The Silver Lining That Is Michael Conforto

This has been a forgettable season for the Mets.

With their playoff odds having been effectively reduced to 0%, with one of most promising staffs in the game decimated by injury, the club has recently raised something of a white flag by trading Jay Bruce and Neil Walker, though the season has felt like it’s been over for some time.

But there is one significant positive development for the club, and that’s the rebound of Michael Conforto, who not only has bounced back in a major way from his poor 2016 but also from his lull in June of this year.

Conforto ranks 12th in the majors in wRC+ (149). His ability to make improvement not only from season to season, but within a season, seems to speak well to a long-term ability to improve and extract performance from his considerable talent. Conforto’s quick and powerful left-handed swing has produced above-average exit velocities since his arrival, and he’s been among the top Statcast “barrel” producers.

Conforto started off the season on a tear, like he did in 2016, only to post a .206/.383/.317 slash line in June. Conforto never dug out from his slump a year ago. He has this season.

Eno documented and asked Conforto about his slump back in June.

Said Conforto:

“They’re [pitchers] 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.”

I updated and added to a table Eno employed in that referenced piece below. As we can see, opponents went lower and lower against Conforto leading into June:

Adjusting on the Fly with Michael Conforto
Month Zone% Low%* O-Swing% Swing% FB%
April 46.9 29.3 29.9 46.5 52.0
May 43.0 29.6 27.0 44.5 51.7
June 38.0 32.4 25.5 36.6 55.0
July 44.2 19.4 29.3 46.8 55.2
August 49.1 18.6 24.3 41.4 54.8
SOURCE: Pitch Info and Baseball Savant
Low%: rate of pitches in lower third or zone or below.

Consider some heat maps of Conforto’s isolated slugging per pitch in areas of the zone. His work from April and May:

In June, opponents stayed out of the zone — and were more often staying below the zone — and Conforto became less aggressive.

In July and August, opponents have retreated from targeting the lower portion, as he has proven he can do plenty of damage against pitches low in the zone and even below the zone.

And he has responded by crushing pitches all over the zone.

What happened?

Conforto didn’t lose his selectivity in June. He didn’t start suddenly expanding his zone, as we can see in the above table. He was not completely lost, or pressing. But he did perhaps become too passive. In June, he was swinging at 9.8% of pitches in the lower third and below the zone, according to Statcast. Since July 1, he’s been offering at 13.2%. (His average for the season is 14.4%.)

And he’s proven he can do damage to the low pitch. From Sunday’s action:

Wrote Eno back in late June:

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.”

There is a relationship between Conforto’s zone swing rate in 2015 and 2017 and his offensive production.

Perhaps Conforto is a hitter that needs to swing at a certain frequency to develop a level of comfort and feel. He’s back to being aggressive and not missing pitches, particularly fastballs in about every part of the strike zone.

He’s crushed fastballs all season, posting the sixth-most linear-weight runs against the pitch. The only players he trails? Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, and a curiously productive Marwin Gonzalez. Decent company. And Conforto’s has played fewer games than everyone in that group but Gonzalez after the Mets and manager Terry Collins were hesitant to let Conforto’s performance dictate playing time in a crowded outfield earlier this season.

This season has been something of a disaster for the Mets, from Noah Syndergaard’s injury to Matt Harvey various troubles to the team’s general lack of performance. But Conforto’s emergence is important. He’s proven in 2017 that he’s an elite-level bat and a core player worth building around, a player you can even live with in center field in spurts (-4 DRS and a 1.0 UZR/150 games in 361 career innings there) — erasing some concerns about his defensive play.

The Mets have voids to fill and questions to answer, but with a return to health of their talented rotation, with Conforto in place and the promise of Amed Rosario, you can dream on 2018 if you’re a Mets fan or employee. Conforto is an important silver lining in the gray skies of 2017.

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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6 years ago

I really feel for Mets fans. It’s been a tough rode for awhile, now, and the last 4 payments for the Madoff scandal are just starting this year, so we’ll see how much they spend.

As for Conforto, he made marked improvements against lefties this year, but is still a pretty mediocre .225/.303/.472 against them with a 35% K to 8% BB ratio.

Do you anticipate lots more improvement there? More selectivity? He’s shown some power against them. If not, do you see him being sat (or dropped in the order) against tough lefties going forward? Or do they just stick him out there against everyone and hope he improves a bit?

6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

According to hit batted ball numbers, it doesn’t look particularly bad. I’d assume they would continue to let him face lefties

6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Conforto has the fifth highest wRC+ vs RHP in the Majors among LHB, min 200 PA- here are the top 15 and what they’ve done against LHP as LHB, min 70 PA:

155 Joey Votto
142 Charlie Blackmon
134 Daniel Murphy
122 Cody Bellinger
116 Freddie Freeman
108 Bryce Harper
106 Eric Hosmer
104 Michael Conforto
94 Travis Shaw
85 Yonder Alonso
76 Scooter Gennett
51 Jake Lamb

The median is a 107 wRC+ and Conforto is just a few points from that or essentially among his peers [LHB who kill RHP] he’s pretty typical against LHB

Ryan DCmember
6 years ago
Reply to  rosen380

lol Joey Votto

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

People have covered the numbers on this already — my impression based on the eye test is that this is his biggest remaining area for improvement, and that I do expect him to improve his selectivity/strike-zone judgement against tough lefties in the next few years. He’s gone through a few stretches this year where you could see him struggling to lay off the breaking pitch at his feet. Sometimes the adjustment sticks and sometimes he’s regressed for a while, but it seems to me he’s working on laying off in a pretty focused way.