Aaron Judge is the free-agent outfielder every team wants. Then Brandon Nimmo. Then probably Andrew Benintendi. But here's one who's gone under the radar with the buzz surrounding the big names, and who could be a huge steal: Michael Conforto.
The risk in signing Conforto is obvious. He just missed an entire season due to a right shoulder injury that required surgery in April, after he'd gone unsigned as a free agent for most of the winter following a down year in the last season he did play, 2021.
But here's what the reward could be. You get one of the top lefty bats available, and one who hasn't even turned 30 yet, at a bargain price.
Which will it be? There aren't a whole lot of recent hitters to compare Conforto to, who have missed literally an entire calendar season in the middle of their prime because of an injury. There are some success stories -- like Salvador Perez, who missed all of 2019 after Tommy John surgery and came back to hit an MLB-leading 48 homers in 2021, or even Chipper Jones, who suffered a torn ACL in Spring Training following his big league callup in 1993, missed all of 1994, then had a Hall of Fame career.
There are also some hitters who were never the same after full-season injuries, like Grady Sizemore (2012-13) or Bo Jackson (1992), whose comebacks fizzled even though they returned to the field.
But Conforto doesn't seem to be facing a debilitating condition like Jackson, or a chain reaction of career-derailing injuries like Sizemore. Here's a case that Conforto bounces back and ends up looking like one of the best deals of the offseason.
First, you have to remember that even though he was only a league-average hitter in 2021, Conforto has a great track record over a bigger sample. Even including that '21 campaign, Conforto has a 123 OPS+ over his last three seasons. In his last five seasons, he has a 127 OPS+.
If you compared him to other left-handed hitters over those spans, that would make Conforto a top-20 hitter. His three-season run from 2019-21 would rank just ahead of former Mets teammate Jeff McNeil (119 OPS+ from 2020-22). His five-season run from 2017-21 would rank just ahead of Corey Seager, Kyle Schwarber and Rafael Devers (125 OPS+ from 2018-22).
Let's look at some of Conforto's Statcast hitting metrics for his most recent three seasons, and how he stacks up to some of the other notable lefty hitters in the 2022-23 free-agent class.
He has a higher barrel rate than Anthony Rizzo
Conforto barreled 10.8% of his contact from 2019-21 -- that means he hit the ball with the perfect exit velocity and launch angle to be a home run or an extra-base hit.
The slugging first baseman Rizzo, who re-signed with the Yankees in mid-November, has a 9.0% barrel rate over his last three seasons.
The two have nearly identical extra-base-hit totals over their last three seasons -- Rizzo has 119, Conforto has 118.
He makes hard contact more often than Cody Bellinger
Bellinger seems to be drawing plenty of free-agent interest from teams hoping the 2019 NL MVP can bounce back after struggling the last couple of years. But if you're going to bet on Belli, why not bet on Conforto? At least as a hitter.
Conforto, for example, posted a 38.8% hard-hit rate from 2019-21 (hard contact being 95-plus mph). Bellinger posted a 37.7% hard-hit rate from 2020-22. Conforto hits the ball hard more consistently, too, without Bellinger's swing-and-miss problems, with 13.4% of his swings producing a hard-hit ball compared to 12.2% for Bellinger over their last three seasons.
He hits the ball in the air more than Andrew Benintendi
Over half of Conforto's contact is air contact. His combined line drive and fly ball rate over his last three seasons is 54.4%. Compare him to Benintendi, another gap-to-gap left-handed-hitting outfielder. Benintendi's line drive/fly ball rate over the last three seasons is an even 54.0%.
Looking just at line drives -- the type of batted ball that's always been most likely to be a hit -- Conforto's line drive rate is 26.6% over his last three seasons. Benintendi's is 23.3%.
He has better expected stats than Brandon Nimmo
Statcast's overall stat for offensive performance is expected wOBA -- which combines a hitter's quality of contact and plate discipline into one. Conforto is a top-tier hitter by xwOBA year in and year out.
Conforto's xwOBA by season since 2017
MLB xwOBA: .317
Even in Conforto's down season, his expected stats based on quality of contact were a lot better than his actual stats. His .350 xwOBA was almost 30 points higher than his .322 wOBA.
For his three-season stretch from 2019-21, Conforto's xwOBA overall was .364. That stands up to the other top all-around left-handed hitters in baseball -- including Conforto's fellow Met-turned-free-agent Nimmo, who's the same age as Conforto and considered the top free-agent outfielder on the market after Judge.
Nimmo's xwOBA over the last three seasons is .348. Very good, but not as good as Conforto's over his last three seasons.
This is not to overlook the fact that Conforto will enter the 2023 season having not played Major League Baseball in a full year. But assume his shoulder is back to full health by then. Conforto will be a 30-year-old outfielder with a competent glove and a bat that has a history of being much more than that. Or, if you're a team, don't assume it, but take the chance that it is.