A casual stroll down the stacks of the FanGraphs hitting leaderboards for outfielders yields many interesting takeaways, but perhaps none more interesting than this: among the top 10 outfielders by wRC+, there’s a 23-year-old who played only 45 games above High-A before being called up to the majors last year. He came into this season with the expectation of being a left-handed platoon bat, and now he’s leading the majors in hard-hit rate and hitting third everyday in the sixth-best offensive lineup in baseball. A year can change a lot of things, and it has changed more for Michael Conforto than for just about anyone else in baseball.
Conforto had about as successful a short stint in the majors during 2015 as one could hope for out of a young player with little experience in the high minors — he posted a 134 wRC+ in 56 games, hit a few important home runs in the playoffs, and outperformed the established historical expectations for players in his position. Conforto was good for 2.1 WAR in those 56 games, and the Mets went from a .505 team without him — 3.0 games back in their division — to a .631 team with him, comfortable winners of the National League East. The August/September 2015 Mets weren’t just Conforto, of course, but the Mets needed an offensive jolt, and he provided it. Conforto’s introduction represented a tidy dividing line between mediocrity and wild success, and we’d be fools not to at least recognize the narrative convenience of that line.
That type of introduction to the major leagues is hard to live up to — and yet! Here we are, a month into the season, and Conforto has lived up to them. More than lived up to them, in fact. He’s probably created new expectations, and they’re even loftier, almost impossible ones. We know how easy it is to be wrong about April numbers. It’s folly to think that April assures us of what’s going to happen for the rest of the season. But, while we shouldn’t necessarily expect this current level of production out of him moving forward, he’s showing us a few real improvements so far this season that merit some attention. Conforto isn’t truly this good (no one is), but there’s a reason he’s currently this good.
Let’s start with who he was in 2015. Describing Conforto as a dead-pull hitter in 2015 wouldn’t be accurate, but he was close: he ranked 35th from bottom in terms of batted balls to the opposite field (out of 361 qualifying hitters, min. 190 PAs). Interestingly, he had a hole in his swing, and it was on the inside part of the plate — not really where you’d expect to find it for such a pull-happy hitter. Take a look at his isolated power per pitch location from 2015:
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