As another season in which the Mets were expected to compete (even before the playoffs were expanded) whimpers to an ignominious end, there do remain some bright spots in an otherwise weird and disappointing campaign. One of the shiniest is the youthful offensive core that ranked as one of the league’s best as the young mashers put on a display that hopefully portends good things in the coming years. Sure, take the 2020 season with a large chunk of salt, but the lineup put on an impressive show despite some struggles with runners in scoring position.
A key cog in the Mets’ hitting machine is 27-year-old Michael Conforto, who seems to be perpetually *this close* to breaking out into full-blown stardom. He appeared to be on the cusp of just such a breakout in 2017 when a freak injury ended his stellar season in late August. Conforto followed that up with strong seasons in 2018 and 2019, but didn’t quite replicate the elite performance he was on track for three years ago. In 2020 he seemed to rediscover that 2017 mojo before his season was again cut slightly short when he was placed on the injured list with hamstring tightness earlier this week. His 2020 wRC+ of 158 placed him on the cusp of the top ten best in baseball, a scenario Mets fans have been dreaming of since he was drafted in 2014.
Of course, the major caveat we need to take into account with Conforto’s performance in 2020 is his sky-high BABIP of .412. This is significantly higher than both his career average of .302 and the .328 he sported during his 2017 season. With just 54 games played in 2020, his overall performance screamed more “extended small-sample good luck for a talented player” than “breakout season.” As I was digging a little more deeply into BABIP and luck, though, I came across a two-year-old article at Pitcher List discussing the correlation between BABIP and various advanced hitting statistics. As it pertains to Conforto, the results were very interesting.
Before reading the article, the first thing I examined for Conforto’s 2020 was his line drive rate. Unsurprisingly, his LD% of 30.3% is both the highest of his career and significantly higher than his career average of 22.7%. As cursory examinations go, and due to a high correlation between BABIP and LD%, it seemed pretty obvious that luck was driving a good chunk of Conforto’s performance.
One of the more illuminating correlations in the Pitcher List article, and the one driving the discussion of this piece, is the high correlation between BABIP and how often a batter pulls the ball. If a batter consistently pulls the ball then he’s likely to make more outs as defenses shift against him, and thus his BABIP will be suppressed. That seems pretty obvious, but the article notes that the correlation between PULL% and BABIP is significantly higher for lefties than right-handed hitters. The article goes into a bit of detail regarding the circumstances for why this is the case (shorter throws from the right side of the infield, less room for error, etc.), but the key quote from author Dan Richards is:
“In general, then, Pull% is worth looking at more for lefties than for righties in determining whether a player has earned his BABIP. Sorry Scott Boras, but so long as the shift is around, pull-heavy lefties are going to have BABIP problems year in and year out.”
With that in mind, we start to get a clearer picture of the periods of success in Conforto’s career and during his 2020 performance specifically. Since 2015, Conforto is in the top 30 for total number of at-bats in which the defense employed a shift against him, and that remained consistent in 2020.
During his best years, Conforto has pulled the ball significantly less than during his simply “good” years. In fact, his lowest PULL% occurred during his best seasons in 2017 (32.4%) and 2020 (also 32.4%) and was almost 10% lower than his next best season. Unsurprisingly, his second-best BABIP (.328), AVG (.279), and wRC+ (147) all occurred in 2017 as well.
The takeaway in this seems fairly obvious even outside of BABIP: in the age of the defensive shift, hitting the ball to all fields will likely lead to more hits falling in, particularly for left-handed hitters. In Conforto’s case, and keeping in mind that he’s one of the most shifted-on lefties in the game, his greatest success comes when he is less predictable in where he puts the ball in play.
It’s important to remember that “high” correlation between these stats and BABIP is strictly within the vacuum of the discussion at hand. There doesn’t appear to be significantly high correlation, as traditionally defined, between any single stat and BABIP. In a game of inches like baseball, good old-fashioned luck comes into play no matter how much preparation a player makes nor how well he executes his game plan.
Still, it appears that Conforto can at the very least nudge luck in the right direction by approaching his at-bats with an aim to defeat the shifts so regularly employed against him. He might not really be a .320 batter, and his BABIP will certainly never sit above .400 in a normal season, but he has the tools to consistently be one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. All he needs to do is keep creating a little bit of his own good luck, one plate appearance at a time.