Mets waiting to 'see if it clicks' for Conforto

August 3rd, 2021

It speaks to how far 's stock has fallen that, with the bases loaded and two outs in a two-run game on Monday, manager Luis Rojas kept Conforto confined to the bench. One of the Mets’ best hitters over the past half-decade, Conforto entered the night with a .196 batting average and six home runs. In any other year, he would have been the obvious choice to bat against right-handed Marlins reliever Dylan Floro.

Instead, Rojas stuck with right-handed-hitting Brandon Drury, and who could blame him? Drury has been the Mets’ hottest hitter over the past two weeks, giving them the type of offensive spark that Conforto has not. On this night, Drury couldn’t deliver; he grounded into a fielder’s choice to stamp out the Mets’ best late threat in a 6-3 loss to the Marlins at loanDepot park. But for Rojas, there was no regret.

“We trusted Drury to deliver,” the manager said. “I’m not saying that we did not trust Michael, but we just trusted Drury to deliver for us.”

Before the game, Rojas called Conforto’s struggles mental, saying he benched the outfielder for the second time in three games because he wanted to give him a chance to step away from the mental swirl of big league at-bats. At the plate, Rojas added, Conforto is at his best when he is not thinking about anything -- just applying the muscle memory of what he’s worked on in the cage.

Approached by reporters later that afternoon, Conforto did not disagree, saying he needs to be ready to attack in the box, rather than wait for perfect pitches. “Baseball will humble you,” added Conforto, who has become the walking embodiment of such humility so far this season.

It has been a striking fall for Conforto, who averaged 29 homers per year from 2017-19 and, at age 28, remains smack in the middle of his physical prime. Last season, Conforto slashed .322/.412/.515 (career highs in batting average and OBP) during the pandemic-shortened campaign, leading many to believe he could seek a contract north of $200 million once he reaches free agency this offseason.

Instead, Conforto has flopped to a .200/.327/.332 line, prompting many of those same folks to wonder if he might accept a one-year qualifying offer around $20 million to restore his value.

For Conforto, such decisions will unfold in time. All the Mets know right now is this: If they want to be the type of playoff team they envision, they’ll need Conforto to find a way to return to form.

“No one in the game of baseball is safe from going through a rut -- absolutely nobody,” said first baseman Pete Alonso, whose solo homer in the third inning drew the Mets as close as they would come to tying the game. “He’s been working his tail off in the cage. … He’s been hitting the ball really well again, it’s just that he doesn’t have a lot of numbers to show for it.”

To escape his rut, Conforto has tried everything, including early batting practice, cage work, swing analysis, opposing pitcher study and conversations with the Mets’ mental skills coach, Joshua Lifrak. Then there is the element of luck. Given that Conforto’s batting average on balls in play sits more than 50 points below his career mark, and that his expected slugging and weighted on-base percentages remain high, many Mets coaches have believed a turnaround to be long overdue.

Perhaps Monday marked the start of it. After Rojas passed him over for a bases-loaded pinch-hit opportunity in the eighth inning, Conforto entered the game in a double-switch and doubled to lead off the ninth. The hit wasn’t enough to ignite a game-tying rally, but if it sparks Conforto on a personal level, perhaps it will lead to more consistent winning play in the future.

“The guy is a solid man,” Rojas said. “He’s a great teammate. He’s a great human. You guys know him. He’s working hard right now, so let’s see if it clicks.”