Michael Conforto and the expectations for a signature season

The list of homegrown hitting stars for the Mets is pretty thin. It starts off solid enough with David Wright, Darryl Strawberry and Jose Reyes. But if falls off sharply from there. Sure, it has fan favorites like Cleon Jones and Bud Harrelson but if we’re being honest, those guys didn’t have particularly great careers. Which brings us to Michael Conforto. The stars seemed aligned for Conforto to join the cream of this particular crop when he made his debut in 2015. But with a 14.0 fWAR after the conclusion of the 2019 season, would you call him a decent bet to top Strawberry’s mark of 35.5 fWAR before the end of his career with the Mets?

It seems something is always getting in the way of Conforto having that breakout season. There were the BABIP struggles in 2016, the shoulder injury that cut short his brilliant 2017 and seemed to impact the first half of 2018. And then the concussion last year that caused him to put up below average numbers for one-third of the season after he got off to such a terrific start.

In the last two years, Conforto has topped the 150-game mark both times, yet he produced a 3.0 and 3.7 fWAR. To be sure, those are solid numbers. But when Strawberry put up back-to-back 150+ game seasons at the same age, he was putting up 5.5 and 5.3 fWAR totals. A year younger, Wright was putting up 8.4 and 7.0 fWAR seasons, albeit with 160 games played both years. Reyes turned in 5.6 and 5.8 fWAR seasons at age 24 and 25 before missing most of his age-26 season in that cursed year of 2009.

It feels like we should have had that superstar season from Conforto by now and we just haven’t gotten it. Yes, he was on track for it in 2017 and perhaps if the terrible trade hadn’t been made and someone else was playing 2B and the concussion didn’t happen, maybe 2019 would have been the year. But the fact is that it hasn’t happened. And if it hasn’t happened yet, what are the odds that it happens in the years to come?

The Steamer projections are out on FanGraphs now and that system forecasts a 3.4 fWAR for Conforto, pretty much splitting the difference between his 2018 and 2019 performance. A good but not great year.

Another thing to look at are the Similarity Scores on Baseball-Reference. The most similar batter to Conforto through their age-26 season is Pat Burrell, the top overall pick of the 1998 Draft. Mets fans have an unrealistic view of Burrell, as he seemed to do his best hitting against his division rival, including 42 home runs. But Burrell never posted an fWAR higher than 3.2 after age 26.

The rest of Conforto’s age-based Similarity Score list is split between contemporaries, whose careers are still unfolding, and retired guys. Number three on the list is Austin Kearns, number six is Cory Snyder, Wally Post is at number seven and Mike Marshall holds down the eighth spot. And none of those guys had a really big year after age 26, either.

To be sure, five guys who didn’t produce a big year after their age-26 season doesn’t mean that Conforto won’t do it. We can all cite guys like Jose Cruz and Dwight Evans who didn’t put up superstar numbers in their mid-20s but who did in their 30s. But those guys are the exceptions. We never know what’s going to end up happening in real life. All we can do is play the percentages and hope that makes us “right” more often than “wrong.”

Those percentages say you don’t trade for a second baseman under contract for his age 36-40 seasons. Those percentages advise against thinking a guy with a .355 BABIP will hit like that going forward. They say that just because a player posted a 1.24 Clutch score, don’t count on him to repeat that number the following season.

The odds are against Conforto putting up a 5-WAR season. So, knowing the odds are against it happening, what should the Mets and their fans do? As fans, we can alter our expectations into him being a 3-WAR player. And the Mets can see if anyone will trade for him as if he was a 5-WAR guy.

This time last year, if the White Sox offered Lucas Giolito straight up for Conforto, the Mets would have laughed. Giolito was a first-round pick in 2012 who needed TJ surgery almost immediately after being drafted. And while he reached the majors, he hadn’t really done anything noteworthy in MLB. But last year it all fell into place for him and he finished with a 5.1 fWAR season and finished sixth in the CY Award balloting.

Now, if the White Sox offered that deal, the Mets should take it.

