MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Mets

The Michael Conforto Folly

The last time I checked in on Michael Conforto and his playing time, things were relatively stable. Conforto was sitting against some lefties, but not all. When he did sit, it was in favor of Juan Lagares, deserving of a semi-regular role and a career .282/.325/.425 hitter against left-handed pitching. Playing Lagares also allowed the Mets to create a stellar defensive lineup in the outfield, with Yoenis Cespedes sliding over to left, where he won a Gold Glove as recently as last year. Conforto was thriving, the Mets were right there in the NL East, and all was well in Flushing.

It’s been two months since I wrote that article. Lagares is on the disabled list. Conforto, now struggling mightily and the subject of daily speculation about being sent down, is sitting for second-string utility infielder Matt Reynolds, who just made his first professional appearance in the outfield at any level. The Mets are back to early-summer 2015 levels of offensive futility. What the heck happened here?

Up through the first week in May, Conforto was being soft-platooned … but not even as aggressively as the other soft-platooned hitter in the lineup, Lucas Duda. Part of this was because the Mets simply didn’t see many lefties in the first month of the season, but it also seemed like that for all the talk about platooning Conforto, the Mets realized he had to play. Conforto hit a little bit of a cold streak as April turned to May, and then the Mets hit the west coast for a long road trip, with a bunch of lefty starters clustered together. And that was the end of Conforto as a true regular.

On May 6, Conforto sat against Drew Pomeranz. On May 9, Conforto sat against Scott Kazmir. On May 12, Conforto sat against Clayton Kershaw. On May 18, Conforto sat against Gio Gonzalez. On May 23, Conforto sat against Gonzalez again. On May 27, Conforto sat against Julio Urias. On May 29, Conforto sat against Kershaw again. On May 30th, Conforto sat against Jose Quintana. Conforto was benched eight times over a period of only three-and-a-half weeks.

While receiving regular playing time, from the beginning of the 2016 season up through May 5, Conforto hit .301/.383/.548. From May 6 through June 14–the period of his most irregular playing time–Conforto hit .168/.225/.356. Those splits aren’t in particularly meaningful samples, but managers make lineup decisions on scant information all the time—Joe Hitter has 12 lifetime hits off Jeff Pitcher and so on. When making these decisions on such limited data, wouldn’t you pick the split that has your young potential star being great instead of awful? Young players really need to play to develop, after all.

What’s more, the decision that Conforto can never see a lefty starter is being based on Conforto’s .123/.164/.123 career performance against lefties. That’s pitcher-hitting levels of bad, of course, but Conforto’s also never received any significant chance to hit against lefties. Despite nearing in on a full season of MLB service time, Conforto only has 61 career plate appearances against left-handed pitching, spread over 45 games. If you want to talk about a sample so small and disjointed that you might as well discard it, the first one that comes to mind is Conforto’s split against southpaw pitching.

Nevertheless, this was all sort of defensible to get Juan Lagares in the lineup, even if occasionally comically suboptimal due to Collins’ aversion to moving guys that aren’t named Yoenis Cespedes between positions. But Lagares hasn’t started a game for the Mets since June 4 because of a thumb injury, and Conforto has been instead benched for an increasingly absurd group of utility players like Eric Campbell, Matt Reynolds, and even fellow lefty Alejandro de Aza. Collins has talked about the need to get de Aza more playing time–the team’s fifth outfielder is currently hitting .167/.226/.244 on the season in a sample larger than Conforto’s career lefty split— and has indeed done so at Conforto’s direct expense.

I don’t think sending Conforto down is a good idea—as relatively bad as he’s been lately, he’s still probably something like the fourth-best hitter on the Mets—but at some point the manager and the front office need to come up with a plan. If that plan doesn’t involve him starting nearly every day in the majors, it might have to be in the minors.

Perversely, benching Conforto has caused him to run into the exact kinds of late-game left-on-left situations he’s theoretically being protected from. When used in the regular lineup with Lagares on the bench, Conforto was often double-switched or replaced late in games, mostly to strengthen the defensive alignment, but occasionally to avoid the tough lefty matchup as a side benefit. But with the Met bench being thin and Collins often using every available righty short of his backup catcher in the lineup, Conforto has often been the best option on the Mets bench on a given day. As such, he’s been deployed to pinch-hit against Clayton Kershaw and various lefty relievers—the types of matchups he’s on the bench specifically to avoid.

A sidebar to this folly that I haven’t mentioned yet is Conforto’s ailing wrist. Perhaps his injury is hindering his play, but the Mets sure haven’t acted like it, doing things like allowing him to hit the day after a cortisone shot. And really, the place for Conforto, if unable to start regularly, is on the disabled list to get healthy again. Time and time again, the Mets have played with a shorthanded or compromised roster—for example, Tuesday’s Hansel Robles star turn was caused because the Mets called up an unavailable Sean Gilmartin to be a dead roster spot for a couple days in place of Jim Henderson. They could have called up a rested long relief option also on the 40-man like Logan Verrett or Seth Lugo, and then optioned that pitcher Verrett out for Gilmartin once the lefty was able to pitch again. (The Mets had to recall Verrett after the game anyway.) It’s not like the Mets don’t have another left-handed hitting option in left, because Brandon Nimmo has finally started hitting like the player Mets fans have hoped for since what seems like the dawn of time (read: 2011), granting that he’s doing so in the Las Vegas hitters’ paradise.

What the Mets can’t do is let Conforto linger, maybe hurt and maybe not. If he’s up, he’s got to be starting six or seven days a week. If you want him to catch the occasional lefty flu to hide him from Kershaw or David Price, I don’t think anyone would argue too much with that. But he’s never going to learn how to hit lefties unless you let him go against the Scott Kazmirs and Gio Gonzalezes of the world. And when push comes to shove, Conforto’s development is worth far more to the Mets than whatever infinitesimal 2016 advantage they derive from sitting him so much. He needs to play.

Photo Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

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