JUPITER, Fla. — Michael Conforto mashed a two-run home run in the first inning Saturday against the Marlins, a majestic, no-doubt drive punctuated by a bat flip — an unusual show of swag for Conforto because “that one just felt good,” he said.
But let manager Mickey Callaway tell you about what Conforto did in his next at-bat.
“Ground ball through the left side, runner in scoring position [and two outs]. It was great,” he said. “A great homer, obviously, but I can’t remember one time him doing that last year, where he got a ground ball the other way.
“That’s what it takes. You’re not always going to hit a homer when there’s a runner in scoring position, because they’re pitching you tough. You’re going to get more RBIs doing that than you would hitting homers with runners in scoring position.”
Both of Conforto’s knocks in the Mets’ 11-6 loss came against Miami flamethrower Sandy Alcantara. The home run was impressive, but Conforto’s opposite-field, against-the-shift shot through the infield drew more praise from Callaway and hitting coach Chili Davis “by far,” he said.
The shift-beaters, as Conforto called them, have been a point of emphasis in the rightfielder’s work in spring training, particularly with Davis, who stresses situational hitting.
Conforto lamented the frequency with which defensive shifts — three infielders on the right side of second base — have swallowed up would-be hits.
Last season in particular, Conforto was a pull hitter, sending 43 percent of his batted balls to right and 25 percent to left, according to FanGraphs. When he had two outs and a runner in scoring position, as he did in the third inning Saturday, he did a better job evening that out, with a third of his batted balls going to the opposite field.
But Conforto wants to get better, and Callaway’s goal is for opposing teams to stop shifting on him (and other Mets).
“I’ve hit hundreds of balls into the shift and personally, I’ve wanted to get away from it,” Conforto said. “I’ve wanted to shoot the ball through the hole when I get the chance. I’ve had the opportunities; it’s just a matter of taking what the pitcher gives you and not being so conscious of trying to hit that home run. So to have both today was a good sign.
“A couple pitches told me [Alcantara] was going to speed me up and try to go away slow. I tried to stay on that pitch outside and shoot it through there. That’s something I’ve seen [Jeff] McNeil and [Robinson] Cano do a bunch of times. Just guys rubbing off on each other and making the team better.”
This spring training — in which he is hitting .244 with two homers, 14 strikeouts and two walks — is different for Conforto. At 26, heading into his fifth major-league season, he is freed from the burdens of a stressful camp. He doesn’t have to learn his way around, as was the case in 2016, his first big-league camp (albeit after an impressive rookie year and World Series run). He doesn’t have to try to win a job, as was the case in 2017, when he ended up making the team. And he doesn’t have to rehabilitate a major shoulder injury, which is what he was doing at this time last year.
Instead, Conforto can work on whatever he wants. Of late, that has been his mentality at the plate, his hand positioning on the bat and where he places his weight — all little things as he starts to ramp up with the season fast approaching.
“Now is the time as we get closer, you lock it in a little bit,” he said. “You’re not going out there trying to experiment with stuff and now you hone in on your game swing, your mentality and your approach. Now we’re getting into that.”