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Pitching to Garcia or Gallo, the shift, and some interesting stats

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Ruminating some more on the decision to pitch to Adolis Garcia rather than Joey Gallo Sunday afternoon in the 10th

MLB: Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Pitch to Adolis Garcia or Joey Gallo with the game on the line? That was the decision Dusty Baker was faced with yesterday, with Nick Solak on third as the winning run with one out in the tenth inning. Dusty chose to pitch to Garcia, Garcia singled, Solak scored, and the second guessing — not unreasonably — began.

I talked about the issue last night in my Thoughts post, which you can read here — my takeaway is that there were good reasons to pitch to Garcia and so pitching to him or walking him was reasonable — and I ended up expanding on that in response to a comment on that post.

One of the things I talked about was how the situation impacts shifting Gallo, and how that factors into the decision:

And with the winning run at third, it makes it harder to do the extreme shift. You probably can’t have the third baseman over near second, because then Solak can get a huge lead, and Gallo (who already had a bunt hit) has an opportunity to lay one down and let Solak basically walk home. And you can’t station the second baseman in shallow right field because you won’t get the runner at home and are going to have a real hard time turning a DP.

This got me thinking a little more about how a team like the Astros would defend Gallo in a first and third, one out situation. Normally, in a situation like that, the defense would either play the infield in, or else play at double play depth, depending on the hitter, the pitcher, and the runner at third base.

Teams facing Joey Gallo, however, implement dramatic shifts. If you go to the Statcast page for Joey Gallo, you will see that, in 2021, he has been shifted in 182 out of 196 plate appearances — 92.9% of the time.

What is particularly interesting, though, is comparing the positioning of the shift in different situations. Here’s how Gallo is shifted with no one on base:

We all recognize this alignment — shortstop and third baseman on either side of second base, with the second baseman out in shallow right field.

Here is how teams are shifting Gallo with a runner on first base, and second and third base empty:

We see the shortstop and third baseman in much the same position, but the second baseman is now positioned on the edge of the infield dirt rather than out in right field in the majority of cases, so that he is in position to try to turn a double play, or at least try to get the lead runner, if the ball is hit his way. I would wager that the instances where you see the blob in shallow right is where there are two outs, since the lead runner or double play possibility is a non-issue then.

Now, here is how teams shift Gallo in any other situation:

Big change! The third baseman is having to move much farther towards third base, because whether there’s a runner on second, a runner on third, or both, he can’t just ignore third base. The shortstop moves to almost right behind second base, reflecting the fact that the third baseman is no longer nearby to help guard against hits up the middle. And we see two blobs for the second baseman — a big one out in shallow right field, and a small one at the edge of the dirt. I suspect that the small blob reflects instances when there is a runner on first base as well, with less than two outs, as that would be double play position.

So teams have to position their defense dramatically different for Joey Gallo, based on whether there are runners on base, and where those runners are. In particular, runners on first and third and less than two outs would seem to present a particular dilemma for opposing teams, since they have to protect against the runner on third getting too big a lead and also not have the second baseman so far back that they are conceding a run coming home and the runner at first advancing to second.

This would further seem to suggest that Joey Gallo would perform worse than usual with no one on, since the defensive team can shift to their heart’s content, and much better then usual with runners on, say, first and third.

Let’s check the data. Here’s Joey Gallo’s slash line and BABIP in various bases occupied for his career:

Overall: .208/.331/.486, .274 BABIP

Bases empty: .213/.322/.496, .278 BABIP

Runner just on third: .217/.438/.413, .348 BABIP

Runners on first and second: .232/.338/.500, .345 BABIP

Runners on first and third: .367/.466/.653 (58 PAs), .553 BABIP

There are some particularly striking splits based on the number of outs, which is going influence shifting:

Runner on first, less than two outs: .228/.344/.529, .290 BABIP

Runner on third, less than two outs: .250/.413/.488, .370 BABIP

Runner on third, two outs: .231/.375/.410, .364 BABIP

The number of plate appearances we are dealing with here are small enough that there are small sample size issues to take into account, and ideally you’d want to see a spray chart for Gallo from each situation to figure out if the high BABIP in the situations that I’ve identified as involving less shifting, or less dramatic shifting, is due to him rocketing balls off the wall that would be hits regardless of the shift, or whether he’s getting more singles on balls that would potentially be outs with a full blown shift.

Anyway, I’ve gone down something a rabbit hole here, but all this would seem to suggest that the extent to which Gallo is shifted is significantly impacted by the out and baserunner situation, and Gallo has been getting a lot more hits on balls in play in those situations. I’d want more granular information before making any definitive conclusions, but I found all this interesting, and thus wanted to share.