask Joey Gallo what stats matter most to him, and he’ll tell you he pays attention to on-base percentage, OPS and isolated power. He’ll also tell you what he doesn’t pay attention to.

“I don’t look at average,” he said. “Because I want to throw up if I do.”

Don’t worry about tiptoeing around the subject of batting average with Gallo. Whatever you think of the cringeworthy numbers he’s posted throughout his career, he thinks worse of them.

Gallo, who signed a $5 million deal with the Nationals last week and was formally introduced via a Zoom call with reporters Monday, has played parts of nine seasons in the major leagues. His career batting average is .197. Only once has he finished a season with an average better than .209.

He finds that just as unacceptable as you do. He also knows it’s not as easy to fix as you might think.

“Obviously I’d like the average to go up,” the 30-year-old said. “It’s not like I’m against hitting for a higher average. But it’s a little hard.”

Since the Rangers made him their first-round pick in 2012, Gallo has established exactly who he is – and who he isn’t – as a hitter. He hits home runs (198 in 3,143 plate appearances). He draws walks (465). He strikes out (1,190). And he doesn’t do a whole lot of anything else.

How extreme is Gallo’s offensive approach? He took 332 plate appearances with the Twins last season. He either homered, walked or struck out in 211 of them, a staggering 63.6 percent of the time.

This doesn’t, however, make him a subpar hitter. Quite the contrary. He boasts a career OPS+ of 109, which means he’s been 9 percent more productive than the average major league hitter since 2015.

“Obviously, I am a slugger,” he said. “I want to be more than that. I don’t really like being known as just some strikeout/home run hitter guy. It was not really my plan growing up to be considered this three-true-outcome guy. But it’s just the way I’ve always swung and the player I was. But I want to get back to putting the ball in play more.”

Gallo’s decision to sign with the Nationals was based on the opportunity they can afford him to play every day (mostly in left field, some at first base), and the glowing recommendations he received about the organization and the young talent they’re putting together. But a side benefit of this move may also be an opportunity to grow as a hitter and improve on his primary area of weakness.

The Nats signed Gallo because they desperately needed an injection of power into a lineup that ranked last in the National League in homers last season. What they did do well last year was put the ball in play; their 18.9 percent strikeout rate was lowest in the NL while their 78 percent contact rate was highest in the majors.

Gallo hopes some of that team-wide approach rubs off on him. He just has to make sure it doesn’t rub off so much he loses his offensive identity altogether.

“That’s the big what if?” he said. “There have been times in the past where I did try to change my swing, slow it down and maybe not swing as hard or as aggressively. And it actually kind of backfires and goes the other way. You kind of lose a feel for who you are. I’ve had success in this league doing it this way, but I’m not stubborn enough to think: ‘This is how I have to hit. This is what I do. Don’t tell me what to do.’ I’m very open to listening to anything coaches tell me.”

Gallo was already hard at work making some adjustments in that regard this winter before signing with the Nationals. He has spent considerable time working with Matt Holliday at the former big league star’s complex in Oklahoma, focusing on his stance, his swing approach and ultimately being more aggressive hitting the ball to all fields.

“I think a lot of my best years, I was really working the whole field more and I was using the middle of the field more,” he said. “And it seemed like last year I started off that way, and maybe fell into some bad habits and started to pull the ball a little more and got pull-happy. That’s never a good thing when you’re locked into one side of the field.”

Will all of that lead to a batting average on the right side of the Mendoza Line for the first time since 2019? Gallo certainly hopes so.

Then again, the last thing he wants to do is raise his batting average at the expense of his on-base and slugging percentage. At this stage of his career, he knows who he is, and he doesn’t want to abandon that. He just wants to be a little better at the one thing he hasn’t historically done well.

“It is a fine line,” he said. “I’ve got to get my swings off, but I’ve also got to make sure I’m putting the ball in play enough, and I’m not just up there swinging and missing.”

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