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Free Preview: "Michael Conforto"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 8, No. 57
June 26, 2016

The Mets sent Michael Conforto to Triple-A Las Vegas Saturday, recalling another former first-round-pick outfielder, Brandon Nimmo, in his stead. Conforto was hitting .222/.296/.431, a bit below the league average overall -- 96 OPS+, 96 wRC+. Breaking down his season into smaller segments gets a bit uglier; Conforto raked in April before slipping to .148/.217/.303 since then. His previously strong control of the strike zone had yielded to a 48/12 K/UIBB and a 31% strikeout rate in that time. Conforto's line was killed by a .167 BABIP the last two months, but it's not like he stopped squaring up the baseball. His last contact in the majors, Thursday night against the Braves, came off the bat at 101.7 mph, though on the ground. (Thanks, Baseball Savant.) He'd squared up a number of balls over the last week after missing a few games to treat his ailing left wrist.

It's hard to see that the Mets have made themselves much better in this transaction. Nimmo was hitting at Triple-A, but everyone hits in Las Vegas, and Nimmo looks like the same low-ceiling fourth outfielder he was three months ago. He doesn't have the power or speed to be more than that, although it would be interesting to see if his OBP skills -- he's had a 13% walk rate in the minors -- translate. Clay Davenport translates Nimmo's 2016 line to .295/.371/453, which seems high to me. Nimmo is just going to see a lot more strikes and a lot more velocity in the majors, and it's not at all clear that will go well for him. Conforto was the better player last year and the better player at the start of this one and the better player eight weeks ago, and dollars to donuts he's the better player right now.

Conforto is taking the fall for a team that's not hitting, one that's been ravaged by injuries to Travis d'Arnaud, Lucas Duda and David Wright. Conforto is out-hitting Kelly Johnson (.223/.297/.347), but because Johnson is a veteran with the good sense to hit well when he joins a new team (.310/.394/.586 as a Met) he keeps his job. Curtis Granderson's season is almost a match for Conforto's (.220/.316/.436) and he's been awful against lefties (.183/.275/.352). Showing veteran savvy, though, Granderson made sure to have been born a lot earlier than Conforto and to structure his season so as to be mediocre to fair in every month, rather than great in one and terrible thereafter. "This guy is a good player," Terry Collins said of Alejandro de Aza on June 8. de Aza is hitting .169/.221/.247.

There's no great truths here. In the grand baseball tradition, The Mets needed to Do Something, and Conforto got did. I am intrigued, however, by Collins's comments on the demotion. This is long quote I'm pulling, but I'm doing it for a reason. From Adam Rubin's story at ESPN.com.

"Collins said he came to the conclusion during Friday's game that Conforto ought to be demoted.

"'I think it was after his second at-bat. He came off the field and I was just looking at him, and I could just see that he had reached the state of mental confusion,' Collins said. 'Just looking in his eyes, you could almost see him shaking his head, saying, "What the heck is going on here?"

'… I don't want him to have to be scrambling his mind to figure out what he's got to change, because I don't want him to change anything. I just want him to go get some confidence and get back here.'"

I pulled the whole quote so you can see it before I focus on the end of it.

"I just want him to get some confidence and get back there."


Take a walk with me.

Michael Conforto hit .340/.463/.557 in three years at Oregon State, a performance that got him taken with the tenth pick of the 2014 draft. He hit .308/.382/.471 in the minors, a performance so effective that it got him promoted to the majors 13 months after being drafted. He hit .270/.335/.506 in the majors last year. He hit .333/.313/.733 in the World Series, including a two-homer game that should have helped tie the Series up at two games apiece had his manager used his bullpen like an adult. Conforto started 26 of the Mets' first 27 games this season and hit .301/.383/.548. Can we stipulate that on the morning of May 6, 2016, Michael Conforto had to be feeling pretty confident about his ability to hit baseballs?

Conforto didn't start that night's game in San Diego. The Padres started lefty Drew Pomeranz, and Conforto hadn't hit lefties to that point: three singles in 18 at-bats, four strikeouts, no walks, one plunking. Conforto hadn't really hit lefties last year, either: .214/.267/.214…in 15 PA. So Conforto had 34 MLB plate appearances against lefties, which is the length of a sneeze in baseball time. In the minors, he'd had 180 PAs against lefties and hit .274/.367/.395, so it's not as if this was a problem plaguing Conforto throughout his long professional career. The idea that Conforto needed to sit against lefties was invented by the Mets, largely to create playing time for Juan Lagares.

Conforto homered on May 7, singled in five at-bats on May 8…and was back on the bench, against a lefty, on May 9.

Conforto had two hits on May 11…and was back on the bench, against a lefty, on May 12.

On the morning of May 18, Conforto woke up with a five-game hitting streak featuring a homer, a triple and a walk and had started four straight games.

He sat that night against a lefty.

What do we suppose that does for a baseball player's confidence? You're hitting every time you play, but your team is saying, explicitly, that you're half a player, that you can't do something, that based on fewer than 40 plate appearances over six weeks, you're now a platoon player. Seriously, Terry Collins, did you give any thought at all to how that would affect Conforto's confidence, given how concerned you seem to be about it now?

The absolute worst thing you can do with a young player is jerk him in and out of the lineup. By the second half of May, Conforto was playing for a few days, then sitting. After starting 26 of the Mets' first 27 games, Conforto started 32 of the next 45 before his demotion. Young players aren't used to pinch-hitting, because they've been stars for their whole careers. On May 29, it had been almost three weeks since Conforto had started against a left-handed pitcher. That night, though, Collins sent Conforto up to pinch-hit against Clayton Kershaw in the highest-leverage spot Conforto had seen all year. When we're pitching candidates for the Setting Up Your Players to Fail awards, let's circle back to that moment.

Maybe Conforto earned his demotion. Maybe the Mets and Collins just have no idea what they're doing.

An injury to Lagares created an opportunity for Conforto in June, and he seemed to be getting it back together. Conforto started nine games in a row through June 9, and while his overall line was terrible, he was starting to get it together. He doubled, homered and walked twice in a three-game trip to Pittsburgh towards the end of that streak, the first time since early May he'd been able to come to the park for an extended stretch knowing he was playing that night. On June 9, he went 0-for-4. On June 10, he was on the bench, and his left wrist had begun to flare up. He took a cortisone shot June 12 and was in the lineup June 16 -- hitting a homer and a single. After intermittent starts over the next week, he was demoted Saturday.

I went and watched Conforto's second at-bat against the Braves Friday, the one that caused Collins, noted shaman, to soul-read his left fielder. It was a bad AB, set up by a 0-0 fastball that probably won't be a strike next year, and helped by Conforto taking an awful swing at a 1-1 slider. I don't have a problem believing that Conforto's confidence is a mess. What I also believe, though, is that the Mets and their manager did that to him. They took a player who was hitting .281/.352/.521 in his first three months in the majors, who had hit lefties in the minors, who had come within a Collinsing of being a World Series hero, and they broke him. Conforto was fine until his next day's playing time started to hinge on every pitch.

Here's what will happen now: Conforto will hit .400/.550/1.000 while in Vegas, because he's a very good baseball player. He'll come back up, and he'll hit for the Mets, and the Mets will tell themselves and anyone else who will listen that they solved the problem with the demotion. It will be more nonsense from an industry that loves the post hoc fallacy like Joanie loves Chachi. The only thing wrong with Michael Conforto's confidence is that his own team, his own manager, trashed it.