Giolito is two years younger than Conforto and is not yet eligible for arbitration. He’d give them an outstanding rotation and while the Mets would definitely miss Conforto, they’d be able to patch something together and be okay in the outfield. But the White Sox aren’t making that deal. They’re looking to add pitching, not trade it away.

Instead, we should be content with putting a guy out there with an .800-something OPS, not complaining that he’s not putting up a .900-something mark. Maybe he’s more Jones than Strawberry. But Jones put up a 6.3 and 4.6 fWAR seasons in his career, something that Conforto has yet to do. Elbow and knee injuries – along with a public humiliation caused by M. Donald Grant – kept Jones from a better end to his career. A normal decline path from 1972 on would have had Jones in Strawberry territory, even if it took him longer to get there.

As it is, we remember Jones for his terrific 1969 year and some other highlights along the way. May Conforto still have that signature season on the horizon. It would be a shame if he ended up having one of those “what might have been” careers, one where people wonder what it would be like without the shoulder injury in ’17 and the concussion in ’19.

15 comments for “Michael Conforto and the expectations for a signature season

  1. CareePete from NJ
    November 24, 2019 at 11:40 am

    I like your comparison of Cleon and Michael’s careers. Cleon was my favorite Met hitter just as you notes a home grown talent with a rising path, Just to reminisce: I still have his autobiography on my shelf and discovered how to bake corn bread in his recipe section. I still remember listening to the radio pulling for him to reach the .300 mark on the last game of the season.

    Anyway, I see Conforto’s salary too rich resulting in a trade for AAA talent enabling to the team to use the extra cash in the FA market, So I see our latest home grown guy blossom somewhere else,

    • November 24, 2019 at 5:00 pm

      I was a big Cleon fan growing up, too. My two favorite numbers are 10 (Fran Tarkenton/Duffy Dyer) and 21.

      And I’ve got to find this autobiography! How many ballplayers have a recipe section in theirs?

  2. NYM6986
    November 24, 2019 at 1:46 pm

    Unfortunately we have always been known for developing pitchers and not every day players. Even in the early 70s we were known for pitching while teams like the Cardinals could produce fast running and good hitting outfielders. While pitching can always beat hitting we somehow can never find that balance.
    Then even some of our own homegrown talent go by the wayside, not any of which is our fault. Strawberry and Gooden fell to the hard partying group that comprised our 1986 world championship team. Too bad no one took them under their wings and kept them safe. And poor David Wight with his stenosis caught us off guard and ended what was probably the most popular and productive of our homegrown talent.
    Let’s hope we find a way for more balance and can keep our MLB roster kids growing and getting better while we fill in with free agents and wait for our prospects to mature.

    • Rob
      November 25, 2019 at 2:22 pm

      Great point about balance. They did pullit off in 80s but before and after that not so much.

  3. Mike W
    November 24, 2019 at 2:05 pm

    If the Mets win the World Series, no one will care about Conforto’s war.

    Does Conforto have power? Yes – 33 HR

    Does Conforto drive in runs? Yes – 92

    Does Conforto get on base? Yes – .363 was 23rd in the NL

    If we had three Conforto’s in the outfield, we would have a great outfield.

    He is 26 and affordable. Dont trade him and enjoy his play.

  4. Name
    November 24, 2019 at 7:43 pm

    I guess this one area where analytics can fail you as there’s a significant factor that isn’t being considered here : him being a team player hurts his personal value.
    Why you ask? The fact that the Mets often don’t have a credible player to man CF and his willingness to accommodate the team hurts his defensive value, which then in turns lowers his WAR value.

    Bryce Harper had a similar offensive profile, but didn’t have to try to man CF this year, which allowed him to post a 4.6 fWAR season.

    So my guess is that Conforto playing CF cost him 0.5 fWAR this year, and maybe a full fWAR last year.

    I wonder if public perception would be different had he said no to CF and most likely posted 3 consecutive 4+ fWAR seasons.

    • Mike W
      November 24, 2019 at 9:49 pm

      Good points. I just want to enjoy watching the game and rooting for my favorite team to win. Its about the thrill and the emotion. We all love some of the old Mets players, but many of them weren’t very good.

      I care about the hitter taking a good hack, not worrying about his launch angle and exit velocity.

