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.