By Jared Greenspan
(Photo: John Minchillo/AP)
*All statistics used are through 8/5
In March, Michael Conforto seemed primed for a six-figure contract come the offseason, when he would be the top outfielder on the free agent market following an MVP-caliber age 27 season. Now, Conforto is in the midst of the worst walk year campaign in recent memory.
Conforto’s 2021 season has been nothing short of a disaster. For a Mets offense that has woefully underperformed, Conforto is the poster boy: his wRC+ is 91, good for just 153rd of the 214 hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. A hamstring strain sidelined him for five-and-a-half weeks, but his .692 pre-injury OPS is hardly different from the .640 OPS he’s posted since returning in late June.
Conforto has been marred in an array of slumps since breaking into the big leagues in 2015; he has established a reputation as a notoriously streaky player. Just take a look at the peaks and valleys that are born from his 15-game rolling wOBA over the course of his career.
What makes Conforto’s current regression so startling is the fact that it follows a 2020 season in which he posted a 157 wRC+ and a .322/.412/.515 triple slash. In a two-season span, Conforto has transformed from one of the game’s best hitters to a remarkably below-average one.
So, what happened? I tried to find some answers.
As I started, I came across an article that Eno Sarris wrote for Fangraphs in 2017, in which Sarris spoke to Conforto during one of his infamous slumps. At the time of their conversation, Conforto was hitting just .206/.383/.317 during the month of June, a far cry from the .316/.415/.639 he slashed through the end of May.
Conforto’s on-base percentage had remained high, in spite of the apparent slump. Talking with Sarris, Conforto blamed his aggression — or, more accurately, his lack thereof — for the precipitous dip.
“Just have to find that mixture of being aggressive in the zone, but also taking my walks,” he said. The numbers confirmed his conviction. Conforto’s Z-Swing% had fallen by over 11 percentage points, and his Swing% had fallen by 8 percentage points.
I wondered if that problem had at all played a part in Conforto’s funk this season. While his Z-Swing% has actually increased from 64.8% to 67.6% over the last two years, there’s more to that statistic than meets the eye.
Luckily, MLB’s Statcast has a tool for that. Its Swing Take algorithm aggregates run value along a player’s swing/take decisions, and then further subdivides the value of a particular swing or take into four concentric zones. There’s the Heart Zone, Shadow Zone, Chase Zone and Waste Zone, all named appropriately for the pitch’s location.
Pitches in the Heart Zone are meatballs, and generally the most conducive to a hitter’s success. The Shadow Zone, which straddles the traditional strike zone, gives a slight advantage to the pitcher, but it’s the batter’s next-best zone in terms of success.
Let’s take a look at Conforto’s swing/take discrepancy in the Heart and the Shadow for the past two seasons.
|Year||Heart, Swing||Heart, Take||Shadow, Swing||Shadow, Take|
For the most part, the percentages are similar. The run values, however, are dramatically different.
|Year||RV Heart, Swing||RV Heart, Take||RV Shadow, Swing||RV Shadow, Take|
So, Conforto may be swinging at roughly the same percentage of pitches in the two regions, but he’s had far less success while doing so. In pitches over the Heart Zone, he’s lost 19 runs from 2020 to 2021, while he’s lost 12 runs over that same span in the Shadow Zone.
|Year||% of Pitches||K%||ISO||SLG||Strikes Taken|
Conforto is simply not hitting the selection of pitches that most other hitters, particularly the All-Star caliber ones, clobber. In 2021, he’s been plagued by a trio of problems: his whiff percentage is up, he’s fouling off meatballs at a higher frequency, and he’s getting fewer hits as a result. And, even though he’s actually taken fewer pitches in the Heart for strikes this year, his meatball swing is 73.3%, the lowest it’s been since 2017.
To get even more niche, Conforto’s meatball percentage is only 5.4%, the lowest mark since his rookie season. Not only is he not hitting pitches over the heart of the plate, but he’s not seeing as many of them, either. Pitchers are attacking him differently than they did last season, and Conforto has thus far been unable to adjust.
A comparison of Conforto’s pitch heatmap for pitches in the Heart from 2020 and 2021 reveals the changes that pitchers have made. Last year, Conforto predominantly saw center-cut fastballs. Now, pitches are mostly coming in on the outer half of the Heart, more towards the edge of the plate.
