‘A useful reset’: How Giants OF Michael Conforto is using a lost year to get ready for a crucial 2023

SCOTTDALE, Arizona. He just turned 30 years old. He is left handed. He boasts a career 124 OPS+ — the same as Nolan Arenado and Rafael Devers — and was a free agent this winter. By that measure, one would expect a bidding war for the long-term centerpiece. But Michael Conforto was a special case.

The former New York Mets outfielder slumped in 2021, the year of his original contract, and didn’t play at all in 2022 following shoulder surgery. The San Francisco Giants then signed him for two years and $36 million with a waiver after the first year that he can activate by batting 350 times and hope that despite the absence of Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa they have signed a powerful focal point for their composition anyway.

At an early stage, Conforto gives grounds for such hope. A full 17 months away from his last game against major league pitching, he was out of action in spring training. In seven games so far, Conforto has hit three home runs for a .263/.318/.737 overall hitting eight times and going ahead twice.

“It was impressive, but not surprising,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said of Conforto’s fast start. “So you take a vacation, you recover from an injury – you don’t lose what makes you so good.”

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And with the benefit of a longer memory, the Conforto was very good. Between 2017 and 2020, he was ranked among the top 25 players in the game. by FanGraphs WAR and net hit rates, allied with winter headliners like Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Trea Turner. During that time, Conforto batted .265, walked a lot, and hit 97 homers.

This is exactly the message that Kapler provided to Conforto as he returns to normal.

“You need physical fitness,” Kapler said. “But you remember how to do it, and if you just let your body take over, I think that’s an example of what happened to Michael. He is healthy. So his natural athleticism takes over and he’s been successful.”

Kapler, who missed the entire 2007 season of his playing career and returned with one of his strongest offensive seasons, said on Sunday that players sometimes need to break out of a mental routine. Theoretically, a vacation year could be unintentionally beneficial.

“As Gabe says, it’s a useful reset,” Conforto said. There is certainly some truth in this. You can look at things from a different perspective without being in high season, look at your career, look at what you did well when you had a great year and what you didn’t do well. when you didn’t have a good year. So you can put it to good use.”

New Giants outfielder Michael Conforto missed all of 2022 with a shoulder injury but scored three times early in spring training.  (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
New Giants outfielder Michael Conforto missed all of 2022 with a shoulder injury but scored three times early in spring training. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

As for Conforto, what he did well in his prime years – what he’s trying to do well in 2023 – is crushing fastballs. He said he often fell between fastballs and off-speed offers during his 2021 campaign, when he cut .232/.344/.384 despite maintaining strong strike and walk numbers. His performance against the heaters in 2021 was starkly different from the rest of his career. That season, he hit just .401 against quad-seam and 2-seam machines, after regularly hitting .500 or higher SLG ratings in previous seasons. And he didn’t sniff. He just didn’t hit them hard.

Overall, his offensive performance was still marginally better than the league average in terms of park-adjusted wRC+ hits, but it was a serious setback for a corner-playing outfielder who aspired to be a star. reportedly turned down a long-term renewal with the Mets.

This spring, Conforto has focused heavily on fastballing, getting comfortable in the outfield, and shooting with a surgically repaired shoulder.

“The target is right now and I’m kind of on my way, just in time for the fastball and work from there,” he said. “That has always been my bread and butter.”

The PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus considers Conforto the Giants’ best hitter, in a tie with Jock Pederson and another free agent signed by Mitch Honeyger. But injury history limits Conforto’s estimated playing time to 370 plate games. If the Giants are going to compete – or surprise in 2021 style – in the busy NL West, they will almost certainly need Conforto to be fully healthy and back in the form that has made him one of the sport’s most intriguing young hitters. many years ago.

Recent history supports the idea that the Giants may have helped him do just that. They made a similar short-term deal with Carlos Rodon after he turned injury-cut hopes to the Chicago White Sox, and in return they got Cy Young as a season-long contender before he landed a major contract with the New York Yankees. “.

That team in 2021, as you remember, also had a striker who came out of an unplanned sabbatical. Buster Posey’s off year came as he pulled out of the shortened 2020 season, not because he had major shoulder surgery, but because of the parallel stands.

For now, Conforto is using the lost time as fuel. He asked the Giants coaches to remind him that “being in this club and being able to play this game is something special.”

“If I can take anything out of this, it’s perspective,” he said. “When I’m fighting, I try to remember that 0 out of 3 is so much better than at home.”


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