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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11 comments on “On locking up Michael Conforto to an extension

  • Pete

    Brian I have one question which your answer will explain why Conforto will not sign an extension. Who’s his agent?

    • Brian Joura

      You’ll find the answer in TFA, in the 10th graph.

      • Pete

        My brain shudders every time I see that name

  • Mike W

    I think we should extend him now. He is a good player and would be an important piece of our future. But, there is the Boras factor.

  • MattyMets

    One of the biggest differences for Conforto this year is that he’s hitting lefties. If Nimmo can learn to do that he could pull his average up to .300 and his OBP would lead the league.

    I’ve been saying for years that the Mets don’t make enough effort to lock up home grown players early. My hope is that with new ownership (and hopefully a new GM) we won’t have to worry about another Zack Wheeler situation. Home grown players should either be locked up or traded while they have value. We’ve seen this happen too many times. We may not be WS caliber right now, but we have enough homegrown players to form a foundation to build sustained success around – if we have the resources and smarts to lock them up.

    A few years ago, we were the envy of 29 owners with 5 potential young aces. Now we have one, maybe two if Thor bounces back and doesn’t leave after next year. Now we’re stocked with homegrown position players and I don’t want to see these guys names in other teams box scores in a few years.

    • Brian Joura

      Locking up players early is great in theory but a lot tougher to do in reality. It’s easier when guys take a huge discount, like Acuna and Albies did for Atlanta. But not everyone is willing to do that.

      And the other thing to keep in mind is that even if you find players willing to give you that discount, the savings is over the life of the deal, particularly in the back end. Teams end up paying more for the youngster in the early years than if they could just renew them in their pre-arb years or pay depressed arbitration salaries early in that process.

      Let’s say that after 2017, you weren’t worried at all about Conforto and you wanted to sign him to a long-term deal. What would the terms have been? 2018 was his last pre-arb year, so you’re looking at a six-year deal to buy out his first two years of free agency. Acuna signed an 8/$100 deal and everyone thought he left money on the table.

      If you somehow got Conforto on a 6/$60 deal, you’re paying him $10 million in 2018 (when he earned $605,000) and 2019 (when he earned $4.025 million) and that money had to come from somewhere. And if you’re doing it for Nimmo and McNeil, too, it only makes it that much more difficult. And it was even more extreme if you were going to lock up all of the pitchers that they had back in 2014-15.

      And you can say that there will be more money available with new owners but there’s still only so much that MLB teams spend. The Dodgers, often trotted out as big spenders and certainly one of the big-market teams that act like a big-market team, have cut their payroll from $291 million in 2015 to $205 million in 2019. The Red Sox are dropping $40-million plus in their Competitive Value payroll from last year to this year.

      And neither the Dodgers nor Red Sox rushed out and signed a bunch of their pre-arb guys to long-term deals.

      • TJ

        Certainly the “lock up” has a lot of moving parts, and is a guessing game to some extent for both the player and the team. Add to that the pandemic and its impact on baseball finances going forward, and the waters become more muddied. On top of that, add the uncertainty of the future economics with the labor agreement expiring shortly. Everyone knows that with this system, the teams get overvalue from high performing young players, especially in pre-arb years. At the same time, the majority of free agents wind up being overpaid. This is bad on both ends, and a neutral party or someone drawing it up from scratch would balance it out somehow. However, this is a union/management environment with a collectively bargained agreement. Given that as a starting point, who knows where things will end up. A new deal and more clarity on what the 2021 will be seem to be pre-requisites to any major commitments made by teams, and to a lesser extend the players as well.

  • TJ

    All us at home GMs are quick to lock guys up pre-free agent as soon as they show a heartbeat. That can definitely be of mutual benefit, base as Brian stated, it is not a slam dunk. The Mets “locked up” Juan Lagares, which didn’t pay off. Others have been locked up and fizzled. Conforto is an interesting case, not only because of his agent, but because of the bizarre and severe shoulder injury he incurred. And now, add into the mix the unprecedented pandemic and the yet-to-be-determined impact of future payrolls. I’d love to see Conforto as a foundational piece for years to come, but I’m just not sure it makes sense to both sides at this point in time. A new owner with enormous wealth will be an improvement, but that does not equate to spending at will…the Mets, like any other business, will have more margin for error yet still need to spend its money wisely. Conforto may be well inclined to bet on himself in 2021, and hope to deal with free agency coming off a full 162 game season where the baseball industry is much more economically healthy. I’d likely prefer the Mets to spend their funds on adding a quality starter and upgrading the catcher position.

    • Mike W

      I like Conforto and suggested extending him, but I am more concerned with pitching and catcher as well. I would be very weary of Thor. He may have a half season next year before he gets to free agency.

  • Metsense

    Steve Cohen should offer to extend Conforto a fair market price or just above that. A fair market should be in the neighborhood of $18-22M per year. Maybe just some more because he is homegrown, 28 yoa in March and a leader in the clubhouse . He has improved his defense ,base running, use of all fields and has learned to hit lefties. He is trending upward in all aspects of his game. The Mets also don’t have an imminent outfield prospect to replace him so 4 – 6 years length contract would be reasonable. Future expectations should be his 2019 production numbers and better.

  • Dennis Spellman

    Many players take several years to realize their potential & Conforto is in his fifth year in the majors. His production may be inflated by BABIP but it could also be his breakout season. We can look forward to the middle of his career being as good or better than this year & I don’t think he will be worse as he has made steady progress with his hitting & fielding over the last four years. Also I have noticed over those years that he has always had an accurate throwing arm if not the strongest. The Mets should absolutely try to lock him up with a long term contract of four or five years this year but with Scott Bor ass as his agent it will not be easy. As a side note I told you that Robinson Cano would be a much better hitter this year & since you gave me a ration of crap about my optimism I would just like to say you were wrong.

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