- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

The M Met

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

In the summer of 2015, an undermanned and shoddily constructed Mets club stumbled along, refusing to fall entirely out of contention despite scoring the fewest runs in the National League, battling injuries, and having to navigate the usual headwinds of being owned by the Wilpons. On July 22, the Mets blew a 3-1 lead in the 8th against the Nationals, a gut punch of a loss [2], but one that left them still just three behind a Nats team that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way. The next day, Clayton Kershaw [3] and the Dodgers came to town and the Mets sent this lineup out to meet them: Granderson, Tejada, Flores, Mayberry, Campbell, Duda, Lagares, Recker, Colon. Murderers’ Row? This wasn’t even Mutterers of Vague Threats Row. The cleanup hitter, Mayberry, was hitting .170, and protected — to bend a definition so far past its actual meaning that it instantly breaks — by Campbell, a guy hitting .179. It was the kind of lineup that would encourage you to make other plans if announced for a March matinee in Kissimmee, except this was July and the Mets were in a pennant race, however dimly they seemed to perceive that.

If the gambit was to lull Kershaw into a snoozy sense of ease, it didn’t work — the Dodgers’ ace was perfect through six and wound up fanning 11, walking nobody and giving up a grand total of three hits. Honestly, it was a surprise he gave up any.

And yet, for all that, the Nats dropped a game in Pittsburgh and the Mets were still just three out.

Fans were screaming for someone to do something — a reaction GM Sandy Alderson had dismissed earlier that month as Panic City. But after pacifism failed to intimidate Kershaw, Alderson finally admitted the team he’d constructed was at least living in Panic City’s iffy suburb, Concern. Michael Cuddyer [4] had hurt his knee in late June but remained entrenched on the roster; now he was finally put on the DL, replaced by a young left fielder named Michael Conforto [5].

It was a move fans had been campaigning for, but also a sign of desperation. Conforto was 22 and had logged just 45 games with Double-A Binghamton after being promoted from Single-A St. Lucie. Ten months earlier, he’d been a Brooklyn Cyclone; three months before that, he’d been an Oregon State Beaver. Scouts reported the bat was ready, but warned that Conforto was slow on the bases and in the field, with poor range and a weak arm. He’d likely to be an improvement over the various one-legged and/or sub-Mendoza line alternatives, but it was far from clear that he was ready for the big leagues, or that the audition was the best thing for his development as a player.

I simultaneously dismissed the call-up as an ill-advised publicity stunt and welcomed it: In Panic City, beggars can’t be choosers. Besides, I’d seen several of Conforto’s games on Coney Island the previous summer and remembered him well. That was new territory for me, as most Mets’ Cyclone tenures had washed out of my memory by the time the players reached Shea or Citi Field. I know I saw the likes of Ike Davis [6], Lucas Duda [7] and Pete Alonso [8] as Cyclones, but can’t recall any particulars.

I was also excited because Conforto would become a milestone player in franchise history even if he never did more than cameo as a pinch-hitter. He was slated to be the 1,000th player to appear in a game for the Mets, a landmark Greg and I had seen coming and wondered and worried about more than was healthy. Obviously I had no experience in commemorating such an event, but it was obvious to me that the 1,000th Met — the M Met, let’s call him — should be someone significant. Steven Matz [9] had been the 999th Met and would have been a fine choice for No. 1,000, particularly after his debut came with hitting heroics and Grandpa Bert having the time of his life celebrating them. Noah Syndergaard [10] had been the 995th Met; Thor would have been fine too. But between Syndergaard and Matz we’d been introduced to Darrell Ceciliani [11], Akeel Morris [12] and Logan Verrett [13] — fine gentlemen, I’m sure, but players whose ceilings were somewhere between Answer to Unfair Trivia Question and Oh Yeah, That Guy. I would have worked up enthusiasm for the 1,000th Met even if he’d been a backup catcher, a hair-on-fire reliever or a good-glove, no-bat shortstop, but oh it would have been disappointing. A real prospect assuming the mantle was so much more satisfying.

