What's Up With Michael Conforto?

Serious question, because we can't figure it out and the Mets need Scooter doing his thing

Image via Chris Simon

Good morning! Big win on Saturday. Gonna talk all about the weekend on tomorrow’s episode of Simply Amazin’. Today, we’re going in another direction.

A few weeks ago we boldly declared that Michael Conforto would be just fine. He was for a bit. And he will be again. But the doldrums Scooter’s found himself in this season are puzzling, to say the least.

We avoid putting ourselves in players’ heads at all costs here, so this won’t be one of those pieces. We did investigate Conforto’s offensive profile, though. And it’s… peculiar.

As we know, between 2019 and 2020, Conforto hit another gear in his ongoing development (it never ends, folks), hitting .274/.376/.499 over 205 games with 42 homers, 41 doubles, 134 wRC+, and 5.7 wins above replacement (FanGraphs).

Entering his contract year with the Mets this season, Conforto’s presumed goal was clear: continue on his consistent individual path, help his team win, and the rest would fall into place.

Easier said than done. The 2021 season has been a trying campaign for Conforto.

A five-week absence due to a severe hamstring strain suffered in May sandwiched between stretches where the 28-year-old looks simply lost at the plate has left all parties involved wondering what in the world is happening.

And Conforto was right there for a spell. He really was.

A .381/.435/1.048 line with four homers and two doubles from July 11 through July 19 (23 plate appearances) was wholly encouraging. Since then, it’s been a struggle. Like, a .108/.175/.135 line over 40 plate appearances sort of struggle.

In an attempt to make some sense out of his downturn, we examined Conforto’s high-water mark COVID-shortened 2020 campaign (.322/.412/.515, 157 wRC+, 54 games) against his 2021 season.

Night and day. In the most baffling sense possible. To be completely honest, we’re stumped. But data is fun and this is a top-notch riddle.

Ok, so without drowning you out with paragraphs of stats, we’re going to try and breeze through the numbers.

Conforto’s greatly improved his discipline outside of the strike zone, increasing his O-contact rate from 57.8% to 71.9% while swinging at pitches outside the box at a slightly lower rate (-1.8%).

His whiff rates low-inside and low-outside (outside the zone) have decreased dramatically to 43% and 49%, respectively (-20% low-in, -16% low-out compared to 2020).

He’s hitting the ball harder (38.2% hard-hit in 2021; 36.6% in 2020) and is up against more defensive shifts than he was last season (50.6% to 59.7%; always an adjustment), but there’s more to this.

Oddly enough, Conforto’s issues have lied within the strike zone this season. He’s just not doing what he wants to do with pitches that he’s crushed in the past.

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Opposing pitchers aren’t attacking the zone any more than they were last season (47% in-zone both years), and Conforto’s in-zone swing rate has remained steady (67.8% in 2021, 68.6% in 2020).

But Scooter’s contact rate, and what happens when he does make contact, have been turned on its head.

His in-zone contact rate has dropped from 86.8% to 80.2% and Conforto’s line drive rate has plummeted (30.3 % to 23.6%).

The eye test may have you thinking they’ve all turned into groundballs, but Conforto’s fly ball rate has actually increased more than his GB% (+4.8% FB; +1.9% GB).

And there’s no mistaking Conforto’s abandoning (intentional or not) of the opposite-field this season (28.3% in 2020, 19.1% in 2021). Did you know he hasn’t hit an oppo taco this season? Not one. Shocking.

What’s struck us the most is Conforto’s increased whiff rates on fastballs in the zone. He’s just missing pitches and it’s scary.

Images via Statcast.

This is the same chart (four-seam whiff rates) from last season. Absolutely stark.

Conforto hasn’t been seeing fastballs early in the count and guys have been attacking him high with four-seams and outside the lower portion of the zone with sinkers after showing him changeups and sliders.

“See the ball, hit the ball” appears to be eons away at this point, and pitchers are taking advantage, attacking the heart of the plate without much fear of retribution. Never a good thing.

Here are some of Conforto’s zone metrics from 2020 and 2021. Spot the difference.

The guy is clearly twisted up right now. Did you see his face after grounding out in his pinch-hitting appearance late Saturday? Fuming.

But, as this beautiful game has a tendency to do, today’s another day. As is tomorrow, and so on until the end of September (hopefully longer).

On Saturday, Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman added his $0.02 on the matter and it resonated. There’s so much more to a player’s contributions than what we see on the field. We gotta remember that.

Conforto set himself apart over a 60-game season in 2020. There are 59 games left in the 2021 season. Plenty of time to turn that tide. LFGM.

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