Not surprisingly, these are the pitches that Conforto is struggling with, at least more than he should be. He has a 20% K% in Zone 7 (28 pitches) and Zone 5 (60 pitches); in Zone 8 (40 pitches), he has a .182 BABIP.
The spray charts of the balls he has put in play reveal another layer to the story. He’s predominantly pulled the ball thus far in 2021, with a cluster of fly balls to right field for outs, whereas the cluster of hits down the left field line that he had last year have all but disappeared. Rather than attempting to slap these outer-half pitches to the opposite field, Conforto is still pulling them, which seems to have snowballed his issues.
|Year||% of Pitches||K%||ISO||SLG||xWOBA||Exit Velocity|
Conforto’s RV drop-off (-8 to -20) on swings in the Shadow Zone is a bit less straightforward than his drop-off in the Heart Zone. Mainly, that’s because Conforto wasn’t particularly deft at hitting pitches in the Shadow last season, even with his tremendous overall numbers. The general similarities in the above statistics, and even some improvements from last season to this year, indicate that Conforto has, rather, merely gone from bad to worse.
Perhaps the greatest difference is yet again the way in which pitchers are attacking Conforto. As is the case with the Heart, in the Shadow, pitchers are making a concerted effort to pitch Conforto on the outer-half of the plate and at a level angle.
This year, pitchers have taken away Conforto’s greatest Shadow strength — pitches in the top-left corner of the strike zone, up and away from a left-handed hitter’s perspective. He hit .429 in this zone last year against 51 pitches, the most he received of any Shadow quadrant. This season, against the pitches along the outer half and level, Conforto is hitting just .158, .100 and .000. Plus, these three quadrants account for a sizable 34% of all of Conforto’s Shadow pitches.
Look at the differences between Conforto’s Shadow pitch selection last year and this year. Pitches up and away have been replaced by pitches down and away.
It’s also important to note that Conforto benefitted from an unsustainable BABIP of .412 last season. This year, though, in an ironic twist of fate, Conforto is experiencing the other side of the BABIP spectrum, registering an incredibly unlucky .212 BABIP. That trend plays into his Shadow results, too: his BABIP on pitches in the Shadow has fallen from .373 to .193. Perhaps Conforto wasn’t as good as his 2020 numbers indicated, then, but he’s not as bad as 2021 leads us to believe, either.
Conforto’s overall contact trends on Shadow pitches help to further explain what we’re seeing with his BABIP.
While Conforto has seen better results on the extreme end of the contact spectrum for hard contact on pitches in the Shadow, he’s also hit 25 more of such pitches at a “poor” contact, as judged by Statcast. That’s 31% of all Shadow swings, compared to just 23% last season.
So, even though his exit velocity is roughly the same, he’s hitting more soft contact in general, mixed in with a few exceptionally hard contact results that are helping to skew the data.
The shift also plays a factor, as is the case with most left-handed sluggers. Conforto is hitting almost entirely to the pull side this year, where defenses often align a triangle-formation, positioning a defender in shallow right field. Conforto’s propensity to ground the ball to the right side could be a factor behind his declining BABIP. Take a look at how his BABIP on pitches in the Shadow when the shift is deployed mirrors the overall decline we’ve already seen.
2020 shadow shift: 7.1% of plate appearances, .321 BABIP, and .107 ISO
2021 shadow shift: 9.7% of plate appearances, .143 BABIP, and .092 ISO
All of which means… ?
I think it’s fair to say that Conforto isn’t this bad of a hitter. But, at the same time, it seems possible that he never replicates his success from the shortened 2020 season, either. As a streaky player, Conforto may have benefitted from the shortened season, and it’s possible he was just able to ride a 60-game hot streak.
If he is to find his form again, which would behoove both him and the Mets, he needs to start doing damage against pitches in the heart of the plate and, from there, extend that to the Shadow Zone. Pitchers have adjusted to Conforto, and it’s time he makes an adjustment back. He’s proven capable of countering pitchers’ approaches in the past, so there’s no reason to expect otherwise this go-around. Whether that’s now or in the offseason, though, remains to be seen.