On the eve of the Mets’ second Opening Day, the one rescheduled for April 5 in Philadelphia, Michael Conforto declared that he was done speaking about his contract situation.
It was a sensible point to draw the line, with the regular season (finally) starting, albeit four days late. And maybe there will come a time when a potential Conforto extension is a hot topic again.
But for right now, with Conforto struggling mightily at the plate heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Phillies, that conversation has cooled considerably. He’s already been bumped from third to sixth in the lineup — after only five games — and his current 0-for-14 skid has looked even worse than the numbers suggest in dropping him to .130 (3-for-23) with eight Ks.
We’re only halfway through April, so this could all be a blip a month from now, a minor glitch once Conforto — a notoriously streaky hitter — eventually gets rolling. During last year’s shortened season, Conforto was sixth in the NL in both batting average (.322) and on-base percentage (.412) through 53 games before being sidelined with a hamstring injury.
And so far in 2021, he’s hardly the only one scuffling some. Francisco Lindor, the player who got the $341 million from the Mets, was batting .174 (4-for-23) and did not yet have a hit with runners in scoring position (he's 0-for-5 with three walks).
A lot has snowballed on Conforto in a very short period. It wasn’t until the day before the opener that he revealed a COVID-19 diagnosis (for both he and his fiancee) two weeks before his arrival in Port St. Lucie for spring training. While Conforto seemed to make up for lost time during the Grapefruit League, the futility piled up in a hurry once the season got underway.
Heading into Wednesday night, Conforto was hitting .200 (2-for-10) with RISP, but he’s stranded a ton overall, including nine (of the Mets’ 14 total) a week ago in their 8-2 loss to the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. That chilly start, combined with Dominic Smith’s instant impact, forced manager Luis Rojas to make the switch in the No. 3 spot, even though Rojas said before Wednesday’s game that he wanted Conforto in a better position to see more pitches before his turn.
"You’re going to see the ball out of the hand, the action of the pitches and you’re going to get feedback from your teammates," Rojas said. "That’s the decision here."
Rojas added that he did have the same conversation with Conforto before the lineup change, evidently framing it for his benefit. But overall, Conforto just hasn’t appeared to be confident or comfortable in the batter’s box. The controversy surrounding last Thursday’s walk-off victory in the Citi opener probably didn’t help Conforto much in that regard either.
Typically, getting hit by a pitch to force in the winning run would be a reason to celebrate, despite the bizarre ending. But Conforto should have struck out, if not for plate umpire Ron Kulpa blowing the call, and it was obvious that he leaned his lead elbow into to strike zone — a desperate move to steal the HBP.
It’s why Conforto sheepishly answered questions afterward, and finished with "a win’s a win, but I’d like to use the bat next time." He hasn’t since, and his only trips outside the batter’s box came in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, when Conforto was drilled on the back of his right hand by Phillies reliever Jose Alvarado and a four-pitch walk in the extra inning (8th) by the flailing Hector Neris.
The plunking by Alvarado was disturbing for two reasons. One, it was the second 100-mph pitch he threw in the area of Conforto’s upper body, the first not flying too far from his head. Also, Conforto’s hand/wrist required X-rays after the game, and even though they were negative, he still sat for Game 2, replaced in rightfield by Kevin Pillar.
What else could happen just seven games into the season? A small sample size, sure, but painful nonetheless. Given Conforto’s track record, and what’s at stake for him this season, odds are this doesn’t last much longer. At least that’s what the Mets are banking on.
"I don’t think he needs to snap out of anything," Pete Alonso said before Wednesday’s game. "I think he just needs to continue what he’s doing because his process is excellent. He’s an extremely professional hitter. I think he needs to stay the course because at the end of the day, this is a game of failure and everybody goes through that.
"It’s just a matter of time. As this season goes on, this isn’t even going to be a conversation, I can promise you that."
Conforto has to be looking forward to that day.