Sports

Joey Gallo Versus the Shift Is MLB's Most Interesting Sideshow

Joey Gallo and Elvis Andrus, two of the Rangers' cornerstones.
Joey Gallo and Elvis Andrus, two of the Rangers' cornerstones. Wikimedia Commons
It didn't take long Thursday afternoon for the Astros to debut their killer app for 2018. Houston broke out their new shift, designed to beat the Rangers' best hitter and a century-plus of baseball conventional wisdom all at once, two at-bats into their season opener at Globe Life Park in Arlington.

With Justin Verlander on the mound and Joey Gallo at the plate, the Astros dropped third baseman Alex Bregman into left field, organized their remaining three infielders on the first-base side and played, much like a beer-league softball outfit, with four outfielders. The ploy worked perfectly. Gallo obliged the shift and flew out to Bregman, scoring as deep an out to a third baseman as one can imagine.

The rest of the Gallo's first game followed the Astros' script as well, with the big first baseman striking out once and flying into the shift two times in his remaining three at bats.

Friday night, the Astros started Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel is a ground-ball pitcher, so the Astros modified their shift to leave the infield a little less exposed. Still, in the first inning, Gallo hit a soft line drive into left-center field. It would've beat either version of shift, and resulted in a single this time. After a series of at-bats — thanks, in large part, to hitters getting on base in front of him — against more typical defensive setups on Friday and Saturday, Gallo beat a four-man outfield in the simplest way possible in his first-inning at bat Sunday: He hit it over everybody's heads, rapping an opposite field home run to left. Gallo's offensive game, the thing that makes him a unique and exciting player, is built around swinging as hard as he can, hitting the ball as far as possible and trying to change the scoreboard. Bunting to beat a shift, no matter how extreme the shift may be or how much Twitter wants him to do so, isn't going to happen that often. Directional bunting isn't easy, even for a player who does it regularly. Gallo doesn't. In 697 plate appearances in 2017, Gallo had no sacrifice bunts and no bunts for hits. He's working on bunting in batting practice, but for now Rangers manager Jeff Banister seems to be content with Gallo trying to find a groove for his swing early in the year, even if it means hitting into the teeth of the defense.

"There's a certain level in getting comfortable with it. But as far as Day 1 is concerned, it's about finding a rhythm. We want these guys to get into an offensive rhythm," Banister told reporters Friday.

At some point, the Rangers may need him to bunt against a shift in a big spot, but for now the chess match between Gallo and American League defenses remains in its tentative opening stages. The Rangers, Gallo and their fans could be in for a wild strategic ride.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young