Let Michael Conforto Play

Mets fans know the dilemma well. Despite already possessing probably the club’s second-best bat after Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto might have a tenuous grasp on a roster spot.

Conforto isn’t a natural center fielder. Juan Lagares is a natural center fielder and is also nearing a return from a rehab stint to serve as the club’s fourth outfielder, a role which Conforto is currently filling.

Conforto is a more natural fit at a corner-outfield spot, but Cespedes has a solid grasp of left field and the Mets owe Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce $15 million and $13 million, respectively, this year. Granderson and Bruce are atop the depth chart at center and right field.

Conforto is well aware of his situation. He’s well aware he has minor-league options remaining and a relatively paltry salary. Said the 24-year-old to Newsday earlier this week: “My situation is a day-to-day thing.”

Despite doing this on Wednesday night…

Despite demonstrating a compact, powerful swing that produced results on Sunday…

Regardless of the quality of contact he’s produced, his pedigree as a first-round pick, and the intriguing track record, Conforto isn’t a lock to stick in the lineup regularly or on the 25-man roster at all.

There’s the old adage that if you can hit they will find a place for you in the field. Will the Mets?

This is a player who posted a 133 wRC+ of as a rookie in 2015 over 194 plate appearances, when Conforto’s average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was 96.1 mph, ranking him 22nd among hitters with at least 100 batted-ball events (just behind Cespedes). After an excellent start to 2016, a wrist issue and inconsistent playing time contributed to a lackluster sophomore campaign.

Still, despite 2016, Conforto was projected by ZiPS to be the Mets’ second-best position player in 2017. From our ZiPS post back in February:

Only four Mets field players recorded a WAR figure of 2.0 or greater in 2016. According to Dan Szymborski’s computer, six different Mets might be expected to reach that mark in 2017. Yoenis Cespedes (596 PA, 4.1 zWAR) receives the club’s top projection by a full win — and three of the club’s top-four forecasts overall belong to outfielders. One of those additional outfielders is Curtis Granderson (538, 2.3). The other isn’t presumptive right-field starter Jay Bruce (583, 1.2) but rather Michael Conforto (558, 3.0). Conforto, in other words, appears to be a markedly superior option.

And all Conforto has done this spring is hit like Kyle Schwarber Lite. He’s making life difficult on Mets officials tasked with setting the roster and lineup card.

Last year, Eno Sarris wrote about the development of power and how Conforto’s best contact hadn’t been ideal. Well, Conforto is making strides there early this spring. His home run on Sunday left his bat at 108 mph and landed 430 feet away in right-center field.

Conforto can hit. He might be the Mets’ second-best hitter and yet the Mets continue to struggle to find a place for his bat, giving him only two starts so far this season.

The Mets might have initially regretted picking up Bruce’s option, insurance in case Cespedes signed elsewhere this offseason. But Bruce has been productive to date this year, and might be benefiting from an attempt to launch more balls in the air. Bruce has hit four home runs in the season’s first week and is slashing .273/.385/.667 — in part, fueled by a 0.40 GB/FB ratio.

So what to do with Conforto?

A modest proposal: platoon Conforto with Lagares in center (which is how the Mets began last season), hope for the best defensively, and let him hit.

For starters, outfield defense is a bit less important behind the Mets, whose pitching staff finished ninth in strikeouts in baseball a season ago and ninth in ground-ball rate (46.5%). The Mets’ power rotation is again expected to miss many a bat and produce a better-than-average ground-ball rate.

But Conforto might actually be a superior defensive option to Granderson in center right now. In limited defensive work in center field, covering 48 innings, Conforto has been worth 1 defensive run save (DRS). In 952 innings in left, he’s been posted 9 DRS, exceeding expectations of his defense. Granderson, meanwhile, has declined as a defender and is already rated as being worth -2 DRS this season in center. In his last full season in center, in New York in 2012, Granderson was worth -7 DRS.

Conforto is the better offensive option going forward.

As for Lagares, he’s an excellent defensive center fielder, having tallied 62 DRS from 2013 to -16, but he’s posted well below-average offensive seasons in back-to-back years, including a 79 wRC+ mark in 2015 and an 84 wRC+ last season. However, for his career, Lagares has a wRC+ of 105 versus lefties versus a 76 mark against righties. Given what we know about platoon splits, that might actually be a fair representation of his true talent. There’s a place for Lagares’ glove as a defensive replacement, or perhaps with a fly-ball pitcher on the mound. And Lagares’ right-handed bat could serve as a platoon partner for Conforto who has struggled to hit lefties (.129 average in 62 at-bats) early in his big-league career.

Every win matters for the Mets in what figures to be a competitive NL East. While their lineup is off to a productive start, it would be more productive, more often, with their second-most-capable hitter in the lineup.

We’ve always heard that if you can hit a team will find a place for you. For much of this spring it seemed the Mets were thinking that place was Triple-A for Conforto, but perhaps Conforto’s strong spring and torrid start to open the season in limited chances could force some more creative thinking.

The sooner they find a way to make a consistent lineup home for Conforto, the better off they will be.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Ghostofmeek
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Ghostofmeek

Here’s hoping the Mets don’t let the sunk-cost fallacy prevent them from playing one of their best position players and developing a young player who could be a perennial all star. I don’t like platooning him either, because that means you are taking away developmental ABs against LHPs.

