Joey Gallo was 8 or 9 years old when he hit his first home run, and he says he can remember it like it was yesterday.
It was at a field in his hometown of Las Vegas with a 200-foot fence, and he recalls watching the ball sail over the wall in center field while soaking in the moment as he ran around the bases. He hadn’t developed much size or strength at that point, but his swing was already showing flashes of what was to come.
“And after that, they just started coming and coming,” Gallo said.
A Nev. state-record 65 homers (or 67, depending on the source) in high school. An Arizona League-record 18 in just 43 games in his first taste of pro ball. A total of 40 last season to lead all minor leaguers while becoming the first teenager in 51 years to reach that mark. And already 21 this season with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to again lead all sluggers in the minors.
“It’s incredible,” Pelicans second baseman Christopher Bostick said. “I like to explain it as, there’s people with power, people with plus power, people with plus-plus power and then there’s Joey Gallo. It’s pretty fun to watch.”
And while it lasts, Myrtle Beach is getting an up-close look at one of baseball’s budding stars and special young talents.
Gallo has already had two three-homer games this year and five games with multiple home runs, including Friday night – all while playing his home games at a ballpark in TicketReturn.com Field that is well known to favor pitchers with its cavernous dimensions.
Gallo says he thought his numbers might dip this year while playing there, so he admits he’s actually a bit surprised by what he’s been able to do so far.
But he’s in the minority with that sentiment.
“There aren’t too many parks out there that are going to affect Joey,” said Mike Daly, the Texas Rangers’ senior director of minor league operations.
Added Pelicans hitting coach Josue Perez: “I’m not surprised [what he does in] any ballpark with his kind of power.”
The third baseman is 6-foot-5, thick in the limbs and starting to match his raw power now with an ever maturing approach at the plate. After striking out 172 times last season while drawing only 50 walks, he is leading the Carolina League in walks with 46 through 52 games as of Saturday night while striking out 60 times.
As Perez says, Gallo’s showing better patience at the plate while learning to use the whole field.
His .460 on-base percentage, .764 slugging percentage and 48 RBIs also rank tops in the Carolina League among full-time players while his .322 batting average is second.
It is all the more impressive considering he’s the 10th-youngest player in the league at a little more than 20-and-a-half years old.
He opened the season rated as the Texas Rangers’ fifth-best prospect and the 60th-best prospect in baseball, but with every mammoth long ball he deposits over the fence that stature only keeps growing.
“He’s exceeding expectations,” Daly said.
Sitting in the Pelicans dugout a couple hours before their game Friday – a little while before slugging his 19th and 20th homers of the season to go with a career-high seven RBIs – Gallo reflected back to the beginning, to those little league days in Las Vegas.
He played on the same team as current MLB star Bryce Harper for four years or so before each went to different high schools. They’re still close and talk to each other regularly. In fact, on this day a shipment of bats had just arrived in the clubhouse from Harper so Gallo could try out his model.
Looking back, Gallo says the talent he grew up playing with and against is a big reason why he’s where he is today. The Las Vegas baseball scene was ripe with talent then. Chicago Cubs top prospect Kris Bryant was part of it too, but Harper was the one who commanded all the attention.
And Gallo was the one hitting right behind him.
“Everyone always knew he was going to be the first pick of the draft and be a stud, so to compete with a guy like that and hit 3-4 with a guy like that … you don’t really realize it, but it really does make you a better player,” he said.
“He was usually getting intentionally walked to face me because they didn’t know who I was so they’d usually walk him and I’d come up and hit a double or home run.”
After his prodigious high school baseball career, Gallo was ready to be an early pick in the 2012 MLB amateur draft. He figured he’d go somewhere between the 10th and 15th pick, and then teams kept passing on him. He suspects it had something to do with his interest in playing college ball at LSU.
Finally, the Rangers plucked him with the 39th overall pick.
“It was a pretty big fall,” he said. “As a an 18-year-old it was a weird moment because that’s what you worked your whole life for – to be drafted. … It was a crazy day, but it all worked in the end perfectly.”
With every towering home run, Gallo has no doubt made at least a few organizations wish they had snagged him earlier in that draft.
Speaking of those homers, there’s some debate as to which of his 21 blasts this year has been the most memorable.
“I hit one in Wilmington, Del., against Miguel Almonte – he’s one of the top prospects with [the Kansas City Royals organization]. He’s really good,” Gallo said. “I hit one to right-center that’s probably one of the furthest ones I’ve ever hit, so that one definitely sticks out to me.”
“The ball that he hit in Winston-Salem, he hit it off the top of what seem[ed] unreachable,” Bostick said laughing. “He didn’t even get all of it and it just kept going. That’s probably one everybody remembers.”
What everyone agrees on, though, is that Gallo is doing something special this season – again.
As part of his growth this year, though, Gallo says he’s made a point not to get caught up in the numbers or worry about anything outside his control.
Last year, when he hit 40 homers in just 111 games while missing time due to injury, he’d hear just about every day where he stood in the minor league home run standings, and he couldn’t help but think about that.
“Last year I was pretty in the heat of the race and I wanted to hit a home run every at-bat to beat this guy, and now I just don’t really focus on it,” he said. “I just play, and if I lead the minors in home runs again, I do. If not, so be it.”
Entering play Saturday (before he slugged No. 21), Gallo’s 20 home runs were three more than any other minor leaguer with the next closest being his old friend Bryant with 17 in Double A. Among players in the high Class-A ranks, no other player had more than 13 homers entering the weekend.
Which raises the next question – the one those in the Pelicans clubhouse say they aren’t thinking about. When does Gallo get promoted to the next level?
“For us, it’s a daily process. He’s got to get his at-bats before they make any decisions, and I haven’t heard anything,” Pelicans manager Joe Mikulik said. “Right now we can control what we can control, getting him his at-bats here and go from there. … Right now he’s here and he’s a big part of this club and it’s huge for everybody.”
Daly also said there’s no timetable in place for moving Gallo up to another minor league team.
“The goal for the players, for Joey, for the organization as a whole is just to focus on closing out the first half,” Daly said.
The Pelicans are 36-17 to lead the Carolina League, and Gallo too said that’s all he’s focused on right now. He’s says the team chemistry is unlike anything he’s experienced in his baseball career, and he’s enjoying his time in Myrtle Beach for however long it lasts.
“You don’t really think about it too much,” he said of his inevitable promotion. “Right now we’re in the heat of a playoff race, so that’s what we’re worried about. We’re worried about winning games. So if a call comes, that’s great. And if not, that’s great too.”
That’s not to say the other Pelicans players don’t tease him about it plenty.
Everyone knows Gallo probably won’t be in Myrtle Beach too much longer, and his teammates – like the fans in the stands – are enjoying the show as long as it lasts.
“We all give him the jokes, but he just kind of shrugs it off and whatever happens, happens,” Bostick said. “But yeah, everyone in there kind of gives him the, ‘Oh, you might not even be here tomorrow so we better keep our eyes open for something special tonight.’ ”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.