PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
The unseen source of strength, the intangible asset, that could vault Michael Conforto from 2017 All-Star to perhaps a 2019 MVP candidate is the scar tissue.
There is the stitched-up, healed-over framework of his left shoulder, of course. The one that required a demoralizing capsule repair, followed by a lengthy rehab that knocked the first half of last season out of whack. But the deeper wound, the setback that really stung, was caused by his August demotion in 2016, when Conforto plummeted from young-phenom status to ordinary, slumping sophomore.
When your career arc changes that abruptly, after reaching the World Series at age 22, the sudden fall is disorienting. Nearly three years later, when Conforto is asked about the obstacles he has cleared and the toughness he has developed along the way, the surgery isn’t the first thing he brings up. It’s that ticket to Triple-A Las Vegas, the trip that punched a hole clean through his ego but helped sharpen the edge he now brings to the plate.
“I had never felt anything like being sent down for the second time. Playing in Tacoma, in front of my family and friends, that can be embarrassing,” said Conforto, who grew up in the Seattle area. “I had never been through something like that. I think it grounds you a little bit. It humbles you to be able to go back and look at those things.”
And the fact that those snapshots continue to pop in his mind’s eye, the shame bubbling underneath, says something about Conforto’s attitude. It’s a perspective that isn’t that much different from his rookie year in the sense that he still has everything to prove.
On the surface, you can see the sweet lefthanded swing, the seemingly effortless power. The talent is obvious.
But Conforto’s drive to be the Mets’ next great run-producer is the engine behind it, and the expectation is he’ll be just that.
They probably can’t succeed with anything less, actually, and the Mets opened their Grapefruit League schedule Saturday at First Data Field with Conforto in the cleanup spot.
“I think he can be one of the best lefthanded hitters in the league, myself,” manager Mickey Callaway said last week. “Just the way he approaches his at-bats, the swing, the pitches that he covers — it’s special. A lot of guys can’t just take a ball and go the opposite field and drive it the way he does, and that’s not the only place he has power.
“He’s able to stay on the breaking ball that misses down and drive it out to the pull side as well. So he covers a lot of pitches . . . He can be as special as anyone in the league at the plate.”
It helps that Conforto probably spends more time in a batter’s box, year-round, than anywhere else. Consider him a “cage rat,” whether it’s underneath the grandstand at First Data Field, beside the clubhouse in Flushing or his winter workplace in Bellevue, where Conforto consults his longtime batting guru, Curt Nelson, who runs the hitter’s haven in the Pacific Northwest.
Conforto, who describes Nelson as a “really good baseball mind,” credits him with trouble-shooting his swing at times as well as providing video analysis during his winter prep. Having known Conforto since his teenage years, Nelson has innate knowledge of his mechanics, and the two worked this offseason at getting him to the point where he was in 2017, and the end of last season, when he finished with a September slash line of .286/.365/.616 along with nine homers and 29 RBIs in 28 games.
Project that over six months, and the blurry, far-off vision of Conforto’s ever-distant potential starts to come into focus.
Last season, he mistakenly believed that simply pushing himself back early from shoulder rehab, and willing himself to remain in the lineup, would allow him to be productive again. But showing up was only half the equation. The physical struggle of the rehabilitation process was replaced by the fight to stay competitive against major-league pitching.
He can admit now that it was too much too soon.
“I think I was back early [last season], and when you start to play every day and the hits don’t come, you start overthinking things,” he said. “And when you’re playing every day, that’s not the time to start messing around with stuff, so it’s hard to stay consistent with your mechanics. You’re overthinking everything and you don’t have the time to properly get back muscle memory.
“I was still able to run into some home runs, so I think the eye was still there. When you’re doing something mechanically wrong physically, your eyes see the right thing but your body can’t catch up.”
That shouldn’t be a problem this season. Conforto has been hitting since before Thanksgiving and looks as dangerous now as he’s ever been, with another month to go before the Mets open on March 28 against the Nationals in Washington, D.C.
A year ago at this time, Conforto was thrilled to merely be hitting off a tee, and yet he beat his projected May 1 return date by nearly a month.
In retrospect, that probably wasn’t a good idea, as Conforto batted .216 for the first half, with a .710 OPS (though he did hit 11 homers). You won’t see that again from him, not after moving back into his cage in the Pacific Northwest for the winter with a sturdy shoulder and a fully refined swing. The scars remain but only serve as motivation, a reminder of everything Conforto has overcome and a foundation for better days ahead.
“I don’t put any extra pressure on myself this season,” he said. “I think if I stay healthy, I’ll be just fine. I played 153 games last season, and that tells me that even when I’m not at my best, if I stay on the field, the numbers are going to come. They weren’t what I wanted them to be, but if I stay healthy, the production is going to be there.”
The Mets are anxious to see what could be. Is that first 30-100 season on the horizon?
When those numbers were tossed out to Conforto, he smiled.
“I don’t want to lie,” he said. “You think about what your capabilities are.”
This year, it’s all about the ceiling for Conforto. After picking himself up, multiple times, from the floor.