It’s been great fun to watch Michael Conforto here, especially lately. After back-to-back seasons with an OPS+ in the 120s, Conforto sits with a 171 mark, fighting with Dominic Smith for the team lead in the category. But it’s more than just offense, Conforto has made several highlight-reel defensive plays and his arm seems both strong and accurate. For a guy who was once considered a defensive liability, it’s a good feeling that a ball hit in his direction isn’t going to be time to close your eyes.
We almost take for granted how good Conforto’s been. Let’s take a moment to revisit the preseason projections that were published on Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. All of these models saw a very similar player:
ATC – 623 PA, .256/.359/.500, 33 HR, 89 RBIs
Marcel – 588 PA, .259/.361/.494, 30 HR, 83 RBIs
Steamer – 603 PA, .251/.358/.490, 31 HR, 85 RBIs
THE BAT – 602 PA, .259/.359/.491, 30 HR, 84 RBIs
ZiPS – 607 PA, .256/.361/.492, 31 HR, 96 RBIs
All five systems saw a guy with an OPS between .848 and .859, which is quite a far cry from the .990 mark he currently holds.
A popular topic in Mets-land now is to say that one of the top priorities for Steve Cohen when he comes on board is to work out an extension for Conforto. And some have taken it a step further, saying that it was another mistake made by the front office/ownership – not buying out Conforto’s arbitration and early free agent seasons.
But exactly when were the Mets supposed to do that? Was it after the 2015 season, when he had all of 56 games? After 2016 and a .725 OPS? After 2017 and a season-ending injury? After 2018 and a .797 OPS?
You can make a case for 2017, since he was on target for a great season before coming down with a shoulder injury. But there’s just not a ton of precedent for handing out a long-term deal to a pre-arb player who missed the last 30-plus games of the year without seeing him back on the field first. In fact, there might not be any precedent. If you know of a guy, leave it in the comments section. The one who came to mind was Salvador Perez, who signed a five-year deal after just 39 games in the majors in 2011. But that deal happened at the end of February and he suffered the injury on March 12.
It’s tougher to make that same case for 2018. Conforto finished with a 120 wRC+, which is a very nice total. But it ranked just 25th among outfielders with enough PA to qualify for the FanGraphs’ leaderboards. Above him on the list was Brandon Nimmo, with a 148 wRC+ – should they have signed him to an extension to buy out his arbitration and a free agent year or two, too? And if Conforto and Nimmo deserved one with their play that season, how about Jeff McNeil and his 137 mark in the category?
When locking up a player early in his career, it’s a gamble for both sides. The team takes a risk that the player won’t come down with injuries or just peak early. There are enough cases like Ike Davis, a guy who looked at the beginning like a future cornerstone, only to never match his early promise. From the player’s perspective, he has to be comfortable potentially selling short of what he could get for the security of a long-term deal early on that guarantees stability for his family for potentially generations.
It’s great when it works for both sides. But we shouldn’t be eager to criticize one side or the other if a deal doesn’t get done. And this seems like a good time to mention that Conforto’s agent is Scott Boras.
Should the Mets have reached out to Conforto about locking him up early? In the theoretical sense, sure. But how much money over how many years would you have been willing to offer him at any time before the 2019 season? And if you were Conforto, what would your minimum acceptable number have been? Do the two numbers match up?
And if the Mets reached out to Conforto after the 2019 season, was there enough incentive for him to bypass a shot at free agency when he was midway through his arbitration years?
We don’t know if the Mets tried to reach a deal with Conforto or not. But given the unusual circumstances of his career, it seems to me a mistake to rake the Mets over the coals for the fact that he’s on a one-year contract and might potentially leave as a free agent in a couple of seasons.
In Keith Law’s chat yesterday, he reminded everyone to take results here in 2020 with a giant grain of salt, given the unusual circumstances of the season, as well as the sample size. There have been fewer games played now than what we would have by Memorial Day in a normal year. And whenever we’re dealing with small samples, we’re bound to have wacky, unsustainable things going on.
You probably know that Luis Guillorme is one of those guys, as his hot start has been fueled with a .531 BABIP. No one dreams that will last. Did you know that Conforto currently sits with a .405 BABIP? And before you think that he’s a much better hitter than Guillorme and with a mark 100-points lower that perhaps this can last – just stop. Among qualified hitters the past five years, only two guys have put up a season-long BABIP of .400 and only 10 hitters have had a mark of .380 – and there were no repeaters among those 10.
On top of that, Conforto has a lifetime .303 BABIP, with his best mark being the .328 he posted in his truncated 2017 season. When we look at Conforto objectively, we have to consider that he’s currently exceeding his previous career-best BABIP mark by a whopping 77 points. Holy small sample, Batman!
Digging further, we see that Conforto’s ISO of .222 is pretty much right on target with his career mark of .228, which means that he’s not adding slugging – just singles. Additionally, both his BB% and his K% have gone down from both last year and his career rates. So, he has more balls in play at an unsustainable BABIP rate, without any increase in power to make up with when the hits stop falling in.
While not as productive from a raw OPS standard, Conforto put up a better base for an extended streak of production with his two hot stretches last year, the first one coming before the concussion and the second coming at the end of the season. In his first 42 games last year, Conforto had a .926 OPS with a .306 BABIP. He did that thanks to a .250 ISO and a 16.7 BB%. And in his final 57 games of the season, he posted a .913 OPS with a .284 BABIP.
My wish is that Conforto signs an extension with the Mets. My preference is to have homegrown stars and he would make a nice bookend with Jacob deGrom in that way. It just seems to me to be misplaced anger that an extension hasn’t happened yet. And my hope is that if the extension comes prior to the 2021 season, that the Mets don’t consider a .990 OPS to be a reasonable expectation of Conforto’s true talent level. While great fun, what Conforto is doing now is a BABIP mirage and should be treated accordingly.
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