The Fastballs Abandoned Michael Conforto

There’s a funny thing about this line of work. We have access to information, so much information, an increasing amount of information, and it allows us to break down almost every single aspect of player performance. Want to know how a pitcher’s fastball has moved? Easy. Want to know where a batter hits groundballs against sliders? No problem. Interested in where outfielders are positioned with a lefty spray hitter at the plate? That’s becoming possible. So much is possible. An incredible amount is possible. Yet we still don’t know anything about what’s most important. If a player is locked in, he stands a chance. If he’s preoccupied, because, say, he got in an argument, or he thinks he left the oven on, he’s probably going to struggle, for no visible reason. You’re worse at what you do when you’re distracted, or when you’re frustrated. There aren’t any numbers for that.

Michael Conforto is in a slump. It’s a bad one, too, and Conforto feels it, and it happens to be taking place when the Mets are somewhat desperate for offense. That doesn’t help the stress, and maybe stress is the real problem. In baseball terms, he could be pressing. There’s no way for us to analyze that. What we can say for sure: In April, Conforto was the second-most productive hitter in the game. Granted, he was behind only Aledmys Diaz, so, April is weird. But since then, the wRC+ has dropped to 42. He’s struck out almost a third of the time. He’s chasing. The Mets don’t think it’s anything mechanical, and they’re prepared to let Conforto play out of this. I assume, at some point, he will. That doesn’t help the slump today. Conforto still feels the weight of his responsibility.

If I had to guess at what’s taken place, I’d put forward that Conforto fell into a little slump, and then he allowed it to snowball. If that’s true, and if Conforto’s little wrist issue isn’t an actual complication of significance, then he should get back on track when he achieves a strong emotional balance. It sounds so easy and simple, from the outside, but of course it never is. It’s not easy to overcome frustration. It’s not easy to take a deep breath and regain your usual clarity. It’s a challenge for everybody, and it’s a challenge for baseball players. I can’t measure when Conforto is getting back to himself. I presume it’ll show up in his batting average.

So far I’ve just talked about the things we can’t measure. That’s not my way, and that’s not the FanGraphs way, and that doesn’t at all address the post’s headline. I want to at least show you some numbers. I think Conforto is just somewhat overwhelmed, but, why could that be in the first place? Here’s one possibility. Like many hitters, Conforto has enjoyed hitting the fastball. But now he’s not seeing very many of them. Here are the biggest drops in fastball rate, from 2015 – 2016, given a seasonal minimum of at least 100 plate appearances:

Drops in Fastball Rate
Hitter 2015 FA% 2016 FA% Change
Jung Ho Kang 56% 45% -11%
Adam Lind 61% 50% -11%
Corey Dickerson 60% 50% -10%
Michael Conforto 58% 50% -9%
Carlos Gomez 57% 49% -8%
Adrian Beltre 56% 49% -7%
Rougned Odor 56% 49% -7%
Manny Machado 57% 51% -7%
Brandon Phillips 59% 53% -7%
Charlie Blackmon 63% 57% -6%

Conforto isn’t at the very top, but he’s close, with a drop of nine percentage points. He’s gone from seeing a mostly average rate of fastballs to seeing a relatively low rate of fastballs, and that can be tough on a young hitter. That can be tough on any hitter, but Conforto has had to try to adjust. He’s had to expect more secondary stuff, and he’s had to try to maintain his zone.

One note of consideration, however: Conforto was already seeing the secondary stuff in April. The fastballs were down before the slump, and since the start of May, the rate of heaters hasn’t changed. It’s not like this is Conforto’s kryptonite; these were the pitches when Conforto was being out-hit only by Aledmys Diaz. The slump came later. There’s probably a connection, but it’s not super clean and simple.

So now we get into something even more granular. To be honest, I’m not sure how significant this is, but I want to fit it in because I love it. And it’s at least an indication of how Conforto has been approached. Last year, Conforto saw a little over 16% first-pitch curveballs. The league average was 10%. This April, Conforto saw 10% first-pitch curveballs. Nothing real interesting yet. The slump began as the calendar turned, and since May 1, Conforto has seen 31% first-pitch curveballs. That’s not even the craziest part. This is the craziest part.

Highest first-pitch curveball rates since May 1

  1. Michael Conforto, 31.3%
  2. Justin Smoak, 23.3%
  3. Todd Frazier, 22.9%
  4. Steven Souza, 20.7%
  5. Rougned Odor, 20.6%

Conforto has had the highest rate in baseball, and he’s had the highest rate by eight percentage points. The difference between first and second is the same as the difference between second and thirty-sixth. It’s probably not all by design, but it’s also no accident, because pitches are thrown strategically, not accidentally. Pitchers have figured they’re safest going with first-pitch curves. Conforto in his career has swung at a total of three first-pitch curves. He whiffed once, and fouled twice.

In large part because of those first pitches, Conforto has had baseball’s highest overall curveball rate since the start of May. Here is his most recent trip to the plate, as a pinch-hitter on Sunday:

conforto-jeffress

It’s not like he’s been getting curveball after curveball after curveball, but he’s seen enough curveballs to notice, and he’s seen enough non-fastballs to notice. In the judgment of opposing pitchers, Conforto isn’t doing a good job right now of picking up spin and staying with his timing. Conforto isn’t getting the fastballs he wants, and when you’re started with a curve, the curve stays right there in your consciousness. It can leave a hitter in-between. Now I’m getting close to just talking about nothing, but I imagine something about all this has caused the slump to feel deeper. If Conforto is frustrated, his discipline would lapse. When a hitter’s discipline lapses, it all goes south.

Michael Conforto is better than this, and by season’s end, I figure he’ll be productive again. He’s already shown too much to be just some flash in the pan. Yet Conforto seems like he might be pressing, being unaccustomed to being in a slump, and as a hitter who might be pressing, he’s not getting the fastballs he’d like in order to break out of the rut. That would only make the frustration worse, and this is where a guy could use some deep breaths. It’s easy for us to say from the outside that Conforto is too good to struggle like this for much longer. Conforto himself is having a devil of a time. Even if he’s confident he’ll find a way out, he still has to find it. That part is entirely up to him.





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.

13 Comments
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Jack Conness
5 years ago

So, Manny Machado has seen 7% fewer fastballs this season and he is having the best season of his career? The guy is incredible.

jcutigermember
5 years ago
Reply to  Jack Conness

Just b/c someone is seeing fewer fastballs doesn’t mean they will perform poorly because of it.

LHPSU
5 years ago
Reply to  Jack Conness

Jung Ho Kang is seeing 11% fewer fastballs this season and his +wRC is up 23 points from last year.

Jack Conness
5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

For a guy who is a career .317 hitter vs. the fastball and a .250 hitter against the change, slider, and curve – yes, I find it impressive. http://www.brooksbaseball.net/h_tabs.php?player=592518&balls=-1&strikes=-1&b_hand=-1&time=month&minmax=ci&var=ra&s_type=2&gFilt=&startDate=&endDate=

balancedman178
5 years ago
Reply to  Jack Conness

Did you not read the whole article? The author acknowledges your point that it isnt just the fastball %. The main point in the article is the 1st-pitch curveball% and how it might be in Confortos head and that he isn’t making adjustments successfully.

Jack Conness
5 years ago
Reply to  balancedman178

I did read the whole article. I was just touching on a different point that was brought up.