Conforto made his debut against lefty Ian Thomas [14] and went 0-for-4, but collected his first RBI with a groundout to the right side that brought in Duda. The Mets lost, but my publicity-stunt worries proved unfounded — Alderson was about to be very busy. For starters, he engineered a trade with the Braves to bring in Kelly Johnson [15] and Juan Uribe [16], competent veterans who were also ambulatory. They arrived the next day and Conforto went 4-for-4 as the Mets bombarded the Dodgers. We didn’t know it yet, but the rocket was about to lift off and leave Panic City far behind: Ahead of us lay the non-trade for Carlos Gomez [17], the arrival of Yoenis Cespedes [18], Wilmer Flores [19]‘ elevation to folk hero, David Wright [20]‘s brief but thrilling recovery, the obliteration of the Nationals, and a long-awaited return to the postseason. The Mets played 12 weeks of gravity-defying baseball, a run that was both giddy and glorious, taking them past the Dodgers and over the hapless Cubs and into the World Series. (That meant a 13th week of baseball, which turned to be neither giddy nor glorious, but them’s the breaks.)

Conforto was front and center. That swing was as pretty as I’d remembered from Brooklyn, and the M Met had a precocious understanding of the strike zone. But he also looked a lot better than we’d feared in the outfield — he wasn’t fleet, exactly, but he had good enough instincts to maximize his range, and the arm was fine. Conforto capped off his rookie season with a pair of home runs in Game 4 of the World Series, connecting off old friend Chris Young [21] and lefty Danny Duffy [22], and just missed [23] what would have been a 10th-inning walkoff homer in Game 5 off Luke Hochevar [24], catching a 3-2 cutter a little too low on the barrel.

(If he’d connected, the history of the Mets — and, who knows, perhaps the last five years — might be far brighter. I will now go off and sulk for a little while.)

Conforto didn’t hit a walkoff. He got one more 2015 at-bat, singling in the 12th off Wade Davis [25], but by then the Royals had done terrible things to Addison Reed [26] and Bartolo Colon [27] and it was 7-2. Conforto was on second when Flores struck out and the season ended. But he’d arrived and seemed destined for stardom as part of the young core of a rising team.

In 2016, Conforto got off to a hot start, but then was flummoxed by a succession of wicked lefties, fell into a slump and was sent down to the minors to get his breath and earn his place, returning with a better game plan and some much-needed mental toughness, leading to…

Oh wait — I copy-pasted that from The Big Book of Baseball Cliches. Sorry. That’s always a danger in the baseball-chronicling trade.

What actually happened was the Mets did their damnedest to screw Conforto up, and he relied on the mental toughness he already possessed to survive his employer’s negligence.

Confort had hit .274 against lefties in 180 minor-league plate appearances. In 2015 and early 2016 he hit .188 against them … in a grand total of 34 plate appearances.

Conforto and Alonso [28]

A city, busted in half.

Thirty-four plate appearances shouldn’t be enough to convince anyone of anything, but it was enough to make Terry Collins [29] believe Conforto couldn’t hit lefties — after all, he was left-handed and young. Conforto started 26 of the Mets’ first 27 games in 2016, hitting the hell out of the ball, but Collins turned him into a platoon player. He was benched for 13 of the next 45. Denied regular playing time — something young players really do need — he started pressing. The hot start turned lukewarm and then ice cold, given an assist by an unsustainable .167 BABIP. To be fair, it’s not like Conforto never saw a lefty — for instance, Collins sent him up as a pinch-hitter against one at the end of May. That lefty was Kershaw.

Collins’ mishandling of Conforto led to him not being able to hit anybody, which led to his being banished to the minors, which led to him hitting like his old self because he got to play every day and his luck turned and Collins wasn’t around to fuck with him, which led to his recall, which led to a ridiculous Just So story about what had happened and the supposed lesson of it. But the Mets weren’t done — they tried to turn Conforto into a center fielder, a position for which his ceiling was “heroic adequacy.” They did pretty much everything they could to derail him, but somehow he survived, making the All-Star team in 2017 and looking like even the Mets couldn’t mess him up. Then, on Aug. 24, his season screeched to a halt when he dislocated a shoulder on an innocent-looking swing.

