PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Conforto came into this season with something to prove. Unlike Francisco Lindor, who publicly set an Opening Day deadline to negotiate a contract extension, Conforto indicated that he was willing to negotiate during the season. As a result, he and the Mets limited themselves to what team president Sandy Alderson called “brief but cordial” talks this spring, with owner Steve Cohen going as far as to suggest that Conforto might be committed to testing free agency.
If he does, he’ll want to position himself as by far the best outfielder available -- something that hasn’t been the case through three games this year. In the Mets’ 8-2 loss to the Phillies on Wednesday, Conforto finished 0-for-5 with two strikeouts, stranding nine runners on base. He is batting .200 on the young season.
“Michael’s the guy that we want in that situation,” manager Luis Rojas said. “That’s why he’s consistently hitting in the first three of the lineup regardless of who the pitcher is. We trust that he’s going to be clutch in RBI situations. He’s going to take a clutch at-bat. He’s going to get deep in counts. He’s going to get a pitch to hit because he lays off well. These are things that we understand can happen. If we run into this situation tomorrow, we want Michael to be the guy at the plate.”
Conforto’s best chance to contribute occurred in the fourth, when he worked a 2-2 count on Aaron Nola with the bases loaded and two outs. But he left his bat on his shoulder as Nola grazed the outside corner with a well-placed knuckle-curve, extinguishing one of the Mets’ best scoring opportunities. In the moment, Conforto raised his head to the sky, visibly frustrated by the call. When he looked at the replay back in the clubhouse, Conforto acknowledged that Nola had thrown a near-perfect pitch.
Equally frustrating were his groundout with a man on second in the first inning, his flyout with runners on the corners in the third, and his strikeout swinging with two men on base in the sixth. On this day, Conforto was hardly the only culprit; the Mets finished 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left 14 men on base. It’s just that Conforto was in the middle of it all during a game that saw David Peterson allow four first-inning runs and the bullpen continue its early-season struggles.
“It’s an anxiety level sometimes that a team can get to when they have runners in scoring position,” Rojas said. “They just want to do a little more.”
For both Conforto and the Mets, that was an issue throughout the 2020 season.
Conforto’s 2020 batting average: .322, 8th in MLB
With runners in scoring position: .277, 85th in MLB
With runners in scoring position and two outs: .240, 161st in MLB
Conforto’s 2020 OPS: .927, 20th in MLB
With runners in scoring position: .807, 110th in MLB
With runners in scoring position and two outs: .687, 180th in MLB
As a team, the Mets led the league in batting average in 2020 but ranked 22nd with men on base. Although some modern theories state that hitters’ averages with runners in scoring position don’t matter, because the sample sizes will never be big enough to normalize in a given season, most players strongly disagree with that take. Conforto is one of them, calling the idea of hitting in clutch spots “incredibly important.”
“It’s much easier to feel good about a game when you’re 0-for-4 but you put a ball in play to bring in a run, or you sacrifice fly, or you did something to help the team win,” Conforto said. “I think it’s a huge part of this game. That’s how you win games. That’s how you stay in games. I would say it’s one of the most important things, and that’s why we’re focusing so hard on trying to be better at it.”
And so Conforto will look to improve, knowing the Mets’ season depends upon it -- not to mention the future outlook of a player now seven months away from free agency. On paper, Conforto is by far the most complete outfielder set to hit the market next winter: a 28-year-old former first-round Draft pick who can hit for both power and average, with enough defensive skills to remain at a corner spot for years to come. Given all that, he’s likely to receive a significant contract no matter how he performs in 2021.
Even so, a full, All-Star caliber season would seal things for Conforto, who has struggled to submit those throughout his career. Conforto was well on his way to one in 2017, before a shoulder injury -- similar to the one Fernando Tatis Jr. just suffered with the Padres -- knocked him out for the final month-plus of the season. Conforto took a full step back the following year, then a half-step forward in 2019, before breaking out with a .322/.412/.515 slash line last summer. That, however, occurred in just 54 games due to the pandemic-shortened season.
Now is Conforto’s chance to prove it was for real, even if it’s off to a rocky beginning. He knows three games mean little with 159 still to play.
“I don’t think any of us are too worried about what happened here over this first series,” Conforto said. “But we’re well aware that we didn’t play very well, top to bottom. We can definitely do things better.”