In 2011, Portland State University opened the Center for Life in Extreme Environments—a new institute, among the first of its kind. It does exactly what its name declares. It studies life in places where there reasonably should not be any: deserts, hot springs, hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. Antarctica.
In 2012, Joey Gallo was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers. So far as I can tell, Portland State’s Center for Life in Extreme Environments has never studied him—humanity does not appear to be a particular focus of the center, and baseball even less so—but he seems like a logical potential subject for its researchers. For Gallo is the first, and only, of his kind, and he has done exactly what scouts’ reports declared. He has hit dingers. He has hit hardly anything other than dingers. And he has found a way to live in the most extreme fringes of baseball’s hitting environment.
On Wednesday, Gallo became the first player in baseball history to hit 100 home runs before he had hit 100 singles. This seems ridiculous, if not impossible. Yet Gallo’s style made it feel sort of like an inevitability. In 2017, for instance, he became the first player ever to post a slugging percentage above .475 with a batting average below .215. There had never before been anyone able to pull off that combination over an entire season. So in 2018, Gallo did it again.
There’s an argument to be made that baseball is full of guys living in extreme environments. On every statistical leaderboard, the top and bottom form their own respective extremes. And yet this isn’t quite right—not exactly. There is always going to be a best and a worst. Generally, year after year, these will be somewhere around the same spot. (Or, at least somewhere-ish.) The environments themselves do not feel like an inherently extreme place for a baseball player to exist. A 1.000 OPS, for instance, very well might be extreme for any given player. But, almost always, there is going to be someone with a 1.000 OPS. It is the equivalent of living, perhaps, in an especially ostentatious mansion. Crazy! It’s a situation in which the vast, vast, vast majority of people will never live. And, yet, there is always someone living there. It’s a weird environment, to be sure, but it does not require any special adaptations or strategic modifications or physical adjustments in order to inhabit.
Then there’s Joey Gallo, who does not live in the equivalent of a particularly ostentatious mansion. No, he lives in the equivalent of a hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the ocean. Gallo lives in a place that baseball had previously thought unlivable. He saw the formerly extreme zones of Adam Dunn and Russell Branyan and Jack Cust, and he dove right down beyond them. Surely, if a guy has this kind of power, he will have to be able to get on base a little more, went the conventional thinking on inhabitable spaces. Surely, if a guy strikes out this much and makes this little contact, he cannot hit this many home runs. Gallo heard all that, and he made himself at home, anyway. There should not reasonably be any baseball life at a .500 SLG and .200 BA. Yet, suddenly, there is.
In 2019, Gallo has been less extreme than usual. He’s struck out a little less and walked a little more. He’s even hit a few more singles. (His .274 average might as well be .400, as unlikely as that previously would have seemed for him.) It might stick, or it might not, but either way: Gallo’s shown that he can live in an extreme environment if he has to and even if he doesn’t.