Conforto matches a high vs. O's ... and a lefty

Outfielder could earn NL MVP Award votes -- or at least win Mets' MVP

September 3rd, 2020

Four years ago, not even a full season into his big league career, found himself in the middle of a debate. Mets officials did not believe it was wise to play the young slugger against lefties. An ardent fan base disagreed, eager to see what the 23-year-old Conforto -- the first position player New York had taken within the top 10 of a Draft in nearly a quarter-century -- could do as an everyday player.

By May 2016, Conforto had become too hot to bench, so the Mets relented and batted him third against an in-his-prime Madison Bumgarner -- about the toughest matchup imaginable at that time. Conforto finished 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, descending into a months-long slump that lopped 120 points off his batting average and ended with a Minor League demotion.

Conforto then spent years trying to prove, once again, that he belonged in the lineup every day.

Now, not only is Conforto an option against lefties, he’s one of the best available in New York’s clubhouse. Batting third Wednesday against left-hander John Means, Conforto slugged a two-run homer and narrowly missed another in the Mets’ 9-4 win over the Orioles in Baltimore, finishing 4-for-5 with three extra-base hits and five RBIs.

“He’s a stud,” Mets starter said.

After singled with one out in the first inning, Conforto took a 94.1 mph Means fastball to the opposite field for his sixth homer -- specifically, his fourth against a lefty and his second the opposite way. Conforto added an RBI double to the center-field wall off Means in the fifth inning, another to right against reliever Cole Sulser in the seventh, and then a bloop RBI single in the eighth to match his career high with four hits.

The offense was all New York needed -- not because it received a standout performance from Wacha, who lasted three innings, but because ’s bullpen debut went about as swimmingly as possible. The rookie fired four shutout innings on 59 pitches, building a bridge between Wacha and the Mets’ back-end relievers, and the offense piled on -- including Conforto.

“I don’t know if I’m surprised by it,” Conforto said. “I was able to put myself in a good spot at the start of the year. ... I’m just trying to keep things simple.”

Conforto’s contributions on Wednesday came largely against a lefty starter, and that’s become a notable part of his game; he has a higher OPS against left-handed pitchers this year than he does against righties -- something he said became a specific goal of his after the Bumgarner game in 2016, which he called “eye-opening” and “motivating for sure.” Since that time, Conforto has worked hard on maintaining his swing mechanics and strike-zone judgment against same-sided pitchers.

“It comes with experience,” Conforto said. “I was always told you’re not going to hit lefties unless you’re out there. It’s been a long road, but I’m feeling pretty good right now.”

Overall, Conforto is enjoying his best season, batting .331/.426/.534 with six homers and 22 RBIs. Should he continue at this rate, Conforto stands a strong chance of a Top-10 finish for National League MVP Award voting. He stands an even better chance of being the Mets’ MVP.

And that, for the franchise, is something worth considering. After the 2021 season, Conforto can become a free agent for the first time in his career. He has said on multiple occasions that he would welcome extension discussions, but the Mets have never approached him. The team’s ownership group has generally shied away from extensions, with David Wright and Jacob deGrom representing the two most notable exceptions. But with Conforto, waiting made some sense: there was always a feeling that a player of his abilities had more to unlock.

Now that Conforto appears to have done so, perhaps the Mets’ views on an extension will change. Perhaps the team’s pending ownership transfer could shift the balance. Conforto is the organization’s most successful homegrown position player since Wright.

If the Mets don’t lock him up, someone else will.

“I’ve felt like I left a lot of hits on the table last year,” Conforto said. “I’ve always felt like a guy that could spray the ball around, be a tougher out. Just watching the guys I admire in the game, the way they’re tougher outs ... I felt like I was one of those players. It’s something that I’m going to continue to do. I’m not going to be complacent with where I’m at.”