(1) Trade Jay Bruce
(2) Let Conforto split time between the outfield and first base so that you keep his bat in the lineup.
(3) Sit Bruce.
(4) Sit Granderson.
(5) Some combination of the above.

evo34
Member
evo34

Conforto has a good 13 PA (entirely against RHP, btw), and suddenly he deserves full playing time on a crowded, contending team? This is the Everyone Loves the 24-year-old on the Bench syndrome. #freewilymopena

senor_mike
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senor_mike

Actually, Travis explicitly states:
“A modest proposal: platoon Conforto with Lagares in center…”

gregqd
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gregqd

More like, “the guy blocking Conforto has a mediocre 5000+ career PA, and suddenly he deserves full playing time on a crowded, contending team just because he is making money that will be paid to him whether he plays or not?”

metsguy69
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metsguy69

with a good spring, it seems conforto has adjusted or healed from whatever ailed him in may and june last year.

i think there was a case that many leading the conforto-starts-everyday charge did so for less-than-precise reasons but the evidence is building that the kid is ready and he’s showing it in his limited at bats.

c0wfunk
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c0wfunk

He had a good spring and a good april last year too. He has proved nothing yet.

metsguy69
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metsguy69

no. but with a very good AAA stint, a very good september, a very good spring and now a nice couple of starts early this season, there’s just more evidence that he’s either healed from a wrist injury or has adjusted to whatever was causing problems in may and june so more people are coming around on the argument.

unfair to say it’s just “start the 24 year old everyday” crowd.

c0wfunk
Member
c0wfunk

Despite all the downvotes, you are 100% correct here. A lot of bullshit based on a callup third of a season, one good month, and a couple good springs. He had a great spring last year. And a great April. Then what? He hit under the Mendoza line and fell apart completely. Where is the proof that he won’t do that again? The mets have 3 good major league outfielders. That is who should start most nights.

metsguy69
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metsguy69

“Then what?”

either his injured wrist caused problems in his swing or pitchers figured something out, or both.

senor_mike
Member
senor_mike

I think it’s important to keep in mind that Conforto did report his wrist was bothering him in mid-June, and an MRI revealed sprained cartilage for which he received a cortisone shot. It wouldn’t really be all that much of a leap to think that he actually hurt it in early May, considering that is right around the time his average exit velocity suddenly tanked from ~95mph in April to ~91mph for the year.

Or maybe it was just a so-called sophomore slump, we don’t really have that proof you seek one way or the other what caused his slide last year. We do however have some evidence right now that what he did between his call-up in July 2015 through April 2016 was no fluke.

If this really is Michael Conforto as a player then sitting him on the bench is a complete waste, because this version looks like one of the better hitters in the NL.

gregqd
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gregqd

I’m sorry, did you just seriously ask for “proof” of what a player’s future performance will be?

Anthony Calamis
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Anthony Calamis

Have you….watched Jay Bruce play defense? I don’t need a defensive stat to tell me he’s cost the team already – he’s already misplayed two doubles into triples and simply hasn’t gotten to some balls. He’s looked like a mess out there. He’s been hitting out of his mind, which is why I’m okay with him playing for now, but there are three seasons worth of replacement level baseball from Bruce that tell me the Mets are lucky to be gettin this from him right now.

Bruce used to be a legitimately good player. He might’ve found something, but more likely he’ll return to being mediocre. Conforto deserves a chance to play and is a good Major League outfielder. Very likely better than Bruce or Granderson at this point.

JDDJS
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JDDJS

Why on Earth would we even consider benching Bruce right now? He’s been our best hitter so far.

c0wfunk
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c0wfunk

a voice of reason

swingofthings
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swingofthings

Perhaps because he hasn’t cracked 1 WAR since 2013, has only even been a league average hitter once since then, and projects as a league average hitter with poor defense in a position low on the defensive spectrum?

I’m actually not in favor of outright benching Bruce until he cools down, but Conforto is, by ALL data we have available, a better hitter and fielder, and should play.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
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Roger McDowell Hot Foot

“So far” includes nine baseball games. Jay Bruce has played 1,270 other baseball games.

Noah Baron
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Member

Now is not the time to have Conforto play against lefties. Not when you have three outfielders on the roster (Cespedes, Lagares, and Bruce) who hit lefties fairly well.

swingofthings
Member
swingofthings

Bruce has a career 90 wRC+ against lefties. The last 3 seasons, 51, 78, and 77. Even this year in his hot start it’s 42. He does not hit lefties and provides below replacement value in the field and at the plate when starting against them.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
Member
Roger McDowell Hot Foot

Would love to see Bruce going elsewhere in exchange for pretty much any value at all — that’s obviously the optimal solution to the log-jam from the Mets’ perspective — but I’ve got to say I think Granderson is the likelier trade candidate at this point.

Dan Greer
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Dan Greer

Problem is they’d basically have to give him away. Even if you decide to bench Grandy or Bruce, or just equally share time between they and Conforto, having that extra depth in case of injury is probably better than the AA reliever they’d get.

Personally I’d make sure Conforto plays 75% of the time or more, and you can split the other 125% between Granderson, Bruce, and Lagares (vs LHP only).

Anthony Calamis
Member
Anthony Calamis

If there’s 300% available total, Cespedes will need some off days, so there’s a little bit more available there.

Anthony Calamis
Member
Anthony Calamis

My ideal percentage breakdown for PA would be 95% Cespedes in LF, 5% Conforto, 65% Grandy in CF, 20% Lagares, 15% Conforto, 60% Bruce in RF, 40% Conforto, 85% Duda at 1B, 15% Bruce, with Conforto DHing when necessary , Flores sharing third with Reyes in like a 60/40 split, Reyes getting some time backing up Cabrera & Rivera backing up Walker. But it’s a good problem to have too many players you think are productive. Hopefully it’ll work itself out.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
Member
Roger McDowell Hot Foot

In a purely rational world I’d agree with this — why not just keep Bruce around as a bench bat, what does it hurt? — but it looks to me like as long as they have Bruce around, they’re going to overuse him.