SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He just turned 30. He bats left-handed. He boasts a career 124 OPS+ — the same as Nolan Arenado and Rafael Devers — and he was a free agent this winter. By those measures, you’d expect a bidding war for a long-term centerpiece. But Michael Conforto was a special case.
The former New York Mets outfielder slumped in 2021, his original contract year, and didn’t play at all in 2022 after undergoing shoulder surgery. Then the San Francisco Giants signed him for two years and $36 million, with an opt-out after Year 1 that he can activate by batting 350 times and hopes that despite missing out on Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa, they signed a forceful focal point for their lineup anyway.
Early on, Conforto is providing reason for such hope. A full 17 months removed from his last action against major-league pitching, he has come out swinging in spring training. In seven games so far, Conforto has homered three times, posting an overall line of .263/.318/.737, striking out eight times and walking twice.
“It's been impressive but not surprising,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said of Conforto's fast start. “So you take some time off, you're rehabbing from an injury — you don't lose those things that make you so good.”
And with the benefit of a longer memory, Conforto has been very good. Between 2017 and 2020, he ranked as one of the top 25 position players in the game by FanGraphs WAR and by pure hitting metrics, in league with winter headliners such as Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Trea Turner. In that span, Conforto batted .265, took plenty of walks and blasted 97 homers.
That is exactly the messaging Kapler has provided for Conforto as he gets back to normalcy.
“You need the physical build-up,” Kapler said. “But you remember how to do this, and if you just let your body take over, I think that's an example of what's happened with Michael. He's healthy. So his natural athleticism is taking over, and he's having success.”
Kapler, who missed the entire 2007 season in his own playing career and came back with one of his strongest offensive seasons, said Sunday that players sometimes need to break out of the mental grind. A year off, in theory, can be unintentionally helpful.
“Like Gabe says, it’s a useful reset,” Conforto said. “There’s some truth to that, for sure. You’re able to view everything from a different perspective not being in the thick of a season, taking a look at your career, looking at the things you did well when you had a great year, the things you didn’t do so well when you didn’t have a good year. So you can use that in a positive way.”
For Conforto, the thing he did well in his successful years — the thing he’s trying to ensure he does well in 2023 — was crush fastballs. He said he often got caught between fastballs and off-speed offerings during his down 2021 campaign, when he slashed .232/.344/.384 despite maintaining strong strikeout and walk rates. His performance against heaters in 2021 was a stark departure from the rest of his career. He slugged just .401 against four-seamers and two-seamers that season after routinely posting .500 or better SLG marks in previous seasons. And he wasn’t whiffing. He just wasn’t hitting them solidly.
Overall, his offensive production was still slightly better than league average by the park-adjusted hitting metric wRC+, but it was a serious downturn for a bat-first corner outfielder who'd been building toward a star’s payday, reportedly having turned down a long-term extension with the Mets.
This spring, getting locked in on fastballs — while regaining comfort playing the outfield and throwing with the surgically repaired shoulder — has been a major point of emphasis for Conforto.
“The goal right now, and I’m kind of on my way, is just being on time to the fastball and working from there,” he said. “That’s always been my bread and butter.”
The PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus projects Conforto as the best Giants hitter, in a tie with Joc Pederson and fellow free-agent signing Mitch Haniger. But injury history limits Conforto's projected playing time to 370 plate appearances. If the Giants are going to compete — or surprise, 2021-style — in a loaded NL West, they will almost certainly need Conforto to be fully healthy and return to the form that made him one of the sport’s most intriguing young hitters just a few years ago.
Recent history supports the idea that the Giants could help him do just that. They gave Carlos Rodon a similar short-term deal after he showed injury-interrupted promise with the Chicago White Sox, and in return, they got a Cy Young contender season before he earned a massive contract with the New York Yankees.
That 2021 team, you’ll recall, also had a hitter coming off an unplanned sabbatical. Buster Posey’s year off came because he opted out of the shortened 2020 season, not because he underwent a serious shoulder operation, but the parallel stands.
For now, Conforto is using the lost time as fuel. He has asked Giants coaches to remind him that “it’s a special thing to be in this clubhouse and be able to play this game.”
“If there’s anything I can pull from that, it’s the perspective,” he said. “I’m trying to remember when I’m struggling that 0-for-3 is way better than being at home.”