It’s a shame that left-fielder Michael Conforto won’t count as a rookie this year, because I surmise he would’ve given Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager a real run for his money in the Rookie of the Year ballot. In fact, there are a lot of similarities that follow both Seager and Conforto. Both are right-handed throwers who bat from the left side. Both were taken in the first round of the draft (Seager 2012, Conforto 2014). And both were asked to be a part of their team’s respected playoff runs in 2015. These two highly touted players are going to be the next wave of young stars to hit the majors for seasons to come.
Sticking with Conforto (this is a Mets site after all), his promise was too alluring to pass on in the mid summer months for general manager Sandy Alderson. Playing in both High A and Double A in ’15, Conforto slashed a combined .297/.372/.482, good for an OPS of .854 along with 12 homeruns and 54 RBIs.
We can all recall the disarray the Mets lineup was in heading into the week of the trade deadline, and how the fans wanted something, ANYTHING to be done as long as we could rid the likes of John Mayberry Jr. and Eric Campbell from the lineup.
So here comes Conforto, one of the crown jewels of the organization, who at the same time the year prior, had just been drafted by the Mets 10th overall and was assigned to the Brooklyn Cyclones. While he went hitless in his first big league action on July 24th, it was the following day that fans got to witness what the hoopla was all about. The Mets punished the Dodgers 15-2 at home, and saw Conforto go 4-for-4 with four runs scored and also walked in the seventh inning.
Conforto finished the regular season with the line of .270/.335/.506 for an OPS of .841 to go with 9 homeruns and 26 RBI. Conforto contributed a WAR of 2.1 during those 56 games played, which played over a full season might translate to a near 6.0 WAR. Not bad for a 22 year-old rookie. Or put another way, Conforto might have had close to the same WAR over a full season as AL Rookie of the Year winner Carlos Correa. Correa had a 4.1 WAR in 99 games played, which could’ve been in the 6.5 range over 162 games played. Correa also plays a premium position at shortstop, which would make his value somewhat higher due to the demand of the position. That Conforto could be on par with that type of value in leftfield should give Met fans huge Grinch like grins spread wide across their faces.
Conforto was limited to just 14 at-bats against southpaws last season. Mets brass didn’t want to overload the rookie and put him in a position where he might get frustrated due to lack of success. The good news was that while he struggled in Port St. Lucie against lefties, to an OPS of .654, he did pick up the production upon his promotion to Binghamton. There he posted a .904 OPS in 51 at-bats. Yes, a small sample size, but something to build upon and get the much-needed experience.
And now this, when perusing through the projected starting rotations and the opponents the Mets will face in 2016, I came up with a potential of only 26 left-handed starters that he could face. I did not include relievers in this sample, only starting pitchers. Since the Mets face the Nationals 19 times next year, it’s conceivable that he faces their lone lefty Gio Gonzalez more than once, which would push that number up, same goes for the Dodgers who currently feature an almost all lefty rotation sans Kenta Maeda. What’s the point here? The point is, even if we round that 26 number up, and make it 40 times a starting pitcher goes against Conforto, he’s still going to be taking the majority of his at-bats against right-handed pitchers.
The talk of having to substitute guys for righty-lefty matchups does have merit and is a worthy proponent of the modern game. However, I do expect to see Terry Collins run Conforto out in leftfield for the majority of the time, wanting to see how he reacts against left-handed pitchers. And he’ll still mainly face right-handed pitching, especially when facing the NL East division. The aforementioned Nationals feature just Gonzalez, the Marlins have newly signed Wei-Yin Chen, the Phillies might use Adam Morgan and the Braves might use one of the “Killer Bs” the Yankees once had in Manny Banuelos. The Mets face their division mates 76 times in 2016, so surely Conforto will get to feast on the righty-laden starters.
I expect Conforto to put up respectable numbers against lefties going forward. His swing is so smooth and he keeps his body very quiet at the plate. Conforto made such an impression that color analyst Keith Hernandez quipped as early as Spring Training that he “spied another hitter” in our midst. His lasting impression from spring made many of the Mets brass salivate over the prospects of having him man leftfield for years to come.
Conforto is going to be an integral part of this Mets team going forward. While he’s under team control for many more seasons, it would behoove the Mets to look to signing him to an early contract extension. Look at what Tampa Bay did with Evan Longoria and what the Brewers did with Ryan Braun, all signing with their respected teams within the first year of playing in the Majors.
Given time, Conforto should be batting no lower than 5th on this team. He has the ability to drive the ball to all fields, and his hit trajectory suggests he is a line drive hitter, with opposite field power. His OPS with 2 outs and RISP is 1.025. His OPS in a tie game is .949, and within 1 run it’s .880. That’s the type of guy you want up in high leverage situations and runners on base. While the Mets bottom of the order has improved with the additions of Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker, I still prefer having Conforto up with the big boys in the meat of the order. Might even see him move up spots by the middle of the summer.
While it’s fun to project stats and careers for young players, we never can be certain of how it will all pan out. We’ve been fed players with hype in the past (hello Lastings Milledge, Alex Escobar, and Fernando Martinez). But this kid seems a bit different. He played in college ball. He excelled in Double A, which is always considered a good barometer of how well prospects will do. And he’s been in the big spotlight, playing into November for the National League champs. My hopes are extremely high for the young Conforto, and looking forward to ordering my number 30 jersey, and proudly displaying it at Citi Field this coming year.