I don’t recall any banners at Yankee Stadium making the connection last year, but Joey Gallo—the all-or-nothing corner outfielder/designated hitter the Yankees landed from the Rangers just before the trade deadline—shares a name with one of New York’s most legendary organised crime figures.
Some seeing Gallo’s recent comments on baseball’s defensive overshift epidemic (some think it’s a pandemic) might be inclined to hang the same nickname upon him as was once attached to his Mob namesake two decades before Gallo was born.
Crazy Joey Gallo the mafioso bragged about leading the four-man crew who assassinated Murder, Incorporated boss Albert Anastasia one minute (“You can just call us the Barbershop Quartet,” Gallo is said to have quipped about the foursome who whacked Anastasia in his barber’s chair) and applied himself to studying letters, philosophy and watercolour painting during eight years in prison the next.
“Upon his return to Brooklyn in 1971,” wrote Selwyn Raab in Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires, “Gallo could quote and discuss the nuances of Balzac, Kafka, Sarte, Camus, and Flaubert . . . His pseudo-intellectual trappings were a con man’s camouflage.” (Balzac: Behind every great fortune lies a crime.)
Gallo was once described by a fellow inmate as “articulate and had excellent verbal skills being able to describe gouging a man’s guts out with the same eloquent ease that he used when discussing classical literature.” Picture him if he’d lived to become a godfather himself. The Renaissance Don.
Crazy Joey Gallo the Yankee hit man executes opposing pitchers with long-distance bombs every 15.1 plate appearances. But he strikes out every three plate appearances and draws walks every seven. When the coronavirus pan-damn-ic throttled baseball for half of 2020, Gallo set up a batting cage in his home. He did much swinging but might have been served equally by doing more serious thinking.
“I get the defensive strategies,” Gallo told The Athletic‘s Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark. “I do. I am 100 percent not against that . . . But I think at some point, you have to fix the game a little bit. I don’t understand how I’m supposed to hit a double or triple when I have six guys standing in the outfield.”
This year’s edition of The Bill James Handbook shows a table indicating that, last season, 51 percent of all batted balls were hit right into the defensive overshifts. Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton determined that lefthanded hitters such as Gallo saw more pitches with the overshifts on than without . . . for the first. time. ever.
The shifts took game-wide hold in this century (the Rays in 2008 began the contemporary trend) because they work, at least against batters at the plate who can’t hit other than dead pull and think they can or need to hit six-run homers with every swing. But they’re not a 21st century schizoid plot. Joe Posnanski gathered the evidence into mostly one place in 2014.
Decades before Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau deployed it against Hall of Famer Ted Williams, the New York Giants deployed it against the Phillies’s Cy Williams, who hit a ton in his home Baker Bowl (its field resembled Fenway Park in reverse, right down to its metallic, high, short-distance right field wall) but only ounces on the road. (In 1923, Williams led the Show with 41 home runs . . . but his OPS was 1.042 at home and .838 on the road.)
Thanks to Posnanski resurrecting a Fleer baseball card showing it, this was Boudreau’s shift on the Splinter:
People who think pull hitting is purely a choice should ponder Posnanski’s observation, drawn from more tons of research than the tons Williams hit despite the shifts.
Williams did try to adjust somewhat with the help of [Hall of Famer Paul] Waner. He backed off the plate some, and he did hit a few more balls the other way. But not many. He could not stop being Ted Williams. If he needed a reason to pound balls the other way, he had one long before Boudreau shifted. After all, in left field at Fenway Park stands the greatest incentive for lefty opposite field hitting there is: The Green Monster. The wall made Wade Boggs a star and made Bill Mueller a batting champ. Williams, though, didn’t take much advantage of the Green Monster. He hit like he hit.
Beyond that, I doubt the shift took away 15 points of batting average from him or anything like it. It probably didn’t take away any points in the long run. From 1939-1946, Williams was a .353 hitter. From 1947 to 1957—even with his career again interrupted by war and with his body aging—he was a .348 hitter. The shift maybe have had its subtle effects on his hitting. I suspect it had a much larger effect on his psyche and on the story people told about him.
