Michael Conforto Is Having an All-Star Season
Even as the New York Mets went to the playoffs last year, it was mystifying to most why manager Terry Collins seemed to go out of his way not to play outfielder Michael Conforto on a more regular basis.
After all, Conforto was taken 10th overall by the Mets in the 2014 MLB Draft and breezed through the minors with ease. He was a beast in Triple-A, posting a wRC+ of 221 in 33 games played, which was a pattern he started in Single-A and Double-A.
He was always able to hit, but coming off a rookie season in which he played 56 games and batted .270/.335/.506 with a wRC+ of 133 for an impressive fWAR of 2.1, Collins only played him in 109 games last season. He gave him a mere 348 plate appearances and seemed unwilling to play him every day, pulling him from the lineup against left-handed pitching.
To be fair, Conforto struggled at times, but one wonders how much of it was because he wasn't getting consistent playing time. For developing players, getting in the lineup every day can be a key component to turning things around.
This year, the opportunities have come.
Great Moments Borne From Great Opportunity
Out of necessity thanks to an injury sustained by Yoenis Cespedes, Collins has had no choice but to put Conforto into the lineup every day earlier this year, and it's fair to wonder if the injury won't end up being the best thing to happen for the Mets this season in the long run.
The left-handed slugger has taken over the leadoff spot in the lineup and is hitting .320/.412/.653 with 13 home runs, 33 RBI and 36 runs scored, which has led to a .436 wOBA and a wRC+ of 176.
There's no doubt that Conforto had issues at the plate last season -- in between getting sent down to the minors twice, he hit .220/.310/.414. However, he's already surpassed last year's homer total (12) and has blitzed past last season's fWAR total, too (1.3).
He's tied for ninth among National League outfielders in fWAR (1.9), is ninth in batting average, eighth in on-base percentage, fourth in slugging, wRC+, and wOBA, and is tied for seventh in long balls.
He's a no-doubt All-Star in 2017.
Staying Up the Middle
How is Conforto experiencing so much success? Well, he's hitting the ball much harder than last year, while also using the middle of the field much more frequently.
The table below shows the progress he's made in his line-drive rate (LD%), homer-run-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB), pull rate (Pull%), going up the middle (Cent%) and hard-hit rate (Hard%).
We've seen some hitters find success in recent seasons by focusing on pulling the ball, but Conforto appears to be benefitting from going in the opposite direction.
Beating the Platoon Splits
The area where he has made the biggest improvement is his ability to hit left-handed pitching, which is something Collins has often used as justification for keeping him out of the lineup.
The improvement has been drastic, but is it borne out of simply being given the opportunity to play against southpaws on a regular basis? Or is it simply that Conforto got better at it year-over-year?
In the midst of a hot streak last season, Conforto played against Madison Bumgarner and had a rough game, going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. Afterwards, Collins indicated that he would play Conforto more against lefties, but also stressed his desire to play Juan Lagares more and give at-bats to Curtis Granderson. And once New York acquired Jay Bruce in a trade, Conforto's playing time dried up altogether.
It's hard to blame a manager for sitting a young left-handed hitter who had struggled against southpaws in his brief Major League career, but at the same time, a player who is supposed to be the future of your franchise has to gain the experience, otherwise he'll never get good at it.
After an injury to the team's best hitter forced his hand this year, Conforto has rewarded Collins with All-Star level play.
Conforto Or Judge?
New York is currently in the midst of a Conforto vs. Aaron Judge debate, and it's an interesting discussion. Judge is getting all the headlines and Sports Illustrated covers, but the gap between the two is closer than it might appear.
Judge (25) is actually one year older than Conforto (24), and Conforto is already in his third MLB season. Conforto has postseason experience...
...and actually has a comparable slash line so far this season.
While Judge has drastically slashed his strikeout rate from a mind-boggling 42.2% last year to 28.8% this year, Conforto's rate of 25.4% is slightly better. That may not seem like a huge difference, but it's a notable gap, and can be predictive in determining who might have more staying power.
Both took similar routes to making their respective teams' 25-man rosters out of spring training, with each player having to earn a spot. As a result, neither player appears on this year's All-Star ballot, so obviously, fans will have to write them in if they're going to start (which is very unlikely).
Patience With Youth
Sports fans generally are not patient, but MLB teams are supposed to be when it comes to young players with star potential. Criticisms against the Mets and Collins for not being patient enough with Conforto are well founded and, in most respects, deserved.
This year, out of necessity, that patience was forced upon the franchise, and they have been rewarded for it. Michael Conforto is playing like one of the best outfielders in the game, and appears to have a long future ahead of him in the New York outfield.