Michael Conforto's Spring Training Power Shouldn't Be a Surprise
It's not even March yet, so it would probably be foolish to get all giddy about spring training results right now. After all, we know these things can be fluky in small samples, and the games are just getting started. We gotta remain calm.
You know, unless Michael Conforto jacks a couple of dingers in the opening weekend. Then all bets are off.
Absolutely crushed! Check out @mconforto8’s solo shot in yesterday’s win over Boston. https://t.co/Jybp58j6n3 #Mets 💪 pic.twitter.com/dBXhXQ1Kwg
— New York Mets (@Mets) February 25, 2017
That was the first one off a righty. The second was a scorcher off a southpaw.
.@mconforto8 stays hot...Watch him blast his second homer of the spring.https://t.co/myYvOE9LHc pic.twitter.com/etWGibileg
— New York Mets (@Mets) February 26, 2017
Yowza. Giddiness engaged.
Conforto's fighting for a spot on the New York Mets' 25-man roster in a crowded outfield, and he likely needs a big spring to make it happen. He has certainly taken a step in the right direction, but this duel is far from over. Fortunately for Conforto, if the spring is anything like 2016, we should expect plenty more hard-hit balls.
Let's go back through Conforto's first two partial seasons in the big leagues to show why this power is anything but surprising. If those numbers are any indication, Jay Bruce's starting spot may be on shaky ground.
A quick glance at Conforto's .220/.310/.414 slash last year with a 25.6% strikeout rate makes it easy to understand why he earned a demotion to the minors in late June. That's not an acceptable slash for a corner outfielder, so sending the 23-year-old to the minors for some extra seasoning makes sense.
This doesn't, though, align with his batted-ball numbers. Here's how his hard-hit rate and fly-ball rate compared to the league-average marks for non-pitchers last year. While his raw stats showed room for improvement, these showed a player making impactful contact.
|In 2016||Hard-Hit Rate||Fly-Ball Rate|
That's dinger delight right there, even if Conforto's slash didn't reflect it.
But this doesn't necessarily mean he's a lock to beat out Bruce for the job this season. After all, Bruce had some solid batted-ball numbers, too. He didn't, though, out-perform Conforto in these metrics, nor did Yoenis Cespedes.
|In 2016||Hard-Hit Rate||Fly-Ball Rate||Strikeout Rate||Walk Rate|
Conforto led these three outfielders in hard-hit rate, fly-ball rate, and walk rate. Although his strikeout rate will drop anchor on his batting average a bit, the extra walks he's able to draw will partially help compensate. All around, his metrics in 2016 were truly solid.
Because not all hard-hit balls are created equal, it can help to gain extra perspective by looking at a player's Statcast data, as well. FanGraphs' Andrew Perpetua created a model to predict a player's slash line based on his exit velocities and launch angles throughout the season, and those showed that Conforto's expected slash was .251/.332/.474. Bruce, for comparison, was at .256/.313/.477. Those are pretty darn close, and one of these guys doesn't turn 24 until Wednesday.
What does this all mean? We shouldn't be surprised that Conforto is yoking it up down in Florida. That second homer, though, is a bit of a surprise, and it may be cause for an even bigger celebration.
Developing Against Left-Handed Pitching
Conforto's advanced numbers last year were terrific. That said, they are still a bit incomplete. Only 53 of his 348 plate appearances came against lefties, and those didn't go so hot.
In his 53 plate appearances versus left-handed pitching, Conforto struck out 15 times compared to just 3 walks and 5 total hits, 4 of which were singles. He put 34 balls in play, and just 8 of them were hard hit. This is a glaring weakness.
If we include the 15 plate appearances Conforto had against lefties in 2015, we see he has a career 26.5% strikeout rate versus them with a 28.9% hard-hit rate, 40.0% fly-ball rate, and 5.9% walk rate. While this isn't a big sample, it is a major cause for concern if he wants to steal a job from another left-handed hitter.
We can expand this sample a bit by checking out Conforto's numbers against lefties in the minors, and they do make things look a little better. There, he struck out in just 16.6% of plate appearances with a 10.2% walk rate and a .326/.395/.484 overall slash. The power was reduced, and the sample is just 205 plate appearances, but it does at least provide a slight ray of hope.
If Conforto wants to win this job, he's going to need to prove he can handle left-handed pitching. Sunday's dinger off a southpaw will certainly help that, but it's not going to seal the deal completely. This may be the last truly big obstacle he has to everyday playing time, so it will be important to track his progression throughout the spring.
No, most spring training stats don't matter at all. But things such as strikeout rates, walk rates, and isolated power can, and they're saying Conforto's ready to rake in the coming month.
He has a big task in trying to unseat a veteran who's due to make $13 million this year, but last year's advanced stats show he's up for it. Even though the results were poor overall, Conforto was making solid contact, meshing with his billing as a future stud. And there's even more room for growth.
If he can learn how to handle lefties in the big leagues, it will only further inflate his overall stock as a hitter. This is the final year on Bruce's deal, so that road block will be out of the way regardless in 2018. Conforto may just force the Mets' hand earlier than that, and performing as he has so far in the spring is the best way to do so.