From 1947 through 1957, according to my Real Batting Average metric (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), Ted Williams was (wait for it!) a .750 batter. He also averaged 47 strikeouts and 153 walks per 162 games during that span. Even though, as Posnanski observed, “the shift became his constant companion.” Taking a mere five points off his hitting average.
In other words, once he accepted the overshift as part and parcel of his way of life in the batter’s box, Ted Williams pretty much remained Ted Williams. He wasn’t the only all-but-dead-pull hitter of his time, either. According to one Joe DiMaggio biographer, Maury Allen (in Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?), when the righthanded Hall of Famer was offered the thought that he might put a few more home runs on his resume if he tried aiming toward Yankee Stadium’s fabled short right field porch, he dismissed the thought in a huff.
“I could piss those over that wall,” the Clipper harrumphed. “That’s not hitting.” That kind of stubbornness wasn’t born with the three-true-outcomes generation.
Hall of Famer Stan Musial became a pull hitter after a few major league seasons. But he once observed, “[O]nce in a while you’ve got to give in to the pitcher,” he once said. “You just can’t, you know he’s out there thinking just like you are, and he has some idea about what he might want to do of course, and so a lot of times you’ve got to go with the pitch [hit it to the opposite field]. Which most hitters can’t do.”
The shifts finally came into game-wide play because they work against hitters who can hit only one way, whether consciously or by natural inclination. Did you really think a team was just going to line themselves up against a wall to be machine-gunned without even thinking about doing something to keep the assassins from bringing their guns to bear?
I suspect the opposite syndrome might take hold, in time, if a team is bedeviled by a guy who’s killing them hitting almost strictly the other way. Try to imagine lefthanded, other-way shooting Boney Boxorocks—or even Hall of Famer Wade Boggs (who probably should have seen such shifting: almost half his hits went up the middle or the other way to left)— seeing the opposite of the Williams/Gallo shift: third baseman, second baseman, and first baseman crowding the left side of the infield, shortstop out a few feet onto the left field grass.
Gallo the Yankee is no Teddy Ballgame, Yankee Clipper, or Man. Formal rule changes in baseball, as in legislation, are undertaken and consecreated best after long, careful thinking and not under the lash of hysteria. Citizens demand those making law make it without thinking longer term. Baseball players such as Gallo think much the same style. But they might wish to go to their own batting minds first. They might want to think about . . .
Yep, I’m going there yet again. The bunt.
I’ve argued even recently that there are only two or three times a team should even think about bunting, and one of them is if you should be fortunate enough (or your analytics-overdriven team fell asleep on draft day) to have the next Brett Butler in your lineup. (Butler dropped 337 bunts in his long playing career, and 85 percent of them were for base hits.) Sacrifice bunts, I repeat, waste outs with almost no real scoring return for their trouble.
But if you see the defensive overshift on, you should be crazy enough to think with the pitcher even more. He’s not going to try throwing you something away when he knows he’s got more protection against a pull hit than a gangster with a bought-and-paid-for cop by his side. But pitchers make mistakes, too, from the merest raw rook to the most well done Hall of Famer in waiting.
When he makes a mistake to your outside, and if you’re not half as prideful as Ted Williams, just drop your bat to bunt, then just tap the ball onto all that delicious, open, free real estate. Even if they left the corner baseman at his base, or have that corner outfielder playing only a few feet short of the infield dirt, they’re not going to reach that ball in time to get you out. Bartolo Colon could beat such a bunt out.
The second most precious commodity a team at bat has behind outs to work with is baserunners. If outs to work with are rhodium, baserunners are platinum. Let a few batters fed up with the overshifts think about bunting onto the open expanses they’re gifted, and the shifts will fade back on their own. Teams won’t deploy what won’t work.
Crazy Joey Gallo the self-styled renaissance racketeer didn’t live long enough to become a Renaissance Don. In likely retaliation for ordering the hit attempt that left Don Joseph Colombo “vegetabled” (in mob parlance) in front of the don’s own family, the renaissance racketeer was hit in front of his own family ten months later.
Crazy Joey Gallo the Yankee might live a longer, healthier baseball life if he forgets asking baseball to whack defensive shifts with its law and, instead, helps sends them toward a death due to natural causes. The causes of hitters doing some real thinking at the plate while playing, still, the thinking person’s sport.