Michael Conforto had success in 2015, yet struggled 2016. Which version do the New York Mets believe he is?
“Oh, absolutely, yeah.”
That is New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson’s response to whether or not he still believes in the 10th overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft, outfield prospect Michael Conforto.
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If posed a little more than a year ago, this might have sounded like a ridiculous question. At that point, Conforto was coming off his debut season where his .270/.335/.506 slash line and excellent defense (sixth best UZR/150 among OF min 150 PA). This led to a total value of 2.1 fWAR (Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement), which is in the range of an average MLB player. But when you put this value in context of his mere 194 plate appearances, his value per plate appearance (fWAR/PA) placed him just below 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson for fifth in the majors (min 190 PA).
Even with these excellent numbers, however, there were concerns about Conforto as an everyday player. Namely, could he hit left-handed pitching?
Since the Mets were in the middle of a pennant race in 2015, they decided to play to Conforto’s strengths and start him almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers (only 15 PA against LHP). It was a strategy that produced excellent short-term results for the team (World Series appearance) at the expense of delaying his personal development as a hitter.
The Mets loosened the developmental ropes on Conforto in 2016, and the results were… not promising. In 53 PA against left-handers, he hit .104, walked three times and struck out over 28 percent of the time. In the offensive stat weighted runs created plus (wRC+, where 100 is average), Conforto’s -18 wRC+ against LHP (min 50 PA) ranked dead last in the majors. Additionally, his performance against RHP also regressed (141 wRC+ in 2015 to 117 wRC+ in 2016), which led to his eventual demotion to AAA.
Clearly when looking at the 2016 numbers, major league pitchers made an adjustment to Conforto. Compared to 2015, he saw 7.7 percent fewer fastballs and swung on pitches outside the zone 3.7 percent more often, indicating he needs to work on his breaking pitch recognition.
But will Conforto be allowed to make his corresponding adjustments to how pitchers are working him? Short answer: probably not this year.
Alderson told the New York Daily News, “Unless we have a clear avenue for Conforto to play on an almost everyday basis we’re going to have to make some decisions in spring training.”
Some of these decisions seem to have been already made. The Mets signed Yoenis Cespedes this offseason to play left field for the next four years. Curtis Granderson, while not what he once was defensively, should see a lot of playing time in RF/CF since he’s still proven to be productive at the plate. Juan Lagares need only be his normal excellent defensive self to command a part time role in center field.
But then there’s Jay Bruce, who the Mets traded for at the deadline last season. If Conforto is going to find an everyday role for the Mets in 2017, it will likely be at Bruce’s expense.
At this point of his career, Jay Bruce is basically a worse defensive version of 2016 Michael Conforto. He posted a 52 wRC+ against the shift last year (55.7 percent of his PA) and hasn’t had an OBP over .300 against LHP since 2012. His lack of defensive ability also limits outfield alignment flexibility.
Replacing Bruce with Conforto would provide a route to defensive stability in the outfield while giving a young hitter the opportunity to adjust to major league left-handed pitchers. And it’s not as if Bruce wouldn’t have a role outside his veteran clubhouse presence; the Mets will reportedly explore using him at first base during spring training, and his career .838 OPS as a pinch hitter would come in nicely off the bench in late-inning situations.
Yet, Conforto will have to hit LHP during spring training in order for them to give him everyday playing time. It may be true that the Mets believe in his long-term future, but he will likely have to wait until 2018 to contribute meaningfully to the major league club.