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Mishandling Michael Conforto

In the era of cost-controlled talent, the Mets’ backwardness may cost them a cornerstone.

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Walk with me through some basic facts: There are fewer left-handed people in the world than right-handed people. While they are over-represented in the game of baseball, a left-handed hitting kid still grows up facing vastly more right-handed pitchers. Since we know that hitting same-handed pitching is more difficult, this creates a steeper learning curve for lefties who reach the pros, and the majors, since they get less practice doing that more difficult thing.

Left-handed hitters, though, despite that one developmental roadblock, are a wildly advantageous thing to have, thanks to their persistent platoon advantage.

Here is another fact of the baseball world, as presently constituted: Young, cost-controlled talent is the lifeblood of contending teams. Developing it in the minors and nurturing it once it reaches the majors is, if not the single most agreed upon priority in baseball, certainly the consensus path toward fielding a consistently competitive team.

Which leads us to today’s quandary: What in the name of Bobby Bonilla are the Mets doing with Michael Conforto?

Here’s what they’re doing: They are making a mistake that we rarely see anymore, and they’re making it in a long, drawn-out fashion while everyone’s screams fall on deaf ears. Perhaps drunk off the unexpected window they opened by delivering unto the majors a treasure trove of young pitching, the Mets are prioritizing (what they see as) veteran consistency over the learning curve of their best asset that doesn’t have flowing locks and a devastating fastball.

In specific terms, they are riding with Jay Bruce as their starting right fielder, leaving Conforto without regular playing time – without an apparent path to developing into the star the Mets clearly saw when they summoned him to the majors in 2015 after just 133 games in the minors.

The worst part is how obvious their miscalculation has become. With few opportunities to see major league lefties, and even fewer good opportunities, under his belt, Terry Collins relegated Conforto to an irregular platoon role in some sort of doomed appeal to the gods of “going for it.”

This sounds like a fairly common mistake – overreacting to the struggles of a young hitter in the heat of a contending season. But, in fact, the Mets are mucking this up in a way that is virtually unmatched in contemporary baseball.

Among the 138 active left-handed hitters who batted at least 250 times in their first two seasons, 127 of them took a greater percentage of those early-career plate appearances against fellow southpaws. The names below Conforto are… not luminous (Scooter Gennett, Hyun Soo Kim and Luis Valbuena highlight the class). Jake Lamb, the D-backs third baseman who experienced a breakout of sorts in 2016, is just ahead of Conforto, if you want a bright spot.

It is possible to argue that Conforto’s performance against lefties warranted some suppression of his at-bats. He has been abjectly terrible so far – to the tune of .129/.191/.145 – but it is an incredibly small sample during which he has posted, yep, a ridiculously low .178 BABIP.

Go back and look at the early splits of now-established lefty bats. Here’s a sampling of what some left-handed hitters with prospect sheen did early in their careers. The table highlights their adjusted stats through the season in which they recorded their 75th plate appearance against lefties (wRC+ shows offensive production scaled to league average, with numbers below 100 being bad). Conforto, of course, has not gotten there yet.

Name PA BB% K% Early wRC+ vs LHP Early wRC+ overall Career wRC+ vs LHP
Joe Mauer 191 6.3% 18.3% 35 114 102
Carlos Gonzalez 88 2.3% 26.1% 17 67 86
Christian Yelich 102 8.8% 26.5% 35 118 95
Eric Hosmer 163 6.1% 16.6% 58 113 85
Michael Conforto 68 5.9% 26.5% -5 109 -5

They weren’t good, but they got better. With practice. And it’s worth noting that they don’t even need to be major league-average hitters against lefties to reach star level. They just have to be respectable.

As for the argument that every game was simply too important for the Mets to give Conforto a chance against lefties, the Dodgers managed to give Joc Pederson 77 plate appearances against them in 2016 while he posted a 36 wRC+. And the Rangers kept Nomar Mazara in there for 119 plate appearances and a 44 wRC+. The Pirates, in the thick of the postseason race in 2014 and 2015, gave Gregory Polanco 228 PAs against lefties over those two seasons while he slashed .183/.239/.264 – a 40 wRC+. In 2016, his walk rate went up and he slashed .245/.312/.469 against lefties.

(And note that we’re not even accounting for whatever effects irregular playing time might have on the overall performance or confidence of a freshly minted major leaguer trying to get his footing.)

The Mets should have expected some form of this.

All of that was true last season, but given those tight postseason margins and Cespedes’ uncertain future and yada yada, the decision took on an air of defensibility. It wasn’t defensible then, not really. Not when nine out of 10 coaches recommend more at-bats against lefties to cure the young hitter’s lefty-on-lefty problems. Not when a visit to Triple-A made the young hitter look like … a major leaguer playing below his level. Not when his spot was filled by a non-asset who appeared attractive mainly thanks to sequencing luck. Not when a potential franchise cornerstone’s growth was stunted for the chance to play an all-or-nothing game against Madison Bumgarner.

It was never defensible.

As for Tuesday’s news that Bruce will be the club’s starting right fielder on Opening Day? Well. We don’t need to spend too much time on this. They are actively harming their chances this season and the overall value of their club.

Steamer projects Jay Bruce to be a slightly below-average hitter in 2017 – a 97 wRC+ – while foreseeing a 113 wRC+ for Conforto in limited playing time. Even if you want to take a more negative outlook on Conforto, during his early 2016 struggles, which eventually earned him that trip to the minors, his numbers were nearly identical to what Jay Bruce produced for the entirety of the 2015 season. And that was a bounce-back year for Bruce!

It’s unclear, at this point, whether the Mets even believe in what they are doing – either Bruce’s $13-million option is making the decisions or the front office is attempting to bluff some other team into calling with an offer. But Bruce isn’t even worth the bluff, not in this situation.

The point is not so much that they should abandon all hope of scoring a return for Bruce. It’s not even that the original Bruce deal was bad, in a vacuum. It’s that they have allowed whatever short-sighted thinking guided that decision, and the decision to sit Conforto, to continue its reign over right field.

We concluded earlier that the 2016 decision-making was indefensible (and it was), but lots of teams do lots of questionable things in the heat of postseason races, and most live to regret them and learn from them.

If they had quickly written off Bruce as one of those regrets, the conversation could have ended there. But picking up the option, looking around all offseason, discovering that no one in their right mind will give up anything for the 30-year-old who can’t field and only swings a league-average bat in his good years, and then doubling down and deciding to roll with him as the starter? While the only good, young hitter on the club sits for lack of seasoning?

That’s malpractice.

. . .

Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.