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Discovering the real Michael Conforto

The Mets outfielder is having a great start, again. It could be for real this time.

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

We’re getting to the point in the baseball season where we must start taking some players’ performances seriously. In New York City, there are two men that people want to know the truth about. One is the mammoth Aaron Judge. The other is already a familiar face in Flushing: Michael Conforto. A year ago at this point, early in Conforto’s first full season in the Majors, he was hitting .286/.381/.561. It was a bit of a drop from the madness he’d unleashed in April, slashing at .365/.442/.676, but Met fans were understandably excited, and the Mets brass hopeful, that this budding offensive force would pair with a wondrous wealth of pitching to accelerate the Mets’ new golden age.

Then Conforto fell off a cliff. Not literally, it’s not like he was dirt biking on an off day (what silly player would be so reckless) but Conforto ended the season below average offensively, with a full-season 96 wRC+ belying the misery he put together from May to September to the tune of a 63 wRC+. He went from future MVP to no-glove defensive replacement in very short order. He lost his job to Jay Bruce, for goodness sakes.

This year though, he’s tearing the cover off the ball, boasting a 168 wRC+ and quickly approaching his 1.7 fWAR Steamer projection. Many have hoped he’d put it together in 2017, and it may be happening.

It wasn’t as though Conforto suddenly got very bad for no reason, or that pitchers found a hole of some kind in his swing. It’s not as though he saw more lefties after April either — 15.1 percent of pitchers faced during the first month of the season were left-handed, versus 15.2 percent after May 1. The most likely explanation is that he just got hurt a few times. Conforto got a cortisone injection in June of last year after complaining of wrist issues, and sustained some other dings and dents throughout the season; whatever the cause, he just stopped hitting the ball quite as hard:

Note the steady drop in batted ball velocity somewhere around Conforto’s 150th batted ball, immediately following his peak. It stands to reason that if his wrist was tight and sore, even a cortisone injection wouldn’t allow him to fully unlock his potential over the long haul of a full season. I’m not precisely sure when his 150th batted ball in play was, but I would estimate that it came some time in May, right around his 250th career at-bat. He had walked 26 times from his debut to May 1, 2016 and struck out 56 times. It seems about right. That’s when he hurt his wrist, according to reports. He hasn’t really gotten back to that exit speed, even at the start of this season (that graph is a rolling average that includes his whole career), and that could make a Mets fan worry. Luckily, exit velocity (even if Conforto’s average is slightly above the league’s at 87.9 mph) isn’t everything.

In 2015, Conforto looked potentially very good. In 56 games he ran a 133 wRC+ and 2.1 fWAR, knocking nine home runs and giving the Mets the idea that he could be a future centerpiece player. He also hit a line drive 22.1 percent of the time. Last year, when he became suddenly subpar, that line drive rate sank to 18.4 percent. It’s back up to 22.4 percent. While at a glance four points doesn’t seem like much, 22.4 is where Miguel Cabrera sat last year, while 18.4 percent was more the realm of Justin Upton or Brad Miller. They’re both good hitters; Upton got a ton of money (and underachieved, granted) and owned a 105 wRC+ last year, while Miller is unheralded because he’s in Tampa but a very solid everyday player with a 111 wRC+ last season. But they’re not great hitters, and what Conforto showed in 2015, and is showing again this year, means that people want more than just above average from him. (They want more than that from Upton too, but that’s a story for another day.)

One potential cause for concern is Conforto’s higher than average .358 BABIP. Last April it was way up at .411 through April, so many expected regression, if not all the way to the bench. But the thing about someone with a line drive rate like Conforto’s, such as the aforementioned Miguel Cabrera (career .347 BABIP), is that they often have higher-than-average BABIP’s. Line drives fall for a hit at a .685 clip or thereabouts, much higher than that of grounders or fly balls. While it takes a while for a player’s line drive rate to stabilize, this is now two separate years without injury where Conforto has displayed this kind of hitting profile, and he’s showing way less of Lady Luck’s influence this season.

It’s just so hard to fairly consider Conforto’s 2016 season, simply because he wasn’t right. Those minor sapping injuries are tricky. I think of Jason Kipnis’ 2014, when he hit .240/.310/.330 because of a nagging lat strain he suffered in the spring, or Dustin Pedroia’s 2014, when he had his worst offensive season due to a troublesome wrist injury. A minor tweak can throw the whole machinery off, and it looks like that’s what happened to Conforto last year. If we decide that’s the truth and toss out most of last year, we still have five months of above-average to excellent offensive output from Conforto. Kipnis bounced back and has been very good the last three years with a 116 wRC+ and that was just a lat muscle. Wrists are killers. A bum one and not taking care of it turned Nomar Garciaparra from superstar to simply a solid regular. Great wrists made Clint Frazier a top draft pick. Pedroia’s wrists, once he had surgery after 2014, are what have kept him productive into his mid-30s. Right now, healthy wrists are what are making Conforto look stupendous.

A comparison I’ve heard given for Conforto, when he’s playing well at least, is to Don Mattingly. Mattingly was never known as a big power guy, though for three straight years in the mid-80’s he hit more than 30 home runs. But the early expectation of Conforto, at least among some analysts and “experts,” is more that Mattingly mold of a ton of doubles and base hits than a Cespedes-esque power display. Indeed, that’s what Conforto is doing this year: spraying the ball about the field.

Conforto Batted Ball Data

Year Pull Center Opposite Field
Year Pull Center Opposite Field
2015 45.3% 35.0% 19.7%
2016 42.7% 32.6% 24.8%
2017 26.6% 50.6% 22.6%

This, more than anything else, could result in Conforto getting to that next level. If you can’t shift on him, you can’t take parts of the field away from him. It’s easier to get ground ball hits when defenders aren’t shaded one direction or the other, and Conforto has shown this year at least a slight bias towards grounders over fly balls, with a 1.07 GB/FB ratio. It’s not stark, but if it holds with his liner rate and ability to spray the baseball, then Conforto is going to naturally have a higher-than-average BABIP and be more than just another Met.

Along with the increase in walk rate this season, 12.9 percent rather than 10.3 percent last year or 8.8 percent in 2015, Conforto is getting on base constantly. Incidentally, that walk rate would sit behind Chris Davis for 14th in all of baseball a year ago. He’s got the patience and a very good offensive approach in this modern game of hyper-shifts. His contact rate isn’t elite, merely above average this year at 75.4 percent, right there with Brandon Belt and better than Cabrera or George Springer. But at 20.7 percent, Conforto is striking out less than Christian Yelich did last year and as much as Manny Machado this year, so his contact rates aren’t a real detriment to him. He’s got more than enough bat-to-ball skill to keep going.

Across the board, things are going right for Conforto. He’s seeing 4.2 pitches per plate appearance, more than ever before. He’s walking more than ever. He’s hitting the ball all over the place, and doing it at the right angles. And he looks fully healthy for the first time in a while. It’s getting hard to find reasons why he should be anything other than an everyday player. He may suffer against lefties as time goes on, but it’s not like the Mets have a guy to platoon him with; Jay Bruce has an extensive history of not hitting lefties well. Things are settling down. Conforto may be about to get real famous, real quick.

Merritt Rohlfing is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe, as well as co-host of Mostly Baseball, a podcast about baseball. Mostly. He can be found on Twitter @merrittrohlfing, and at the bowling alley.