Conforto was expected to miss the first couple of months of 2018, but was only late reporting for duty by a week. That looked like good fortune, but it wasn’t — he clearly wasn’t himself, both in terms of his swing and his approach to at-bats. The season was a struggle, but in 2019 Conforto rebounded, rising above the 30-homer plateau for the first time and providing several great moments, from the “Scooter and the Big Man” game (as instantly immortalized [30] by Gary Cohen), to the walkoff single that capped a frantic comeback [31] against the Nats in August.

Even as he became a Mets mainstay, though, Conforto was dogged by grumbling that he wasn’t clutch, that he was too streaky, and so forth. Which made me roll my eyes (or worse), but I came to see it as a backhanded compliment. That picture-perfect swing looks like it should deliver 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons routinely, if only for the fact that baseball isn’t quite that simple. No one was frustrated with, say, Eric Campbell [32]‘s failure to launch, but Conforto has always competed against his own potential.

He’s been my favorite player since he arrived — but in my own way, I too have sold Conforto short. He isn’t flashy at the plate or afield, and he’s affected a measured, deliberately dull style in postgame media scrums. Deprived of his shirt by Alonso, he looked faintly embarrassed by the whole thing. I’ve taken him for granted, assuming that he’ll be in there every day, and waiting for his talents to truly take flight.

2020, while a miserable year, did give us Conforto taking the next step as a hitter. Left alone in right field, he hit .322 (and .284 against lefties), with nary a whisper about clutch. And it became clear that he’d become a leader in the clubhouse — a maturation never more clear than when he took the lead role addressing the media the night the Mets and Marlins chose not to play. It’s easy to forget that he’ll still be shy of his 28th birthday when the Mets return to spring training; I don’t want to think about the fact that he’ll be eligible for free agency when they disperse at season’s end.

Maybe Conforto will never be the superstar he’s clearly capable of becoming — maybe he’ll just remain a very good player, the kind you hope to be able to slot into the middle of a lineup. But I wouldn’t bet against him. He’s already survived Collins’ meddling and life as a Wilpon employee, after all. I can’t think of a better way for the Steve Cohen era to begin than to ensure Conforto will be part of the Mets’ plan through his prime — and I can’t wait to see what other numbers will be significant when we look back at the M Met and his career.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [33]: Richie Ashburn
1963 [34]: Ron Hunt
1964 [35]: Rod Kanehl
1965 [36]: Ron Swoboda
1966 [37]: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967 [38]: Al Schmelz
1969 [39]: Donn Clendenon
1970 [40]: Tommie Agee
1971 [41]: Tom Seaver
1972 [42]: Gary Gentry
1973 [43]: Willie Mays
1974 [44]: Tug McGraw
1975 [45]: Mike Vail
1976 [46]: Mike Phillips
1977 [47]: Lenny Randle
1978 [48]: Craig Swan
1981 [49]: Mookie Wilson
1982 [50]: Rusty Staub
1983 [51]: Darryl Strawberry
1985 [52]: Dwight Gooden
1986 [53]: Keith Hernandez
1987 [54]: Lenny Dykstra
1988 [55]: Gary Carter
1990 [56]: Gregg Jefferies
1991 [57]: Rich Sauveur
1992 [58]: Todd Hundley
1993 [59]: Joe Orsulak
1994 [60]: Rico Brogna
1995 [61]: Jason Isringhausen
1996 [62]: Rey Ordoñez
1997 [63]: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998 [64]: Todd Pratt
2000 [65]: Melvin Mora
2001 [66]: Mike Piazza
2002 [67]: Al Leiter
2003 [68]: David Cone
2004 [69]: Joe Hietpas
2005 [70]: Pedro Martinez
2007 [71]: Jose Reyes
2008 [72]: Johan Santana
2009 [73]: Angel Pagan
2010 [74]: Ike Davis
2011 [75]: David Wright
2012 [76]: R.A. Dickey
2013 [77]: Wilmer Flores
2014 [78]: Jacob deGrom
2017 [79]: Paul Sewald
2019 [80]: Dom Smith
2020 [81]: Pete Alonso