Michael Conforto on His June Swoon

Coming into the season, Michael Conforto saw opportunity with the Mets despite a crowded outfield. He seized his chance early in the year and was among the majors’ best players in April and May. Then the league made an adjustment, one with which he’s struggling to adjust back. You could call that regression. You could also just call it baseball — as the player himself did recently with a shrug — but that ebb and flow is important. He needs to figure out this latest puzzle to get back on track.

“I knew coming in that we had a lot of outfielders and that really the only spot [where] we had some uncertainty was center field, so I tried to lose some weight and gain a few steps,” Conforto told me before a game with the Giants. The tiny-sample defensive numbers aren’t amazing, but he caught 14 of the 15 balls that came directly into his zone, at least.

His ability stay above water in center gave him a chance early. Then he used some injuries and his excellent ability to hit the ball to all fields with power to take advantage of the chance. That ability stems from his approach. “Fastballs, I try to stay middle of the field, gap to gap. That really keeps me on offspeed stuff,” Conforto said. “If it’s soft away, and I’m staying middle with the fastball, I can see it a little bit longer and take it oppo. If it comes back over the middle, power to the pull side.”

Conforto is adjusting to the league’s adjustment. (Photo by slgckgc)

In a related matter, the outfielder was sixth in baseball in going up the middle early this season. By the end of May, Conforto had a .316/.415/.639 line that was 71% better than the league.

Then June hit.

He’s hitting .206/.383/.317 this month, but he’s not searching for answers. It seems clear what they’re trying to do. He just needs to be able to execute his response effectively.

The general idea is obvious. “They’re definitely making me chase pitches outside of the zone,” Conforto said. “They want to start pitches in the zone and then have them fall out. Maybe they saw I was aggressive in the zone with fastballs, so they’re trying to use that.” Take a look at the percentage of pitches Conforto has seen in the zone and low in the zone early and then lately.

Pitches to Michael Conforto by Date
Month Zone% Bottom & Below Zone%
April/May 46.0% 36.6%
June 40.2% 39.8%
SOURCE: PitchInfo, Statcast

“They’re really avoiding the zone,” Conforto confirmed. “They’re living above and below the zone, so it’s tough to get on top of those really high pitches, too.” This was something Brian Mangan spotted on Good Fundies, but let’s limit the heat maps to just fastballs and see if we can identify exactly what the player is talking about. On the left are four-seamers and two-seamers and sinkers up to May 31st; on the right, the same for June.

The fastballs up and in are upper and inner, the fastballs out over the plate are higher, and those in on his hands are even more aggressive. And all that Conforto can do, seemingly, is lay off of those pitches.

“My walks have been okay over the past month, still getting on base,” Conforto pointed out — a claim that his .380 on-base percentage in June seems to support. But that doesn’t mean that he can sit back and just take the walks with nothing else to show for his plate appearances.

What’s happening is that they’re messing with his aggression. “Just have to find that mixture of being aggressive in the zone, but also taking my walks,” as the player put it.

Michael Conforto Swing Rates by Period
Month Swing% Zone Swing%
April, May 45.0% 62.5%
June 36.7% 51.1%
SOURCE: PitchInfo

In some ways, it’s just classic baseball. They were working him up and down and in and out before. All they’ve done now is push those zones further from the middle. If he moves off the plate a little to get those pitches in, he’ll be further from the pitches up and away. If he moves closer, he’ll be more vulnerable in. His all-fields swing shouldn’t need a tinker, because it should give him the ability to cover the plate.

No, this is a small thing; it has to be. He can still see where the zone is, he’s just gone into a defensive mode, swinging less, because they aren’t giving him much on the plate. When he can marry that selectivity with in-zone aggression a little better, he’ll be back on his feet. “I don’t think it’s anything big,” agreed the player. “Just a minor approach tweak and I’ll be back to doing what I do.”

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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John Autin
5 years ago

Good piece, underlining the constant adjustments that young players (especially) have to cope with. All magnified in Conforto’s case by his collapse last year and the Mets’ collapse this year. His remarks, plus his K/BB data, indicate he’s not reacting out of frustration. He has the talent and smarts to work the problem, if he keeps a clear head.