Far down on the Mets’ summer to-do list as they enter the second half in evaluation mode, somewhere between deciding whether or not to trade Jacob deGrom and picking a few minor leaguers to give a look in September, is figuring out the best defensive homes for Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo.
Conforto has spent most of this season in centerfield, not his natural spot in left. Nimmo, conversely, has mostly played in the corners, not his more common position of center. Manager Mickey Callaway has said on multiple occasions that the team’s internal fielding metrics, as well as the coaches’ eye test, prefer it that way. But on Wednesday, he introduced a shift in that thinking and flipped the homegrown outfield anchors — Nimmo back to center, Conforto back to left.
And it will probably stay that way for at least a little while.
“The more and more we’ve evaluated and the more and more we’ve talked to guys, we felt like, listen, let’s try this little adjustment and see how they react,” Callaway said. “I really feel that those guys probably feel a little more comfortable in those positions, just from a mentality standpoint. I think it’s going to help them at the plate. I think it’s going to allow them to have the confidence they need to succeed on defense.”
In putting Conforto and Nimmo back in their traditional spots, Callaway, who leans on analytics without being held hostage by them, is ceding to the mental side. He cited psychological benefits as reason for the switch, a conclusion reached after a series of in-depth conversations with Conforto in particular.
The question has become a more prominent one amid Nimmo’s breakout couple of months, in which he has looked like a legitimate everyday player more than ever before. As the Mets contemplate their longer-term future and which pieces are keepers — will Amed Rosario prove himself? How about Dominic Smith? — learning how to maximize Nimmo and Conforto’s abilities is a piece of that.
“We [the coaches] kind of spearheaded this,” Callaway said. “It wasn’t really him coming to us with concerns about anything. I don’t think I saw a change in attitude because he didn’t feel that comfortable. But in our in-depth conversations with him, some little things and concerns came out. We decided to make this adjustment.”
Conforto and Nimmo, for their part, are consummate professionals and have consistently professed their comfort in all three outfield spots, however Callaway and outfield coach Ruben Amaro Jr. want to arrange them.
Nimmo, though, did acknowledge Wednesday that he is most comfortable in center, a product of playing there throughout his minor-league career (457 out of 565 games). Conforto played left during his quick trip through the minors (145 out of 167 games), shifting to center regularly only last season.
Even if the mental aspect was Callaway’s motivation, it might not be the only benefit.
Conforto’s modern defensive metrics suggest that — while he has largely held his own in center — he has taken a step back range-wise this season. In his centerfield career, he has been worth -9 defensive runs saved (including -6 this year). In left, he’s at 11 DRS (including two this year in limited time) in about 500 more innings.
The Mets’ internal numbers, which are generally more sophisticated than what is publicly available, have pointed to Conforto as the better option, Callaway has said.
“The numbers say one thing,” Callaway said. “We also try to take into account the human aspect of things.”
For Conforto, defensive changes and questions — earned or not — are nothing new. A shortstop in high school, he was a position-less bat at the onset of his Oregon State career, handed gloves for all over the diamond — infield, outfield, even catcher. The backstop experiment didn’t last long.
“It was bad,” Conforto said, laughing. “They shut that down.”
Conforto found a home in the outfield, specifically left, and mostly stayed there until last year.
“It makes no difference to me where I’m playing,” Conforto said. “I’ll play center, left, right. It doesn’t matter. As long as I’m in the lineup, I’ll be happy.”
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