Conforto eyes next step to stardom

Mets coaches break down his effortless, pretty swing

March 14th, 2019

JUPITER, Fla. -- The aesthetics of 's swing were on display Thursday morning in Port St. Lucie. Taking batting practice in a short-sleeved hooded sweatshirt, Conforto drove a ball to the right-field fence in one sharp, compact motion. His next swing sent another ball diving toward center. Then left. Then right. Then center again.

There is no jerkiness to Conforto’s motion, no apparent wasted effort. Growing up northeast of Seattle, Conforto idolized Ken Griffey Jr. His own swing elicits similar reactions.

“It is a pretty swing,” Mets hitting coach Chili Davis says. “A lot of lefties have pretty swings. If you have an ugly left-handed swing, you’re not going to hit.”

Make no mistake: Conforto hits. He hit in 2017, leading the Mets with a .939 OPS, earning his first All-Star nod and establishing himself as a middle-of-the-order presence before shoulder surgery cut short his season. He hit again last summer, particularly from midseason on, bashing 17 of his 28 homers after the All-Star break and proving, as much as possible, that his sluggish first half was an aftereffect of surgery.

One of the few remaining questions for Conforto, at age 26, is how much higher he can rise. Earlier this spring, Mets manager Mickey Callaway gushed that Conforto “can be one of the best left-handed hitters in the league.” Google a list of 2019 Major League breakout candidates and Conforto is likely to be on it.

“He has a very unique and cool ability to put together the next 10 to 15 years in the league and be a superstar-caliber player,” said Curt Nelson, Conforto’s offseason swing coach. “We’ve all seen articles from people expecting the breakout, MVP-type kind of a year. A lot of things have to go right for that to happen, but at the end of the day, he’s fully capable of being one of the top-five, top-10 hitters in the game of baseball right now.”

Nelson, who met Conforto when he was a middle schooler at the Atkinson Baseball Academy in Kirkland, Wash., has witnessed few wholesale changes in his swing since that time. Video from the 2004 Little League World Series reveals the same compact stroke, the same steady bat path capable of spraying balls to each third of the field.

It is a swing, Nelson says, that works best when unleashed at 70-percent effort, when it’s free and easy and athletic. While Nelson doesn’t buy into the notion that a pretty swing is necessarily an effective one, he knows the aesthetics can’t hurt. Prettiness hints at the athleticism within.

“It actually makes some people mad,” Nelson said. “When other hitters are watching him, they’re going, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s not even trying and the ball’s going so far. How is that possible?’ It’s a gift. It really is. He’s exceptionally gifted, and he does a lot of things really well.”

What Conforto does better than just about anyone is hit to the opposite field. Since he debuted in July 2015, only eight Major Leaguers -- four of them lefties -- have hit more opposite-field homers than him, according to Statcast data. Nearly 40 percent of Conforto’s extra-base hits have gone to left and left-center.

Theoretically, he approaches the ideal picture of a hitter: one capable of both power and average, with few cold patches in his heat map. But Conforto has not always demonstrated the consistency needed to be a superstar; as recently as last July 11, his post-surgery slump had dragged his average down to .215, his OPS to .699. While Conforto still insists he was healthy at the end of Spring Training, he admits now that health and normalcy are two different things. It took about 200 at-bats, Conforto said, to “feel normal” again.

“You stop thinking about what’s going on and start focusing on what’s coming at you,” Conforto said. “You relax a little bit. You’re not so tight up there. You’re just hitting.”

That is when his swing is at its best. With Nelson, Conforto analyzes video of his motion from side and back angles, sometimes hitting in front of an array of mirrors so he can adjust mechanical flaws on the fly. He pounds them into his muscle memory and then, once the season begins, tries to avoid video as much as possible. The swing is enough.

“It’s natural,” Davis said. “And we try to keep it natural with him.”