Conforto was drafted 10th overall by the New York Mets in the 2014 draft out of Oregon State. As a minor leaguer, Conforto was praised for his advanced approach and strong pitch recognition skills. Conforto earned a call up to the Mets in July 2015 after hitting .312/.396/.503 in the Eastern League with a 12% walk rate and 18% strikeout rate.
Conforto flashed signs of brilliance as a rookie in 2015, hitting .270/.335/.506 with a .236 ISO and 133 wRC+ in the regular season with the Mets against mostly right handed pitchers. His defense was better than advertised, and he took on the regular left field role against RHP while Yoenis Cespedes shifted to center field. He had impressive moments in the postseason, including a laser home run off Zack Greinke in the NLDS that was clocked in at 115 mph off the bat.
Conforto also hit two home runs in Game Four of the World Series, including a home run off left-handed pitcher Danny Duffy.
What Went Right in 2016
Conforto dominated the sport in April, posting a .365/.442/.676 line with a 196 wRC+, .311 ISO, and four home runs. He cut his strikeout rate to 17.4% in his first month, down from 20.1% as a rookie. His 1.118 OPS was third-best in baseball in April, three points below Bryce Harper’s 1.121 OPS. Conforto hit so well that the Mets moved him to the no. 3 hole, hoping that Conforto would anchor the lineup for years to come. Conforto looked like a budding superstar, one that had taken a huge leap forward from his rookie season.
What Went Wrong in 2016
After Conforto’s incredible first month, he went into a horrific slump that is difficult to imagine for a player as talented as he is. Conforto hit .148/.217/.303 with a 37 wRC+ and .155 ISO in May and June and got demoted to the minor leagues. His strikeout rate spiked to an awful 30.6% in May and June after sitting at an above average 17.4% in April. He began chasing off-speed pitches like never before, with an off-speed chase rate that rose from a strong 28% from his 2015 MLB debut through the end of April to a below average 39% after April, above the MLB average off-speed chase rate of 37%. Conforto’s drop in results aligned with a dramatic decrease in contact quality. His high-end exit velocity took a nosedive, and it later came out that Conforto’s wrist was bothering him. Conforto had a cortisone shot to alleviate pain in his wrist in early June. Conforto’s slump appeared to be a mixture of his wrist injury combined with losing his approach and pitch selectivity.
What to Expect in 2017
Conforto smashed the PCL after being sent down in late June, posting a .422/.483/.727 line with a 221 wRC+, .305 ISO and 12.6% strikeout rate in 143 plate appearances. The PCL has nothing for him, but the Mets decided to pick up Jay Bruce’s $13 million team option as insurance for Yoenis Cespedes departing via free agency at the start of the offseason. The Mets tried to trade Bruce after Cespedes re-signed with the team to open up a spot for Conforto, but no other teams were interested in trading assets for Bruce. The Mets have since leaked that they expect Bruce to be their regular right fielder in 2017—although this could be a trade negotiation ploy—so Conforto looks like he’ll spend large parts of 2017 destroying the PCL again with no room for him on the big league club, barring a late spring trade of Bruce. At this point, Conforto’s 2017 fantasy value is extremely limited with him currently projected as the odd man out in the outfield to start the season. It would take an injury, a trade of Bruce, or prolonged poor production from Bruce or Curtis Granderson to open up room for Conforto in the outfield with the big league club. The Mets have also floated the idea of giving Conforto some reps at first base this spring, which might open up some at bats there if Lucas Duda struggles coming off a serious back injury.
The Great Beyond
I am a huge believer in Michael Conforto’s skills long term. I think he will eventually reclaim his status as a stud hitter. I strongly suspect his wrist injury was a contributor to his problems after his fantastic April, although it wasn’t everything, as evidenced by the large increase in his off-speed chase rate during his slump. I don’t think pitchers really figured him out or anything like that; Conforto starting uncharacteristically chasing breaking pitches that he used to spit on. I think he was pressing and trying to do too much, and it was more of an internal problem than anything opposing pitchers were doing to him. Had Conforto spent the first half of 2016 hitting .422 with a .700 slugging in the PCL, like he did after he was sent down, we would be talking about him as one of the best prospects in baseball. His first 280 big league PAs, spanning from his 2015 rookie season through the end of April 2016, came with a .298/.368/.556 line with a 152 wRC+, .258 ISO, 13 HR, and 19.3% strikeout rate. He has flashed the ability to be a high level hitter, and I think it’s just a matter of health and regaining his approach to get back on track. Both Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson’s contracts are up at the end of 2017, so a full time role in right field is there for Conforto to seize in 2018, and might happen sooner with an injury or a trade.