A casual stroll down the stacks of the FanGraphs hitting leaderboards for outfielders yields many interesting takeaways, but perhaps none more interesting than this: among the top 10 outfielders by wRC+, there’s a 23-year-old who played only 45 games above High-A before being called up to the majors last year. He came into this season with the expectation of being a left-handed platoon bat, and now he’s leading the majors in hard-hit rate and hitting third everyday in the sixth-best offensive lineup in baseball. A year can change a lot of things, and it has changed more for Michael Conforto than for just about anyone else in baseball.
Conforto had about as successful a short stint in the majors during 2015 as one could hope for out of a young player with little experience in the high minors — he posted a 134 wRC+ in 56 games, hit a few important home runs in the playoffs, and outperformed the established historical expectations for players in his position. Conforto was good for 2.1 WAR in those 56 games, and the Mets went from a .505 team without him — 3.0 games back in their division — to a .631 team with him, comfortable winners of the National League East. The August/September 2015 Mets weren’t just Conforto, of course, but the Mets needed an offensive jolt, and he provided it. Conforto’s introduction represented a tidy dividing line between mediocrity and wild success, and we’d be fools not to at least recognize the narrative convenience of that line.
That type of introduction to the major leagues is hard to live up to — and yet! Here we are, a month into the season, and Conforto has lived up to them. More than lived up to them, in fact. He’s probably created new expectations, and they’re even loftier, almost impossible ones. We know how easy it is to be wrong about April numbers. It’s folly to think that April assures us of what’s going to happen for the rest of the season. But, while we shouldn’t necessarily expect this current level of production out of him moving forward, he’s showing us a few real improvements so far this season that merit some attention. Conforto isn’t truly this good (no one is), but there’s a reason he’s currently this good.
Let’s start with who he was in 2015. Describing Conforto as a dead-pull hitter in 2015 wouldn’t be accurate, but he was close: he ranked 35th from bottom in terms of batted balls to the opposite field (out of 361 qualifying hitters, min. 190 PAs). Interestingly, he had a hole in his swing, and it was on the inside part of the plate — not really where you’d expect to find it for such a pull-happy hitter. Take a look at his isolated power per pitch location from 2015:
It was the middle-in pitch that gave him fits in 2015 — and even, to some extent, the middle-middle pitch. We can see quite clearly that Conforto was much more comfortable extending his hands to handle pitches on the outer half. So what did he do with those pitches? Using Baseball Savant, I’ve pulled a spray chart for only those pitches that he put into play on the outer half of the plate during 2015. Here’s where they went:
The home-run power to the opposite field is both apparent and impressive, but there’s almost a total lack of line drives to the opposite field. That’s not terribly surprising, really: lots of very productive hitters pull most of their grounders and liners while hitting fly balls to the opposite field. Maybe that wasn’t good enough for Conforto, though, because we’re seeing something quite different in 2016. You might see where this is going. It’s going here:
|Player||2015 Oppo%||2016 Oppo%||Oppo% Difference|
There’s Conforto, with the sixth-highest gain in rate of balls hit to the opposite field this season among qualified hitters. That doesn’t happen by accident, and it’s why we’re seeing this from the pitches on the outer half he’s put into play during 2016:
Suddenly we see line drives in places we didn’t see them in 2015. We knew about Conforto’s home-run power when going the other way; now we’re seeing what looks like a more calculated approach to adding line drives to the opposite-field mix. There’s a simple reason for all of this, at least from an outsider’s perspective: Conforto has seen a defensive shift in 48 of his 91 plate appearances this season. Heading into 2016, the book on Conforto was that he pulled the ball — even on pitches over the outer half. Teams have responded by shifting him in 2016. Whether because of that, or because of some other effort to become a more complete hitter, Conforto has responded by making himself more of an all-fields hitter — effectively torching that edition of the book.
That adjustment alone would be worth applauding. There’s another piece to this, though, and it’s how Conforto has handled the hole in his swing. Or at least, handled what used to be left of the hole in his swing:
There’s still an issue with the high and high/inside pitch, but the increased coverage in the hitting zone is evident. Last year, you could bust Conforto inside, whether the pitch was high, middle, or low. So far this year, that inside pitch better be way up or way down. The way pitchers have approached him is part of the same book that led to the increased defensive shifts: pitch him more inside. Again, Conforto has torched the book before it really had a chance to be successful.
Conforto still has weaknesses. He’s very susceptible to left-handed pitching, as we saw yesterday during a three-strikeout, 0-for-5 performance against Madison Bumgarner. That’s the kind of inherent weakness that’s going to become more apparent when he cools off, and it’s the big question about his ability to stick in a lineup every day. What bodes well is that Conforto is exhibiting signs of becoming a more disciplined, mature hitter: taking outside pitches the other way with greater authority and pulling inside pitches for better power production. When a 23-year-old shows advanced pitch recognition and selectivity, that’s cause for some excitement.
Right now, there’s a good way to get Michael Conforto out: put a left-hander on the mound. Short of that, take your best guess, because the book is already outdated.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.