Soft-spoken Michael Conforto is swinging a big stick for the Mets
Somewhere amid the black sun that symbolizes the New York Mets’ 2017 season, there is a growing pinprick of light peeking through, and it comes from the breakout campaign of soft-spoken, 24-year-old outfielder Michael Conforto. If Matt Harvey is the Dark Knight, then maybe Conforto can be the Mets’ Quiet Knight.
Let’s imagine an alternative universe where the Mets’ roster came together as it was drawn up during the offseason. Yoenis Cespedes is anchoring the middle of the order for an offense that needs to do only so much, because the star-powered rotation has opposing bats flailing at air. Jay Bruce is providing some offensive support. Jeurys Familia is slamming the door in the ninth inning.
A sidelined ace, a sore slugger, a closer who could be out for the year — it might seem like a bout of bad luck. To insiders, it’s an example of a damaged organization in need of an overhaul.
A baseball team is only as good as its next reliever, making the Mets on Sunday … pretty darn bad. Frustration is peaking as the club is pummeled during sweep at hands of Milwaukee Brewers.
This was largely how it looked on paper before the season, when the Mets were projected to win between 85 and 90 games with one of the stingiest run-prevention units in baseball. Even with that scenario in place — a healthy Cespedes and semiresurgent Bruce — the Mets still seemed to lack one more premium bat. After last season, expecting Conforto to be that guy seemed like a long shot.
Indeed, as the season dawned, Conforto didn’t even have an everyday spot in the New York lineup. In spring training, there was talk of starting Conforto in the minors, where he could play every day. That talk now seems a bit silly since Conforto has reverted to phenom form. And all because of the simplest of adjustments.
“He’s returned to the swing he had when he first got to the major leagues,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “A little flatter swing, not so much trying to hit the ball in the air. He’s just trying to hit the ball hard. He’s back to where he’s hit some of his homers to left field, which is what made him so successful his first year.”
That almost makes Conforto’s hot start bittersweet. If the Mets’ campaign had unfolded as planned, he might be mashing for the Las Vegas 51s. At the same time, Conforto has played so well that not only could he have emerged as that additional big bat the Mets needed, but he probably would have somehow wedged his way into Collins’ lineup one way or another. The other way to look at it is this: As bad as the past couple of weeks have been for the Mets, think of where they’d be without Conforto.
Conforto burst on the scene in 2015, hitting nine homers for the Mets’ pennant winner that season and three more during New York’s postseason run. Two of those homers came in the Mets’ Game 4 loss in the World Series. Only 15 players have homered at a younger age in the Fall Classic, and of those who hit at least two homers, only Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx and Reggie Smith were younger. That’s the version of Conforto everybody wanted to see last season. Turns out, he did, too, and set out to be that guy with his offseason program.
“Mostly I’d just look at video from when I first came up and coming through the system and compare it to some from last year, just to see what was there,” Conforto said. “There were some mechanical differences.”
That Conforto found the big stage to his liking during that debut season was far from surprising. He has been in the spotlight since he was 11 years old and played in the Little League World Series, where he played on ESPN, only to be overshadowed by a very young Randal Grichuk. At Oregon State, Conforto starred while leading the Beavers to the College World Series during his sophomore season.
The only issue with that resume and such a splashy debut is that everyone assumes you’re on a beeline to stardom. It didn’t happen that way for Conforto. He hit .220/.310/.414 at the big-league level in 2016 and spent time in Triple-A, where his .422/.483/.727 line showed he had little to learn there. Some of Conforto’s trouble in the majors was physical — he had a wrist problem — and some of it was opportunity, as he was in and out of the lineup. After roaring to a 1.118 OPS in April, he had a .598 mark the rest of the way. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his hard-hit rate slipped from 32 percent in the first month to 13 percent. That’s precisely the kind of fall-off Conforto is trying to avoid this time.
|Minimum: 135 plate appearances; Source: baseball-reference.com|
Conforto headed into the winter determined to tweak his game in an effort to resume his previous path, working off video, in the batting cage and in communication with Mets hitting coach Kevin Long. The results have been dramatic. Through Thursday’s game, Conforto was sporting a 1.031 OPS in 135 plate appearances. If the season ended today, that would be the high-water mark in Mets history.
