The first hurdle Conforto encountered in 2021 was a COVID-19 diagnosis shortly before the beginning of Spring Training, which may help explain his .211 AVG and .649 OPS in April. After bouncing back in early-May, he suffered a hamstring injury that resulted in the Seattle, Washington native appearing in just 125 games and producing average-ish offensive numbers for the season.
The 2021 version of Conforto was a far cry from what New York Mets fans had come to expect from a hitter who led Mets position players in OBP, SLG, OPS+, and WAR during a breakout 2017 campaign. Not only that, his 134 OPS+ during his four best seasons (2017-20) suggests he was one of baseball’s more productive hitters.
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
It turns out Conforto compared very well to contemporaries with 1,500-plus plate appearances during 2017-20. The former Oregon State Beaver had blossomed into a superb big-league hitter, who possessed a productive blend of power and on-base ability.
|* Ranking Among 138 MLB hitters with 1,500+ PA's|
Entering 2021, Conforto appeared primed to make a big splash in free agency after the season. There was even speculation that the Mets would attempt to sign their star outfielder to a contract extension. No deal was struck and, alas, the season didn’t go well for player or team thanks to that balky hamstring.
All Things Considered
It’s worth noting that Conforto’s agent, Scott Boras, expects his client will ink a long-term deal this offseason despite an underwhelming 2021. When we contrast the 10th overall pick of the 2014 MLB draft to several prominent twenty-somethings in his free agent class, it becomes clear why Boras feels this way. Conforto’s stat line compares favorably with his peers’ production numbers since the beginning of 2017.
|* Sorted by OPS+|
While Conforto shares statistical similarities to Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, and Carlos Correa, it’s important to recognize that these hitters are primarily infielders. Conversely, Conforto is a corner outfielder, who doesn’t appear to possess the potential for positional versatility of these three players. Still, Conforto’s numbers do suggest he deserves mention when we discuss premium free agent bats.
Another positive in Conforto’s favor, an ability to hit the ball to all fields and deliver positive results throughout his career. What intrigues me most about this skill is the opposite field power demonstrated during his four best seasons.
Since the beginning of his breakout season through the end of 2020, Conforto’s .669 SLG and .428 wOBA both ranked 13th among 93 hitters with 300-plus balls hit to the opposite field. Among left-handed hitters, his SLG and wOBA ranked seventh and eighth best respectively.
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a sabermetric version of on-base percentage (OBP) that credits hitters for how he reached rather than treating all on-base events as equals, as OBP does. For instance, a double is more valuable to run production than a single, a home run more than a double, etc. MLB league-average wOBA = .319
To take the subject of “oppo-power” a step further, the following illustrates the 10 left-handed hitters with the most opposite field home runs in 2017-20. As you can see, Conforto ranks seventh on list that includes four MVP award winners – Joey Votto, Christian Yelich, Freddie Freeman, and Bryce Harper.
Okay, I suspect some of you are saying Conforto’s overall numbers are great. But it’s tough to overlook his disappointing 2021 production. Why should Mariners fans believe the Redmond High product can bolster the team’s lineup in 2022 and beyond?
Fair enough. Let’s discuss an advanced metric, which gives me a great amount of confidence about Conforto’s offensive outlook moving forward.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. MLB league-average xwOBA = .316
According to Statcast, Conforto’s .350 xwOBA ranked within the top 30% of MLB in 2021. Recognizable names with a similar xwOBA to the former Mets outfielder included Bryant (.346), Starling Marte (.347), 2020 AL MVP José Abreu (.348), Yoán Moncada (.350), Bo Bichette and Mariners right fielder Mitch Haniger (.354).
The fact Conforto had a superb xwOBA in a disappointing season suggests to me that the seven-year veteran can deliver numbers reminiscent to his 2017-20 output in the future. This is a hill I’m willing to defend without reservation.
During our November conversation regarding Conforto, I briefly noted that he experienced hamstring tightness in September 2020 and then the subsequent strain last year. At the time, I pondered whether the hamstring could become a chronic problem. With this in mind, let’s briefly review his injury history.
|Mar-Apr 2018||Shoulder surgery rehab|
|Sep 2020||Tight hamstring|
|May-Jun 2021||Hamstring strain|
Two notable injuries have affected Conforto during his seven seasons in the majors. There’s the hamstring we’ve already mentioned. Plus, a shoulder separation that occurred while swinging at a pitch in August 2017 and subsequently required season-ending surgery. Although the All-Star played 153 games and continued to reach base at a high rate the following season, he wasn’t making as much loud contact. That said, his power fully returned in 2019-20.
