With just over three weeks until Opening Day, the New York Mets are getting closer to finalizing their roster. After building one of MLB’s deepest squads, the Mets still have multiple spots up for grabs at each position. Each Wednesday leading up to the start of the season, a new position will get its own preview. Check out the previous breakdowns in the links below. Today, it’s time to take a closer look at right field.
First off, #ExtendConforto.
With that out of the way, Michael Conforto is arguably the most important player on this team not named Jacob deGrom. While he’s previously shown glimpses of his true potential, it was in 2020 that he finally produced a full season (albeit a 60-game season) of pure greatness.
Before getting into his offense, Conforto’s defense is deserving of praise as well. The best corner outfielder on the team, he owns a spectacular .993 fielding percentage in 1659 innings in right. Likewise, he’s made just three errors there, all of which came in 2019. Conforto’s arm is also starting to show its real potential, recording six assists in 2020 after having just eight in his whole career. The only things really holding him back are his below average speed and less than optimal route taking, both issues being slightly offset by his great reaction time. Overall, he owns 5 DRS, 2.5 UZR and -1 OAA (-6 in 2020 greatly drags this down) in right field.
As for his offense, Conforto led all Mets position players in 2020 with 2.3 bWAR after slashing .322/.412/.515 with a 156 OPS+. By sacrificing some power (he was still on pace for 27 home runs), he was able to drive the ball more frequently. This switch helped him become one of the best players in baseball last year. Had a hamstring injury not derailed the end of his season, Conforto could have been even better.
There were three main factors to Conforto’s offensive breakout last season. The first is that he finally started hitting to all sides of the field. From 2015-19, his pull rate was just under 40%. Meanwhile, he was only going the other way around 25% of the time. This all changed in 2020 as his pull rate plummeted to 27% and his opposite field rate rose to 31.7%. No longer a dead-pull hitter, Conforto easily beat the shift and utilized his raw power to drive the ball in any direction.
The second factor was Conforto’s performance against off-speed and breaking pitches. Last season, rather than hit just over-under .200 against them, he hit .314 against off-speed pitches and .316 against breaking balls. This goes hand-in-hand with his third development: hitting against lefties. In the past, he usually hit in the low .200s versus left-handed pitchers as they pounded him with off-speed and breaking pitches. In 2020, he hit .284 against them. Granted, it was only in 86 plate appearances, but it’s still a promising trend nonetheless.
The only real concern for Conforto is whether or not he can sustain this level of production. 2020 was so out of the ordinary for him, it stands to reason that he’s due for a regression. An absurd .412 BABIP last year greatly inflated a lot of his stats, hence his xBA on off-speed and breaking pitches being just .245 and .234, respectively. However, his overall xBA was an excellent .284, which would have easily been the best average of his career.
Ultimately, there’s hope that Conforto’s offensive breakout really was the result of his adjustments at the plate. If he can successfully carry over these adjustments to 2021, he might just appear on a few MVP ballots at season’s end.
Two New Backups
In lieu of signing a new starting outfielder, the Mets signed a couple of veteran backups instead. The first was Albert Almora Jr.. Once a highly touted prospect, Almora has struggled to a .271/.309/.398 slash line and an 84 OPS+ since 2016. Despite being elite in center from 2016-18, he’s faltered a bit since then, going from 10 DRS in 2018 to -5 in 2019. As a result, the Mets could use him in right sometimes, though, he’s only played 19 innings there.
The other new addition is Kevin Pillar. Though the eight-year veteran has spent most of his career in center, he has logged 477 innings in right. He actually has decent numbers in right, including 5 DRS, 6 UZR and 2 OAA. Pillar also comes with a bit more offensive upside than Almora, having slashed .288/.336/.462 with a 107 OPS+ in 2020. While he hasn’t done much with the bat prior to 2020, he should, at the very least, be a solid fourth outfielder.
Late Season Callups
Even with a crowded outfield, there are two more guys who could make a late-season impact. The first is veteran Mallex Smith. While his bat is similarly unimpressive like Almora and Pillar (career 88 OPS+), his real value comes from his base running. Since 2016, his sprint speed ranks near the top of the league. In 2019, he even led the majors with 46 steals in 55 attempts. Though his defense in right is a mixed bag (-1 DRS and -3.2 UZR vs. 3 OAA and .994 fielding%), his value as a pinch runner may prompt an eventual callup.
Lastly is the Mets’ seventh overall prospect, Khalil Lee. After landing him in a trade with Kansas City, Lee immediately became the organization’s top outfield prospect. Despite being just 22 years old, many scouts consider him to be on the cusp of making the majors. His most appealing quality is his incredible athleticism. On top of being an excellent base runner (53 steals in 2019), he also has a powerful arm that allows him to regularly gun down runners at third and home (38 assists). Offensively, Lee owns a decent slash line of .256/.366/.409 through AA. He still strikes out too much, but with some extra polishing he could come up and fill a similar role as Conforto did in 2015.
That wraps things up for the right fielders. Check back next Wednesday for the center field preview.
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