While the New York Mets have made some acquisitions to boost the performance floor of their 2019 offense, outfielder Michael Conforto remains a crucial piece to the puzzle. This past year’s first-half on-field results following his return from the nasty-looking shoulder injury he suffered in August 2017 weren’t great, but a hot second half completely changed the narrative surrounding his 2018.
Despite accumulating 54 fewer plate appearances, Conforto hit more home runs (17), scored more runs (43), and drove in more runs (52) after the All-Star break than he did before the midsummer classic (11, 35, and 30, respectively). Instead of talking about how 2018 was more of a step backward in his development, he actually set new single-season career highs in dingers (28), runs scored (78), and RBI (82), along with posting a wRC+ (120) and fWAR (3.0) that wasn’t too far off from his All-Star campaign of 2017 (147 and 4.4, respectively).
Sure, it took him almost 200 more plate appearances to reach these numbers than the year prior, but based off his rough start, it could’ve been a lot worse.
We’ll find out soon enough exactly where Conforto hits in the Mets’ lineup, but Roster Resource has him in the clean-up spot, sandwiched between Robinson Cano in the three-hole and Wilson Ramos at fifth. Scooter will definitely be a middle-of-the-order bat, though — more than 60% of his 2018 plate appearances came as the third-, fourth-, or fifth-place hitter.
Among the many things that need to happen for the Mets to be competitive is Conforto taking another step forward. When looking at his last two seasons, there are three areas in particular with regard to his profile that will be worth following in 2019.
Saying that a position player for the Mets didn’t hit well at Citi Field isn’t breaking news. This has been an issue for the club for a while, and it was rather evident this past season. New York posted baseball’s second-worst team wRC+ (86) and OPS (.646) at home in 2018, with only the Miami Marlins (84 and .641, respectively) performing worse.
Conforto’s offensive performance in Flushing was part of the problem. Check out how his wRC+, ISO, and OPS differ when splitting out what he did at home and what he did on the road.
This stood out to me because it was the complete opposite of how he performed in 2017.
Trying to find some reasons behind this huge drop in production isn’t too hard upon taking a peek at his batted-ball profile and his quality-of-contact numbers.
It’s hard to have success with batted-ball numbers that look like his did at Citi Field. This is actually the first time in his short career where he produced better on the road than at home. He posted a 126 wRC+ at home and a 70 wRC+ on the road in 2016, and again had a higher wRC+ in Flushing (144) than as a visitor (123) during his rookie year.
Generally speaking, Conforto has experienced more success on offense against right-handed pitchers (134 wRC+ and .865 OPS for career) than he has against left-handed pitchers (90 and .694, respectively, for career). As a left-handed hitter, this is also not breaking news. One of the good things about his 2018 season, though, was that his performance in these situations were more even. His wRC+ against southpaws (122) was actually slightly better than it was against righties (119).
While this was a welcome sight after struggling against southpaws to the tune of a 94 wRC+, .729 OPS, and 37.6% strikeout rate in 2017, some real changes need to be made within his approach to sustain this recent success. Conforto’s strikeout rate was still elevated (30.9%) and even though his 34.2% hard-hit rate wasn’t far off from his career norms, the rest of his batted-ball profile didn’t look great.
It included a 45.1% pull rate, 52.3% ground-ball rate, and 31.5% fly-ball rate, along with a sky-high 28.6% home-run-to-fly-ball ratio. Seeing Conforto have more success against lefties than he has in the past was a welcome sight, but more work needs to be done for that trend to continue.
Improved contact was among the many improvements the 25-year-old outfielder made between the first half and second half last year. Part of the reason behind his hard-hit rate increasing from 33.5% to 38.4% between these two particular time periods was likely because of his performance against pitches in the strike zone.
Here’s how his contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone (O-Contact%) and pitches inside the strike zone (Z-Contact%) differed before and after the All-Star break.
This happened by being more aggressive overall, as his swing rate rose nearly a full percentage point. What’s more of interest to me is his performance inside the strike zone, and for obvious reasons — that’s where most of his damage is going to be done. Conforto posted a 68.0% swing rate on strikes in 2015 as a rookie, and that number had decreased each of the following two years before going back up to 65.1% in 2018.
His season-long numbers for strike-zone swing rate and contact rate were both slightly below the league average last season, and it’d be great to see him get more aggressive in these situations, like how he was in 2015 and 2016. Conforto’s quality of contact has typically been strong throughout his career, so if he can pair that with increased contact within the strike zone, good things can keep happening.