Conforto’s previous injuries aren’t a concern for me, especially for a player entering his age-29 season. Having said that, the onus will be on team physicians to assess his physical readiness before any contract is signed.
Although he played some center field early in his career, Conforto likely holds down a corner outfield spot with his new club. Naturally, he’ll likely see an occasional designated hitter assignment to rest his body.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Conforto can’t or won’t be an occasional center field option. But it appears more likely he’ll be a regular left or right fielder this year. My rationale is based on career DRS at each position.
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) quantifies a player’s defensive value compared to peers. It is calculated in different ways depending on position. However, the main component determining DRS is always how a defender converts batted balls into outs. Zero DRS is league-average. A positive number is above-average, negative is below-average.
As you can see below, the numbers suggest that Conforto’s best defensive position is not center field. That said, we should always remember that advanced metrics are most useful in large samples. His center field experience is spread over a four-season span (2016-19). The most starts he had at the position in any year was 56 during the 2018 campaign.
Conforto’s Defensive Numbers At Each OF Position
LF (2,045 innings / 10 DRS)
CF (1,137.1 innings/ -15 DRS)
RF (2,615.1 innings/ 3 DRS)
Conversely, Conforto has spent the vast majority of his MLB career patrolling left or right field. However, he last played left field in 2018 and has served as the Mets’ primary right fielder ever since. Based on his career DRS, I suspect Conforto can deliver average or slightly better corner outfield defense into his early thirties.
While we’re on the topic of defensive positioning, the notion of adding a corner outfielder to the Mariners’ major-league roster doesn’t concern me. I realize a segment of the fan base doesn’t agree with me. They believe the organization has enough outfielders. From their perspective, Haniger is entrenched in right field and Jarred Kelenic isn’t going anywhere. Plus, Kyle Lewis is still on the 40-man roster and let’s not forget highly touted prospect Julio Rodriguez.
On the surface, the Mariners’ roster does appear to be teeming with outfielders. But is it?
Haniger is a fan favorite thanks to helping propel Seattle into wildcard contention and writing a heartfelt letter to Mariners fans in the Players’ Tribune shortly after the season. But the Cal Poly product is a season away from free agency with no indication that team and player will agree on a contract extension.
As we saw with Kelenic in 2021, it can take time for young players to become established major leaguers. His superb September is reason for optimism. But now, he must demonstrate he can sustain that success over a season. With that in mind, Rodriguez could potentially endure the same struggles that swept up Kelenic whenever he makes his MLB debut.
Unfortunately, we don’t know whether Lewis will be ready for Opening Day. President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto said as much prior to the lockout. Hopefully, the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year is ready and able. But hope is not a strategy. Also, we still really don’t know whether Lewis will be a star or something else for the Mariners.
So, yes. I do believe there would be room for Conforto in Seattle’s 2022 outfield rotation. Many Mariners fans think Scott Servais should’ve been Manager of the Year after leading the team to 90 wins in 2021. If he’s that good (I think he is), he’d figure out a way to juggle Conforto, Haniger, Kelenic, and whatever other options are available. Also, when was the last time the Mariners had too many good outfielders?
It’s a problem worth creating, if the opportunity to do so presents itself.
Perhaps pursuing Conforto won’t make sense to the Mariners. Dipoto may prefer adding an outfielder capable of playing center field on a regular basis, which is a genuine need for the club. Maybe the team reaches an extension agreement with Haniger prior to Opening Day. Doing so might diminish the team’s appetite to make a substantial financial commitment to another corner outfield bat. On the other hand, Conforto’s history of productivity is an appealing option.
Considering he’s still entrenched in his prime, it’s reasonable to expect Conforto to deliver production reminiscent to his career averages into his thirties. If that’s the case, he would be a strong positive influence on any lineup – including Seattle’s.
Sometime before Opening Day, blogosphere prognosticators will proclaim bounce back candidates for 2022. Conforto is sure to be a popular choice. Perhaps he chooses to rebound as a member of his hometown Mariners and help the franchise earn a postseason berth for the first time in two decades.
Wouldn’t’ that be something?
My Oh My…
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