Michael Conforto Hits the Ball Everywhere

Let’s begin with something pleasing. We’re all in a good mood. Here’s Michael Conforto hitting an unnecessary home run on Tuesday:

That home run didn’t matter in part because, earlier in the game, Michael Conforto hit a home run. And it didn’t matter in part because, earlier in the game, Conforto hit a two-run single. It was a good night to be Michael Conforto. It’s been a good year to be Michael Conforto.

As things stand, Conforto ranks 11th among position players in WAR. The weird news is he’s behind Zack Cozart. The better news is he’s tied with Buster Posey. Just by hitting, Conforto’s fifth in wRC+, between Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper. There was concern coming into the season that Conforto might not end up with enough playing time. Circumstances have allowed him to play plenty, and now he’s made himself impossible to sit.

It was a little bit mystifying why Conforto came apart in 2016. The fact that it happened at all is important to keep in mind, since in theory it could happen again, but Conforto has never suffered from a lousy approach. He’s never suffered from making bad contact. If he’s had a problem, it’s been building an approach against left-handed pitchers, but that’s the kind of thing that comes with experience. Conforto’s going to get his chances, and it’s because he’s a good hitter. From the start, he’s profiled as such.

But that isn’t to say he’s not evolving. To kick things off, I’d like to show you one table. This is a table of information about ground balls. Conforto doesn’t want to hit ground balls. It’s pretty much never the goal of any one of his at-bats. But the way ground balls behave can be a symptom. I’ll tell you what I mean after the numbers.

Michael Conforto’s Grounders
Year Pull% Center% Opposite%
2015 70% 25% 6%
2016 71% 22% 8%
2017 32% 53% 15%

Most power hitters pull their ground balls. Most *regular* hitters pull their ground balls, because most ground balls are pulled. And, even now, it’s not like Conforto is spraying grounders to the left side. Only the slap hitters routinely hit grounders the other way. But with Conforto in 2017, we’re seeing a shift to more of an up-the-middle approach. Instead of pulling grounders near first, Conforto is hitting grounders around the second baseman, if not right back over the bag. Plenty of hitters say they try to hit the ball to center. Conforto is living it.

Here’s a plot, showing data from the last two seasons. What I’ve done for each hitter in each year is subtract opposite-field grounder rate from pull-side grounder rate. It’s a fairly sticky statistic, but you see Conforto highlighted down there in red.

No other hitter has changed more than Conforto in this regard. Conforto in 2015 had one of the higher rates in baseball. Conforto in 2016 had one of the higher rates in baseball. Conforto in 2017 has one of the lower rates in baseball. He’s gone from a difference of 63 percentage points to a difference of 18. He’s hanging out around Adam Eaton and Corey Dickerson.

Dickerson’s is a good name to hang on to, because he’s having his own big season, and he’s long been an unusual power hitter, when it comes to how he’s distributed his grounders. Dickerson hasn’t pulled the ball on the ground as much as most guys with pop. That’s where Conforto is, but let’s not get too wrapped up in the Dickerson parallels. I mentioned that Conforto seems to be trying to go up the middle. Obviously, he’s not actually hitting everything up the middle, but the reason hitters try to do that is because, if they’re too early, they can pull the ball fair, and if they’re too late, they can go the other way. Conforto, already, looks promising in his spray ability, even looking beyond just this year. Conforto has demonstrated that he’s one of the better all-fields hitters around.

Over the past three years, there are 289 players with at least 100 batted balls to all three directions. There are just six players with hard-hit rates of at least 35% across the board.

All-Fields Hitters, 2015 – 2017
Player Pull Center Opposite
J.D. Martinez 38.6% 50.4% 38.0%
Miguel Cabrera 36.3% 49.7% 38.8%
Michael Conforto 40.3% 44.2% 39.1%
Freddie Freeman 39.1% 47.4% 36.8%
Paul Goldschmidt 37.6% 46.5% 37.6%
Yasmany Tomas 37.4% 38.4% 36.9%
Minimum 100 batted balls to all three directions, and hard-hit rates of at least 35%.

You’ll notice that 35% is a somewhat low bar; Conforto’s lowest rate up there is 39%. In terms of hard-hit rate to the pull side, Conforto ranks in baseball’s upper tenth. Up the middle, he’s in the top 6%, and the other way, he’s in the top 2%. Conforto, in this way, has been a pure hitter, never concentrating too much on any one area. He’s pulled 11 homers. He’s not pulled 23.

If you just add up those three hard-hit rates for Conforto up there, you get a sum of 124%. Here are the top 11 such sums since 2015, stretching to 11 instead of 10 because of a 10th-place tie.

Summed Hard-Hit Rates, 2015 – 2017
Player Sum
Giancarlo Stanton 128%
J.D. Martinez 127%
Miguel Sano 127%
Miguel Cabrera 125%
Michael Conforto 124%
Freddie Freeman 123%
David Ortiz 123%
Corey Seager 122%
Paul Goldschmidt 122%
Chris Davis 121%
Mike Trout 121%
Pull hard-hit rate + center hard-hit rate + opposite hard-hit rate.

This is the kind of company a hitter should want to keep. Many of the best hitters are all-fields hitters, and although there’s still room for, say, pull-hitting specialists, it’s the all-fields hitters who tend to have less-exploitable approaches. Conforto has shown he can hit the ball hard anywhere and everywhere. This season, Conforto has improved his own ability to focus up the middle, and that’s reduced his margin of error when swinging. It reflects that he’s been more consistent in his swing, and as further evidence of that, consider that Conforto has hit just one single pop-up. The previous two years, he had 17. Conforto has been perfectly on balance, and so he’s been able to punish the ball to every area. This from a guy who also walks, without striking out too much.

The only issue for Conforto is to keep it up. That’s all it ever is, for anyone successful. The elements are in place for Conforto to be one of the better hitters in his league. His all-fields power is enviable, and he isn’t a guy who expands his own zone very often. Sure, he’s going to swing and miss. Power hitters mostly swing and miss. But in between the misses and the fouls, there will be contact, and few hitters around make such good contact in every direction. Michael Conforto is coming together. That’s one bright spot for the Mets in a season that’s tested the patience.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

In a season where it’s become evident that Wright probably will never play again, Conforto emerging as a legit star and the best home-grown position player since DW is welcome news.

6 years ago
Reply to  davegawk

Was looking at home grown Mets (drafted or signed) with more than two All Star Games – there are three: Wright, Reyes and Straw. Not a long list.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave42

You sure about that? Doc Gooden made the ASG from 1984-1986 and again in 1988. Although since he made the leap from A-ball directly to the majors and in his rookie year *led the league in pitching WAR* (and #2 in total WAR behind Cal Ripken) it’s not clear the Mets had a lot to do with “home growing” him.

6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Sorry, meant to specify “everyday players”. Seaver, Gooden, Koos and Matlack also qualify if you consider pitchers.