After a slow start to the 2016 season, the New York Mets have won eight consecutive games entering Sunday's rain-soaked skirmish with the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field. The pitching, led by the impossibly-good Noah Syndergaard has garnered most of the attention, but the Mets offense has been the driver of the recent success.
Last year, the Mets still had great pitching but for half of the season fielded a starting lineup that the Las Vegas 51s might be embarrassed to roll with. John Mayberry, Jr. and Eric Campbell were hitting fourth and fifth for a team that ended up in the World Series? Are you kidding me? A flurry of trades and players returning from injuries solidified the offense down the stretch, and suddenly the world-class pitching staff had the number-one offense in baseball to complement it.
This year, the offense stumbled out of the gate against the mighty Kansas City Royals and the less-mighty Philadelphia Phillies and Miami Marlins. The feeling of yet another disappointing World Series hangover swept over Flushing. The Mets have never made the playoffs the year after making the World Series - third place in 1970 at 83-79; 71-91 in 1974, good for fifth; an injury-plagued second-place finish in 1987; finishing third in 2001 after a late-season charge came up short. The 2016 season was surely going to follow in line.
But then the winning started, thanks in large part to 23-year-old outfielder Michael Conforto. Drafted by the Mets with the 10th-overall pick in the June 2014 Draft, Conforto rocketed through the Mets minor leagues - starting 2015 with High-A St. Lucie in the Florida State League, and capping it off by hitting two home runs in Game 3 of the World Series.
The Mets were 2-5 in their first seven games, including losing four-in-a-row to the Phillies and Marlins. In those seven games, Conforto hit just .250/.423/.350 which was still one of the most productive lines on the team. He was given the day off against lefty Adam Conley in the finale of the Marlins series, and after returning to the lineup on April 15th against Cleveland, he has been a hitting machine.
Conforto has hit .407/.450/.796 (22-for-54, 4 BB, 4 HR, 9 2B) since that day, and the Mets have gone on a 12-2 tear to improve to 15-7 on the year. One of the drivers of Conforto's success is that he hits the ball hard more than anyone else. FanGraphs leaderboards has Conforto hitting the ball hard 51.7 percent of the time, miles ahead of Nolan Arenado (47.1 percent), who ranks second in hard-hit rate.
Not only does the ball jump off his bat, but he hits the ball to all fields. Conforto's pull rate is 46.7%, which is high, but he hits the ball to left field one-third of the time and frequently shoots it to center. A majority of his grounders are pulled, but his line drive and flyball distributions are roughly equal to all fields.
Conforto is certainly an impressive young player, but will undoubtedly come back down to earth at some point. That being said, the hard-hit leaderboard reveals something interesting - four of the top-20 players are members of the Mets. David Wright (third, 45.6 percent), Neil Walker (16th, 42.0 percent), and Yoenis Cespedes (20th, 41.3 percent) all follow Conforto, while no other team has more than two players in the top-20.
As a team, the Mets position players have hit the ball hard more frequently than any other team in baseball (35.3 percent, 30.4 percent is MLB average). Last year saw the same story - the Mets hit the ball hard more often than any other team. Could something be going on here? Well, history tells us that 2015 was Kevin Long's first year as Mets hitting coach, and that correlates nicely with the offense's ascension to the top of the hard-hit leaderboard. Long's reputation was as a good hitting coach who could coax more power out of players.
But that doesn't quite check out. When Long was with the Yankees, the Bombers ranked 9th, 9th, 13th, 9th, 4th, 6th, 24th, and 24th in hard-hit rate. The results are largely good, but there's not a clear pattern of being consistently better. The quality of the players involved is likely more responsible for the variation than any of Long's tutelage. Long is a fine hitting coach, but Conforto and the Mets hitting the ball hard is just good hitting from good hitters.
Joe Vasile is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Broadcasting and Media Relations Assistant for the Salem Red Sox, the High-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.