Gallo at leadoff? It could make sense for Twins

March 28th, 2023

Imagine how these words would have sounded even a year or two ago: , leadoff hitter.

“Did they say that's what I'm going to do?" Gallo asked on Sunday, two days before the end of Spring Training.

It is indeed, according to both manager Rocco Baldelli and the lineups he used throughout the Grapefruit League schedule, which have often featured Gallo at the top of the lineup against right-handed starting pitchers. Sometimes, veterans hit much higher in spring to facilitate getting their at-bats quickly -- but this has, instead, proven to be an actual lineup development.

(Someone should tell that to Gallo.)

“I think Joey will hit leadoff at times,” Baldelli said. “I think we have some other guys that will hit leadoff at times against right-handed pitching. … There are a lot of different kinds of righties, guys that are trying to do different things that have different strengths. So depending on who it is, I think he is definitely one of those options.”

Gallo has started 647 games in his eight-year Major League career -- and he has never seen his name written at the top of a lineup card. Given his player profile, that makes total sense.

A career .199 hitter blessed with some of the most prodigious raw power in the game and known for his extreme affinity for the “three true outcomes” -- strikeout, walk or home run -- Gallo couldn’t be further from what was once viewed as the prototype of a leadoff hitter.

But when Baldelli put forth what essentially amounted to a preview of a possible Opening Day lineup on Saturday (with right-hander on the mound), there was Gallo, still slotted at the top, in front of and . That served as a stark contrast from , who was the Twins’ primary leadoff man against righties last season.

It seems logical that the switch-hitting could eventually assume the role when he returns from building up his left knee, but in his absence, the Twins have an intriguing choice.

hits left-handed and has plenty of leadoff experience, but his overall offensive game has taken a steep dip in the past two seasons. is a speedy lefty hitter, but he’s an aggressive free swinger. Buxton looks to be the Twins’ leadoff hitter against lefties, but they have liked to hit him further down against righties.

That leaves Gallo, who can be a productive hitter in the aggregate and can walk plenty when he’s at his best. It’s not without precedent for a hitter like him to lead off in the modern game, as high-walk left-handed sluggers like (Phillies) and (Yankees) notably fit into that role in recent years.

“I understand it,” Gallo said. “I think it's guys who can get on base, I guess? Usually, guys who can walk and stuff like that, and see a lot of pitches. I know I see a lot of pitches, too, so that definitely helps the rest of the lineup.”

Even as Gallo struggled last season, he walked 13.7% of the time, which would have ranked second among qualified Twins to only Polanco. He also saw 4.21 pitches per plate appearance, which also would have ranked second behind Polanco. (Despite Arraez’s reputation, he saw fewer pitches per plate appearance than Gallo, at 4.01.) Despite Gallo’s low batting average, his career .325 on-base percentage is actually comparable to those of Polanco (.334) and Kepler (.317).

Though it’s tough to tell from Baldelli’s statement how often Gallo could serve in the role, it’s also worth remembering that he similarly qualified his statements about Kepler in the spring of 2019 -- and Kepler went on to serve as the club’s primary leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching. The first series of the season could provide some clues, as the Royals are slated to send three righties to the mound in , and .

But when Gallo debuted in the Majors, could he have imagined slotting into this role even once?

“I guess not,” Gallo said. “It's a different age of baseball, where the norm is different now, because there's different ways to look at things, and numbers that tell you differently.”