Conforto's clutch HR? 'Give credit to Donnie'

May 2nd, 2021

On Saturday afternoon, after scoring two runs over their previous 30 innings, the Mets decided to hold a hitters’ meeting at Citizens Bank Park. What went on behind closed doors isn’t entirely clear. According to Mets manager Luis Rojas, spoke at length. Alonso, in turn, deferred to a mysterious new character in the organization called “Donnie,” whom he credited for all the team’s success in a 5-4 win over the Phillies later that night.

Over multiple Zoom conferences, Alonso and , who delivered a go-ahead home run in the top of the ninth, praised Donnie for his role in the victory.

“Donnie’s been great helping the team,” Alonso said. “Donnie really helped us today.”

Unprompted in his postgame interview, Alonso mentioned Donnie a dozen times. Conforto began laughing as soon as he was asked about Donnie, whom Alonso described as “a nice new hire” and “a great hitting/approach coach.” There is no mention of Donnie in the Mets’ media guide or other official resources, and Alonso explained for several moments that he did not know Donnie’s last name. He then suddenly remembered it.

“Donnie Stevenson, I think that’s his name,” Alonso said with a straight face.

Real or fictional, it hardly matters if Donnie keeps delivering results. The Mets seemed like a different team from the outset on Saturday, scoring four times in the first inning against old friend Zack Wheeler. Alonso and Conforto punctuated that rally with consecutive run-scoring doubles, though the Mets’ offensive output temporarily halted there. As the Phillies clawed back in the game with a pair of two-run rallies against Mets starter Taijuan Walker, the Mets’ bats -- perhaps missing some of that old Donnie magic -- fell quiet.

Wheeler and reliever Connor Brogdon had combined to retire 14 straight Mets when Conforto stepped to the plate to lead off the ninth, promptly bashing an 0-1 Héctor Neris splitter over the right-field fence for a homer.

“I don’t know, maybe I’ve got to give credit to Donnie,” Conforto said. “He got my approach right.”

Approach was indeed the theme of the Mets’ pregame meeting, with both Alonso and Rojas noting that their hitters need to avoid overthinking in the box. The Mets entered the night ranked 30th in the Majors in runs per game and 30th in batting average with runners in scoring position, which is largely why they found themselves two games under .500. One of the National League’s most potent offenses on paper had greatly underperformed over its first 21 games.

Conforto in particular had -- fairly or not -- reinforced a reputation for un-clutch hitting over the season’s first three weeks. Overall, he is a career .258 hitter with an .837 OPS. But in “late and close” situations, which Baseball Reference defines as any plate appearance in the seventh inning or later in a tie game, leading by one run, or with the potential tying run on deck, Conforto has hit .207 with a .678 OPS. Last year, Conforto produced a .927 OPS overall, but an .807 mark with runners in scoring position and a .687 OPS with runners on second or third and two outs.

In plain English, Conforto simply hasn’t been able to translate his status as one of the league’s best hitters to tight situations. And he’s well aware of that knock on his reputation, despite the fact that modern baseball theorists often chalk it up mostly to luck. Earlier this season, following a particularly difficult night in which he went 0-for-5 and stranded nine runners on base, Conforto called clutch hitting “incredibly important.”

He echoed those sentiments following Saturday’s win, while giving ample credit to Donnie as well -- which could become a recurring theme if the Mets continue hitting. Asked point-blank if Donnie is a made-up character, an alter-ego or some other work of fiction, one member of the Mets’ traveling party texted back immediately: “He is 100 percent real.”

Even if Donnie Stevenson isn’t of this realm, his effect on the offense certainly seems to be.

“I feel like we had a really cool, collective team approach today,” Alonso said, “and Donnie helped us out for sure.”