Mets are playing it right with Michael Conforto

Jun 16, 2016; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder Michael Conforto (30) celebrates after hitting a home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 16, 2016; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder Michael Conforto (30) celebrates after hitting a home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports /

Many fans and experts think Mets outfielder Michael Conforto should play everyday. However, New York is being smart in using him in a reserve role — for now.

As a Mets fan, I usually agree with my fellow Amazin diehards whenever they are critical about the team. Whether it’s the batting order, lack of a free agent signing, or moving Keith’s Grill from left field to right field (still not over that), I almost always echo the displeasures of the Flushing faithful.

However, there is one thing the rest of the fans and myself will never agree upon: the Mets handling of once prized-prospect Michael Conforto.

In 2016, Conforto began the season mostly busy as an everyday player. This season, however, the Mets have used Conforto as more of a fourth outfielder. With Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, and Jay Bruce also on the roster, the Mets’ outfield is quite crowded, especially with lefty hitters. Of the three lefties (Granderson and Bruce), Conforto has mostly been the odd man out.

Conforto has just 31 plate appearances this year, compared Granderson’s 61 and Bruce’s 66. In fact, Conforto has yet to face a southpaw in 2017, despite Granderson and Bruce both getting their share of opportunities.

There are legitimate reasons why Conforto has seen a dip in playing time. Last season, Conforto got off to a roaring start, hitting .365 in April. His season quickly took a massive downturn, however. After April, Conforto batted .174 (40-for-230) the rest of the way, finishing 2016 with a timid .220/.310/.414 slash line.

Many felt Mets manager Terry Collins was utilizing Conforto improperly during his slump. However, while New York demoted him to Triple-A twice last year, giving him ample opportunity to prove he still belonged in the big leagues.

The Mets initially sent Conforto to the minors on June 25. That was nearly two months into his slump, in which Conforto hit .157 from May 4 until his demotion.

Prior to May 6 of last year, Conforto, who entered that year with only 56 regular season games of Major League experience, started all but one game. From May 6 to June 25, Conforto still appeared in 38 of 44 games, starting 32 of them, despite hitting .164/.230/.344 during that span.

The Mets re-promoted Conforto on July 18, after a 19-game absence. From then until his second demotion on August 11, his playing time was a bit more staggered.  Still, he appeared in 19 of the Mets’ 23 games (13 starts). The numbers were still ugly, though (.200/.298/.340).

Putting everything together, from May 7 to Aug. 11, Conforto played 57 big league games and hit .174/.250/.343 in 192 plate appearances. It was not a pretty stretch for Conforto, who came into 2016 with such high expectations.

A significant reason for Conforto’s 2016 struggles was his inability to lay off down-and-in pitches off the plate. In 2015, at about 15 percent of these pitches. However, that number soared to over 44 percent in 2016.

Some of Conforto’s best qualities as prospect were his approach and knowledge of the the strike zone. Those qualities were evident in 2015, but disappeared the next year. In 2016, became less patient and susceptible to pitches out of the zone.

The Mets were as patient as they could have been with Conforto in 2016. The sample size was large enough to safely infer that his struggles were not a fluke but rather the result of being overmatched. One can expect a player who jumped right from Double-A to the Majors will eventually be overmatched at some point.

Decreasing Conforto’s playing time during his slump was a good baseball decision, despite what many thought. He was almost an automatic out during that span.

The Mets gave Conforto a quick second chance. In August, they promoted him after less than three weeks at Triple-A. Unfortunately, the results were still poor.

This year, New York is handling Conforto differently, and the results have been significantly better. He’s appeared in 13 of 16 games, but has started just five times. However, he’s 8-for-25 (.320) wIth a .387 OBP to begin the season. Moreover, he has been the team’s primary pinch-hitter this year, and has performed as one of the best in baseball. When he has started, the Mets have even experimented with him batting leadoff.

Of course, Conforto is a natural competitor and would rather be starting everyday. After a recent game against the Marlins in which Conforto hit a game-tying double in the ninth in an eventual 16-inning win, Conforto told reporters:

"“I’d say I feel comfortable, but I wouldn’t say it feels natural,” Conforto said. “I think what would feel natural is to play every day. But with all the guys that we have, all the talent in this clubhouse, it’s just not the situation right now, and I’m completely fine with that. As long as I can be a part of a winning team and play an important role, I think that’s the most important thing for me.”"

While it’s justifiable for him to feel that way, Conforto’s current role on the team is very crucial. He provides valuable depth and game-changing ability off the bench. Granderson is 36 and is going to need days off. Jay Bruce is streaky and is going to need to be spelled every now and again. Cespedes is probably going to get injured at some point and need some days off (sorry Mets fans).

Conforto hopefully realizes that his current role is ideal for both him and the team. Last year, he showed he still isn’t quite ready for an everyday role. That’s okay when you have virtually no Triple-A experience and were thrown into the middle of a pennant race as your introduction to the big leagues.

Fans should be happy that the Mets have carved out a good role for Conforto. They assure he will get enough playing time, while also alleviating some of the pressure that comes with being an everyday player. It’s alright, and actually intelligent, to ease a young player into the league like this, despite what many may believe.

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It is clear the Mets have a plan for Conforto. That plan’s end goal is to have him make a smooth transition into the Majors so that he can reach the potential the Mets know he has. Fans need to stop complaining about Conforto’s “lack” of playing time and realize that the team is doing what is best for him in the long term.