With their first-round pick, at No. 10 overall in 2014, the Mets drafted Oregon State left fielder Michael Conforto. One of the top collegiate hitters in the draft class, Conforto was the kind of player fans hoped would climb quickly through the system on his way to the big leagues.
The Mets began Conforto off with the Brooklyn Cyclones, in the short-season Single-A New York Penn League. Similar players, collegiate hitters from the top of the draft, had spent less than a month playing in, and generally dominating, short season ball, before moving on to full-season minor leagues.
Conforto looked like he was comfortably on this path. In his first 12 games in a Cyclones’ uniform, he hit a scorching .409/.490/.523 with five doubles, six walks, a .486 BABIP and seven strikeouts.
Then a funny thing happened. He cooled down. The earnest and thoughtful Conforto, in the dugout before a recent game at MCU Park in Coney Island said, “I knew that when I started out hot … I wasn’t going to hit .400 forever. No one does that.”
In his subsequent 24 games, since July 31, Conforto has hit a more pedestrian .280/.361/.366 with nine walks, 19 strikeouts, two doubles, two home runs and a .324 BABIP. All told, Conforto has played in only 36 games total, and garnered 159 total plate appearances, or less than a quarter of a big league season, so making any statistical judgments based on splits within that has limited insight.
Still, in discussing his last few weeks, Conforto did not entirely blame sample size or the randomness of baseball. Instead, he said recently that he has felt different.
“There have been some games here and there where I haven’t been feeling like I was seeing it quite as well as I had been earlier in the season,” he said. “It’s kind of interesting how baseball works like that. I come off of not playing a game for a month or so, and I feel like I’m seeing the ball great. Maybe I had fresh eyes. Maybe it was something else. It’s just interesting that the last week or so, the last two weeks there have been days where I haven’t been feeling as great at the plate.”
Cyclones’ hitting coach Benny Distefano — the last left-handed throwing catcher to play in the big leagues — teaches with a mix of technique and a heaping helping of humor.
Whenever Conforto returns to the Brooklyn dugout after getting a hit, Distefano is there to greet him, usually with a similar remark.
“You almost look like a ballplayer,” the hitting coach tells the first round pick, “and I almost look like a hitting coach.”
In a more serious moment, Distefano took time out to praise Conforto, “He’s got great aptitude. He’s a good, good hitter. His pitch recognition is outstanding.”
When Conforto arrived in Brooklyn, Distefano saw something in his new charge’s swing that they would need to work on together. In this respect, he was a few weeks ahead of New York-Penn League pitchers.
“When they started pitching him in, he comes off the ball a little bit with his front arm. He leaks,” the former big leaguer said.
Specifically, he was talking about Conforto’s front elbow, the right one for the left-handed hitter. Instead of driving down towards the ball, Conforto would “cheat” with his elbow and move it up to create more space for his hands to clear through to handle inside pitches. It’s the kind of thing that he could get away with using metal bats, and hitting against collegiate pitchers without refined control.
Conforto explained that he and Distefano have worked on two main areas, his hand position and weight transfer, and both should help him with balls on the inner half.
“He wants me to think keep the barrel above the hands on the inside pitch and that allows the barrel to get there and for me to get some backspin on that inside pitch and it creates more power,” the youngster said. “Obviously, the barrel isn’t going to be above the hands in a game, but that mindset keeps the barrel more level through the zone.”
Distefano did not seem worried about Conforto and handling balls on the inner half.
“All that is, in inexperience,” Distefano said, “He’d never really been shown it.”
He’s not going to learn a new technique in a week, a fortnight, or even one month. However, Conforto and his Brooklyn Cyclones look like they will pick up a little extra experience in the near future as they hold a two game lead in the wild card standings with five games to play in the New York-Penn League’s regular season with a chance to earn a few extra games in the playoffs.