One of the many preseason sources of heartburn for both the Mets and their fans was just what to do with young outfielder Michael Conforto after it became clear that the team would be unable to trade Jay Bruce. On the surface, there was nothing particularly new about the dilemma. The team had a crowded outfield full of high-paid veterans, and Conforto was a young guy without a clear-cut role but minor league options remaining. The typical solution would be to get Conforto into everyday action at AAA until his services were required.
As with most everything involving the Mets, the situation was anything but straightforward. Curtis Granderson is clearly in the midst of the twilight of his career as a starter, Bruce failed miserably in his 50 games with the Mets in 2016, and Juan Lagares opened the season on the disabled list. Beneath the uncertainty of those veteran options was the fact that, in his MLB debut in 2015, Conforto stormed through the league with a 130 OPS+ as he helped propel the Mets to their first World Series in 15 years. The sheer talent was there.
The Lagares injury made the decision to keep Conforto on the 25-man roster to open the 2017 season an easy one, and boy has it paid off. He has roughly half the plate appearances of the three big OF of Bruce, Granderson, and Yoenis Cespedes, yet he’s clearly established that he’s at least the third most valuable outfielder on the roster in terms of early offensive output. His 163 wRC+ is second on the entire team to only, coincidentally, Bruce and Cespedes and is miles ahead of Granderson’s 16.
The obvious caveat here is that it’s very early, but in Conforto’s case we must also consider that he had a similarly torrid start to the 2016 season before he fell off a cliff. In fact, he had an even more incredible wRC+ of 196 in March and April of 2016. His struggles last season have been mostly attributed to a nagging wrist and inconsistent playing time. However, I wrote back in June 2016 that it seemed as though pitchers adjusted to him by throwing more breaking balls. That trend didn’t play out consistently throughout 2016, as the breaking pitches he faced throughout the season fluctuated, but by the midpoint he was a complete mess at the plate anyway.
This year he’s seen even more hard stuff early on than he saw last year, and the results are similar. Through games completed on April 21st, he’s seen 59.84% of hard stuff, 21.31% breaking balls, and 18.85% off-speed pitches. The table below was generated with data from Brooks Baseball and breaks down the specific types of pitches he’s seen and his results against them.
It’s obviously very early and percentages are of limited utility at this point, but he’s clearly still struggling with the breaking stuff. Sliders in particular seem to be his kryptonite, as he can’t seem to lay off them or make meaningful contact. Half of the sliders against him have been down and in, with all but one out of the strike zone, and he swung at all but one of those. It should be noted that, although he was terrible against sliders last year, the curve is what gave him the most fits in 2016.
With Granderson in the midst of another slow start and Cespedes’s hamstring already acting up, Conforto may get yet another crack at establishing himself as a legitimate starter. So far he’s shown the same weakness against breaking pitches that sent him spiraling downward last season, and the Mets have yet to let him face a lefty, but the stage is set for him to show he can make the adjustments required. Of course, the team needs to play him regularly for him to do that.