Michael Conforto is ready to break out

The Mets’ young outfielder was having an outstanding season before a bizarre injury ended it. At only 25, he has a shot at reaching lofty heights only a few ever make it to in New York. He just needs health. 

In the depths of baseball’s dog days with the New York Mets 20 games adrift in the NL East, Michael Conforto took what should have been an innocuous swing. The Diamondbacks’ Robbie Ray whipped a fastball through an 80-degree August day, aimed outside but creeping back towards the inner-half of the plate. Conforto saw a fat pitch—a 94 mile-per-hour belt-high offering—that he could drive into the distant Citi Field seats. He’d already done so 27 times on the year, 16 at his home park, and 48 times in a nascent career only 850 at-bats old.

He steadied in the box with his usual calm, smoothly lifting his front foot from its open placement to a more traditional step that allowed his stride to end with the foot pointed towards the mound. He swung hard, a little late and underneath the ball. Then, disaster.

Conforto’s swing is an uncomplicated “muscle up” affair. He keeps both hands on the bat and reacts fast through the zone. At contact, though, he swats the ball with effortless potency, as though he and his bat reach nirvana on the barrel. On his follow-through, he looks a kind of hardball yogi before he breaks for first base—tranquil, graceful and balanced through the backswing.

On that late-August cut, everything looked fine until his follow-through: His right hand stayed glued to the knob, but his left hand—his top hand—jerked across his chest and lost grip of the handle. Conforto crumbled to the dirt, clutching his shoulder in agony and confusion. He suffered a tear of his posterior capsule. Two weeks after, he underwent surgery to repair the damage. Conforto’s season was obviously over, but the expected six-month recovery timetable meant making the start of the next one was in doubt.

On the cusp of breaking out, Conforto was shelved.

Conforto is a “face of a New York franchise” type of player: he’s handsome, a New York City prerequisite; he’s a wire-to-wire Met; he’s accomplished a lot with the franchise already; and he’s so good so young, it’s difficult to think he won’t be better.

He has flown largely under the radar during his professional career. Wedged between the Mets’ gilded arms and consecutive trade-deadline outfield additions, Conforto doesn’t grade high on the backpage scale of tabloid pomp (of the celebrity and/or polarizing performance kind) plus transaction glitz plus explosive talent like some of his teammates. He is a rare print in New York’s collection: a prodigious homegrown position player that has developed nicely. New York’s assortment of starting pitchers started coming up five years ago, but they’ve rarely been matched by a consistent system-developed position player. Matt Harvey made it to the big leagues in 2013, Jacob deGrom in 2014, and Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz joined in 2015. Since Harvey’s call-up, only three homegrown position players (David Wright, Juan Lagares, and Lucas Duda) have had at least one season of 3 bWAR or better. Conforto became the fourth last season.

Conforto seems older than he is, partly because he’s done so much with the Mets already. He was an all-star in 2017. At only 22, he was in the World Series, squaring up Royals pitching at an age when most people are trying to figure out their post-college plans. He’s been at the major league level for parts of three seasons, totaling only 274 games. With two postseason trips, a division title and an NL pennant, Conforto’s Queens resumé already has a heft that most players in Mets history would envy.

Though a second-half arrival in 2015, he played an important role during New York’s surprise run that year. His potential coalesced in Game 4 of the World Series, where Conforto became the third-youngest player in series history with a multi-homer game.

Conforto struggled mightily in 2016, a terrible season that included two minor league stints. But 2017 was proving the previous year a blip. He was New York’s most consistent offensive player before the shoulder injury. Conforto produced at a 36 home run, 91 RBI per-500-at-bats clip last year, gaudy hypothetical numbers that highlight what a strong season he was having before the swing that ended it.

Conforto’s batted-ball data shows a player that squares the ball up at an above-average rate, and hits it hard often enough to imply his 2017 production isn’t as anomalous as it may seem relative to his poor 2016. At only 25, his physical abilities are a few years away from any notable decline. So long as he stays healthy. If he can capture that form again and display it for more than 109 games a season (his personal high in the MLB), he’d be a franchise-cornerstone position player that New York hasn’t brought up since David Wright’s prime.

Conforto’s determined rehab led him to the big league club just before the break of camp, almost exactly seven months after surgery on his dislocated shoulder. On Friday, he tallied a single in four at-bats as a DH. On Saturday, he worked two walks and scored a run while also playing the field. He looked comfortable swinging the bat, and has all spring (he’s been working his way through minor league camps before this weekend). He’ll start 2018 on the DL; all signs so far have been promising, but baseball needs constant reps, of which Conforto needs much more of before he can comfortably return to the highest level of the game. Which is where he belongs—the highest level. Before that devastating late-August swing, Conforto was playing his best with the best. When he returns to Citi Field, he’ll need to find that level again. If he does, the breakout that was flashed a year ago will be confirmed.

With health, Michael Conforto could propel the Mets for years to come, one effortlessly potent swing at a time.

Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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