      And yes, I was a Cleon Jones fan and Tommie Agee and Jerry Grote. Awesome memories.

    • November 25, 2019 at 9:03 am

      So, it looks like we have two different things to look at to determine the impact. First is what is the actual Fielding Runs Above Average (UZR here) and the other is what is the positional adjustment.

      Actual 2018 for these two I get (-6.6) and actual 2019 I get (-6.1)
      But if he just played a corner OF spot all year, I’d get (-5.7) in 2018 and (-5.8) in 2019

      Assuming my numbers are correct – and I’d welcome you double checking – that’s a difference of 0.3 last year and 0.9 in 2018. Or pretty much what you estimated it to be.

      But that’s just the numerator part of the equation. We have to divide by RPW, which in ’18 was 9.714 and in ’19 was 10.296

      So, playing CF last year cost him about 0.03 fWAR and in 2018 it was 0.09 fWAR

      Here’s the link for the formula — https://library.fangraphs.com/war/war-position-players/

      • Name
        November 25, 2019 at 9:53 pm

        But if he just played a corner OF spot all year, I’d get (-5.7) in 2018 and (-5.8) in 2019.

        That implies that you are assuming his UZR rating is about 0.9 if he played LF/RF.
        I personally would go higher. His career UZR/150 in LF is 4.8 in RF it is 2.6

        So if i assumed 2.9, that would translate to about 0.2 fWAR more than your estimate and if i went with 4.9 that would be about 0.4 fWAR more

        So 2018 he probably doesn’t get to 4 fWAR, but i think in 2019 he probably would have. That’s like 10% of his season total which isn’t a trivial amount.

        • November 25, 2019 at 10:30 pm

          I get the same numbers that you did in the first graph.

          Edit — I took his actual numbers in ’18 and ’19 separately (not UZR/150) and then extrapolated what he actually did. So, in ’18 he played 769.2 innings in a corner and 501.2 in CF. I gave him his rate in a corner but for 1,271.1 innings. So his UZR goes up but his Position Adjustment goes down. I get .8 for his UZR and (-6.5) for his Position Adjustment. And then I divide that by the RPW.

  5. NYM6986
    November 24, 2019 at 10:59 pm

    I feel sorry for the millennial fans who love our same Mets but will never know the joy of 1969 and 1986. Makes me sad that that’s all we got – 2 years, 2 special teams, 2 WS championships. None of us are getting any younger you know. Let’s keep our good players and add to that. Bring on spring training!

  6. November 25, 2019 at 10:02 am

    So, the odds say don’t trade for Robinson Cano, don’t expect a super high BABIP from JD Davis, and don’t expect Wilson Ramos to be a clutch hitter. Can’;t argue with those

  7. Metsense
    November 25, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    Conforto is are very good player. In 2018 he was ranked 9th in fWAR as a LFer and in 2019 he was ranked 8th as a RFer in MLB. The Mets have control of him for the next two seasons. Conforto made $4M last year and MLBTR projected at $9M for this year. In his career he has earned $5.7M. The Mets should offer a 7 seven year (5 guaranteed at 70M/ 2 with a mutual option at 30M) extension immediately while Conforto needs money and security. He may never have a signature season but he could be a 3-4 fWAR player and be Mets currently don’t have an outfielder in their system that projects that well.
    If Conforto turns down this fair offer (his agent is Boras) then BVW should trade him this winter for the best deal he can make while Conforto has premium value.

    • MattyMets
      November 25, 2019 at 8:36 pm

      I’m with Metsense. Unless he defies his agent and considers signing a somewhat team friendly deal now, I’m inclined to trade him. Here’s a hypothetical – are two years of Conforto more valuable than one year of Betts?

  8. Eraff
    November 25, 2019 at 8:49 pm

    I measure him against what I expect of Him, and he’s a bit short…but he’s a really good player! I’m not sure I trust the all the measures provided.

    Conforto is a Guy who may be negatively impacted by Modern Batting Approach. He’s totally a Physical Hitter. He could help himself and his team with a more strategic situational approach. He’s talented enough to have impact without a “One Swing” approach. I see him optimized as a More Powerful Keith Hernandez

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