“What we found was in getting around on the ball, the path was getting longer,” Conforto said. “Really, what we tried to do is just make sure I was being more direct. That’s what we were trying to communicate back and forth, trying to be more direct and hitting the ball to all fields. I was trying to turn on the ball, so I was getting pitched in a lot.”
According to Conforto, the changes are minor enough as to be imperceptible to the lay person.
“I’m able to cover certain areas,” Conforto said. “The changes are so small, when you get full speed, you wouldn’t even be able to see the difference. That’s the thing in baseball. It’s just that little tiny adjustment that can mean everything.”
From a numbers standpoint, and we don’t want to go too deep into the weeds with quantitative jargon, Conforto’s start can be summed up as such: He’s hitting the ball harder. According to Statcast data from baseballsavant.mlb.com, on average, Conforto is hitting the ball more than 3 mph harder than he did in 2016. His expected wOBA based on the balls he has put into play is .373, up from .317 last season.
Conforto has been much less pull-conscious in the early going. According to TruMedia, Conforto is pulling the ball just 29 percent of the time so far, down from his career mark of 41 percent. Meanwhile, his rate of balls hit to center field has jumped from 30 percent to 43. But after last season’s hot start and long tumble, Conforto is just as focused on maintaining his gains as he was in achieving them in the first place.
“I can feel old habits creeping back in,” Conforto said. “We’ve got a great routine to keep me where I want to be, just little drills, hit the ball where it’s pitched. We worked on keeping to my strength but also, in certain situations, cover an inside pitch with two strikes, be able to fight it off and get something I can handle. I think routine has really helped me.”
Speaking of numbers, Conforto is aware, but he’s not Daniel Murphy in this regard. He does his work by video, and if there is an alarming twist in his statistical pattern, the team has people that will bring that to his attention.
“I’m not too big into [the numbers],” Conforto said. “It’s kind of taken off the last year or so, launch angles and getting the ball in the air and all that stuff. I definitely took an interest in that and wanted to learn about it. For me, it’s always been that I wanted to hit the ball in the air. That’s always been my goal. I never wanted to hit ground balls. I wanted to hit out of the park, hit the ball in the gaps. I didn’t feel like that was anything too different from what I was trying to do.”
If we’re going to burrow into Conforto’s top-line results and dwell on how he is striking the ball, we can’t stop there, because it probably all starts with the maturation of his pitch recognition and ability to do damage with pitches that once did damage to him. That has been vividly true in three respects: Conforto’s wOBA against breaking pitches has soared from .247 to .340. And against low pitches, he has gone from .306 to .425. Finally, against pitches on the inner half of the plate, he has improved from .282 to .362. All of these things tie into those tiny-but-huge tweaks he made over the winter.
“I’ve never been a guy who worried about ground ball rates,” Conforto said. “So you don’t have to try to put the ball in the air. It’s kind of in my swing already. So I just stick to my approach and my strengths.”
With some of the pre-existing holes in Conforto’s game that we described, he has thus far in his career had limited utility against southpaws. Through 2016, he had a paltry .162 wOBA in only 68 plate appearances against lefties. The lack of opportunity speaks for itself. He already has had 20 shots at lefties this season and lit them up for a .406 wOBA, including his first two homers.
“We saw it last year in the beginning, but I thought he got a little home run happy and kind of changed his swing,” Collins said. “Now, he’s not. He’s seeing the ball very good right now. It’s added up to a great start.”
All of this means that if and when the Mets finally start to get healthy, it’s going to be awfully difficult to get Conforto out of the lineup. The veteran Bruce has been productive and emerged as a clubhouse leader. Cespedes is the heart of the lineup. But though Conforto profiles as a corner outfielder, it might be tough for Collins to start Curtis Granderson and his .531 OPS over him. Conforto has been league-average in terms of defensive runs saved in center during his big-league career. For a player putting up an OPS north of 1.000, that’s more than adequate to back up a pitching staff that, when healthy (there’s that word again) is heavy on strikeouts.
With a disabled list as bloated as the New York City phone directory, and a clubhouse so plagued with melodrama that it would be too fantastic for Broadway, Conforto has been the quiet producer amid the maelstrom. If and when the storm finally settles down, the Mets might be glad the Quiet Knight got this opportunity to prove that he has nothing left to prove.