SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – He just turned 30. He hits left-handed. He boasts a career 124 OPS+ – the same as Nolan Arenado and Rafael Devers – and he was a free agent this winter. By those measures, you’d expect a bidding war for a long-term midpoint. But Michael Conforto was a special case.
The former New York Mets outfielder collapsed in 2021, his original contract year, and did not play at all in 2022 following shoulder surgery. Then the San Francisco Giants signed him for two years and $36 million, with an opt-out after Year 1 that he can trigger by hitting 350 hits and hopes that despite missing Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa, they’ll be a powerful centerpiece for at least their line-up.
Early on, Conforto gives reason for such hopes. A full 17 months away from his last major league pitching action, he’s come out of spring training swinging. In seven games so far, Conforto has homered three times, going .263/.318/.737 overall, striking out eight and walking two.
“It was impressive, but not surprising,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said of Conforto’s quick start. “So you take some time off, you rehab from an injury — you don’t lose those things that make you so good.”
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And with the benefit of a longer memory, Conforto has been very good. Between 2017 and 2020, he was ranked as one of the top 25 players in the game by FanGraphs WAR and by sheer batting stats, competing against winter headliners such as Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Trea Turner. In that span, Conforto batted .265, walked a lot and hit 97 homeruns.
That’s exactly the message Kapler gave to Conforto when he returns to normal.
“You need the physical build up,” Kapler said. “But you remember how to do this, and if you just let your body take over, I think that’s an example of what happened to Michael. He’s healthy. So his natural athleticism takes over and he succeeds.”
Kapler, who missed the entire 2007 season in his own playing career and came back with one of his strongest offensive seasons, said on Sunday that sometimes players need to break out of the mental rut. A year off can in theory be unintentionally useful.
“As Gabe says, it’s a helpful reset,” Conforto said. “There is certainly some truth in that. You’re able to look at everything from a different perspective, not in the middle of a season, look at your career, look at the things you did well when you had a great year, the things you didn’t do so well when you not having a good year. So that you can use that in a positive way.”
For Conforto, the thing he did well in his successful years – the thing he’s trying to ensure he does well in 2023 – was crushing fastballs. He said he often got caught between fastballs and off-speed offers during his down 2021 campaign, as he slashed .232/.344/.384 despite maintaining strong strikeouts and walk rates. His performance against heaters in 2021 was a stark departure from the rest of his career. He batted just .401 against four-seamers and two-seamers that season after routinely posting .500 or better SLG scores in previous seasons. And he wasn’t whining. He just didn’t hit them hard.
Overall, his offensive production was still slightly better than the league average by the park-adjusted hitting metric wRC+, but it was a serious setback for an outfielder who scored in the first corner and worked his way to star payday after he reportedly turned down a long blow. term extension with the Mets.
This spring, a major focus for Conforto was getting locked into fastballs – while regaining your comfort playing the outfield and throwing with the surgically repaired shoulder.
“The goal right now, and I’m a little bit down the road, is just to be in time for the fastball and work from there,” he said. “That’s always been my bread and butter.”
The PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus projects Conforto as the top Giants hitter, tied with Joc Pederson and fellow free agent Mitch Haniger. But the injury history limits Conforto’s expected playing time to 370 at bats. If the Giants go on to compete — or surprise, 2021 style — in a loaded NL West, they’ll almost certainly need Conforto to be fully healthy and return to the form that made him one of the most intriguing young hitters in history. made the sport just a few years ago.
Recent history supports the idea that the Giants could help him do just that. They gave Carlos Rodon a similar short-term deal after he showed injury-broken promise with the Chicago White Sox, and in return they got a Cy Young contender season before he earned a huge contract with the New York Yankees.
That 2021 team, remember, also had a batter coming off an unscheduled sabbatical. Buster Posey’s year off came because he opted out of the shortened 2020 season, not because he underwent major shoulder surgery, but the parallel stands.
For now, Conforto uses lost time as fuel. He has asked Giants coaches to remind him that “it’s special to be in this clubhouse and be able to play this game.”
“If I can take anything out of that, it’s the perspective,” he said. “I try to remember when I’m struggling that 0-for-3 is much better than being at home.”