Michael Conforto And The Shift

When the Mets drafted Michael Conforto 10th overall in the 2014 draft, the Oregon product was regarded as one of the more complete hitters in the pool. At the time, Perfect Game raved about his approach, saying in his scouting report, “He has plus, game usable power as well as one of the most disciplined approaches in this draft class.”

In his first minor-league campaign, Conforto echoed those remarks, ““I think I’ve just kind of settled into a mode where I’m seeing the ball well and getting into a rhythm and getting confident. I’m getting a lot of pitches to hit, a lot of fastballs, and I’m doing what I can with them in trying to hit the ball where it’s pitched.”

Conforto parlayed his approach into a successful six years in Queens, slashing .255/.356/.468 with a 128 wRC+. During the pandemic-shortened campaign, Conforto stepped it up a notch, slashing a career-best .322/.412/.515 with a .401 wOBA/158 wRC+, positioning himself for a strong walk year.

However, 2021 was a poor season by all standards for Conforto; almost all of his offensive metrics trended downwards.

But why? Was it simply a case of bad luck? Did something mechanically change? Something else?

I argue that Conforto’s decline in production had more to do with his approach to pull the ball more frequently and as such, teams’ escalating tendencies to shift him.

His BABIP was significantly lower in the 2021 campaign. But was that a product of randomness or is that a consequence of his actions?

I’d argue it’s the latter.

In 2021, teams shifted against him 64.9% of the time, a career-high. Despite previously employing an approach that successfully worked against shifts, Conforto’s pull rate increased 8% from 2020. Although taking a pitch to the opposite field seemed like it was once second nature, his batted-ball profile reflected a player who made a significant change to his approach.

Chili Davis, the Mets’ hitting coach from 2019 to 2021 emphasized a ground-ball heavy approach, despite data backing up a contrary perspective . As you can see, Conforto relied on a more ground-ball centered approach in 2021. It worked neither for him nor the league. The league-average on wOBA on pulled ground-balls in 2021 was .183; Conforto’s wOBA on such occasions was even worse at 0.062.

To Conforto’s credit, his HardHit% increased, but hard-hit balls aren’t helpful when there’s an intelligent defense strategy at play. It’s like running a quarterback sneak on 3rd and 9 from your own five-yard line. (Looking at you, Joe Judge)

His pull tendency isn’t conducive to shifting nor his swing.

The visual below shows his wOBA on various BBE’s, sorted by batted-ball direction.

Although he’s been hitting the ball on the ground more, his wOBA is much higher on balls hit in the air, similar to league-wise trends. The data also shows that he performs better on non-pulled ground balls, a product of the shift’s effectiveness.

It’s plausible that mechanical changes could have impacted his batted-ball profile. Look at his stance, compared from the 2015 season to the 2021 season.

Conforto’s best when he’s letting the ball come to him naturally and put the ball where its hit. Slider on the outside part of the plate? Let him dump it into left field.

A fastball inside? Watch him dump into the right field corner.

A hanging slider from a lefty? Ball’s going down the left-field line.

Being able to adjust at the Major-League level is key. Earlier in his career, Conforto could go with a pitch on the outside corner and hammer it into left field seats. But now? That’s tougher

Take a look at the following two videos.

2016 Conforto

The first video was taken in 2016. Notice Conforto’s hands. His hands are already in a set spot. His hand load is higher than average, but nothing that needs much correcting. They’re close to his chest, allowing for a direct path to the ball.

2021 Conforto

In 2021, now notice where his hands are. They’re further away from his body, giving him extra movement before loading. This additional motion prevents him from getting set as quickly.

It’s not so much the lowering of the hands that’s an issue, it’s the fact that adding an extra maneuver to his stance could be leading to his poor batted-ball results. Some may argue that adding more movement to a stance might be a net positive (just look at Gary Sheffield), but I’d counter that Sheffield played during a time where defenses didn’t react to BBE’s in as an extreme way and had qualities Conforto doesn’t.

The hitch in his swing looks like it prevents him from going with the pitch effectively. By holding his hands differently in his stance, he’s struggling to attain his former results.

Perhaps, the Mets’ quartet of recent hitting coaches instructed this change, believing that it would unlock more power or a higher batting average. Perhaps, Conforto’s tinkering with his swing, taking a page of his teammate’s book: noted tinkerer Jeff McNeil.

Perhaps not. Perhaps, it’s an unintentional move, one that’s paid off poor dividends so far.

Conforto’s free agency’s trip hasn’t been optimal for him nor his agent, Scott Boras. Before the lockout, only a handful of teams expressed interest in the outfielder. Considering his strong 128 wRC+ from 2015 to 2020, I’m a little surprised at the lack of interest. If on, he’s a strong middle-of-the-order bat, if a little underrated.

There seems to be a couple of simple mechanical fixes for Conforto next season. If he can patch up his mechanics, he should be primed for a rebound campaign.

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