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Player Review: Michael Conforto

Conforto’s 2023 was underwhelming. But the outfielder’s return to full-bash may just take longer than we initially hoped. TBD whether he makes fools of us all in a Giants uniform or not.

MLB: San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

2023 stats: 406 AB, 125 G, .239/ .334/ .384 (.718 OPS), 99 OPS+, 0.7 WAR (B.Ref.)

Noteworthy stat: 7.9 Barrel% (lowest in his career), 31.9 Sweet Spot% (lowest in his career)

Michael Conforto’s 2023 wasn’t anything special. In fact, it was metrically average with a 100 wRC+ and 99 OPS+. His .718 OPS and 15 home runs were career lows, and he is now four whole seasons removed from his 33 home run season. Defensively he graded poorly but still came with its highlights and personal triumphs after missing all of ‘22 with a shoulder surgery that hampered the corner outfielder’s ability to throw the ball. His ability to play in 125 games and get 470 plate appearances was enough to trigger his player option for the second year of his Giants contract.

His performance is a bit of a Rorschach’s test for fans. Just like last year’s 81-81 record—what you see in it reveals your own psychological hang-ups: harbored resentments, defiant hopes, resolute or stubborn patience.

Was it a disappointment?

The argument is certainly there. Conforto never could sustain that middle-of-the-order power threat that we hoped for. His most successful month was a May that duped us all. He homered 7 times (nearly half of his season total) in 26 games that month, with a heartening .289/.371/ .544 (.916 OPS). But that month cooled quickly. A bruised heel wasn’t serious enough for the IL but kept him off the field for nearly a week. He looked lost at the plate through most of the Giants magical June run and then when he finally seemed to reconnect with the bat, he was pulled from a game in Toronto with hamstring tightness that kept him from suiting up for a meaningful return trip to Citi Field.

Over 142 at-bats through June and July, he homered twice. In August he recovered his average and showed great discipline in the zone but his pop had fizzed out, managing only 4 extra base hits over 60 at-bats before being dropped to the IL with a hamstring strain.

The argument gets complicated when paired with Joc Pederson. The two were supposed to be the San Francisco Giants’ left-handed Bash Brothers. The second-coming of the Pacific Sock Exchange. The pulsing and bloodthirsty heart of the order that buckled right-handers’ knees…okay, that might be a stretch. And supposed to be might be a stretch too. It was more of a hope—that Joc and Forto would link up, dig in, and groove, slugging San Francisco’s way into the division conversation.

It didn’t go down that way. Only 30 homers between them—26 individuals hit at least that last season. Pederson’s .416 slugging percentage (down from .521 in ‘22) was 4th on the team while Conforto’s .384 was 9th. Only Pederson’s mark (barely) cracked the MLB’s top-100. Both were tripped up by nagging injuries that kept them from doing collective damage in day-to-day lineups. Their hot streaks were relatively brief and un-synced, with neither flashing much more than flail against southpaws. Both were thrown about 20 million bones for their services.

The difference—or maybe just semantics—is Pederson’s 2023 season was a disappointment because an expectation wasn’t met. Conforto’s because a hope didn’t materialize. The results were the same in a results based business—period. The rest is moot. But the poetics matter in the debate over whether you want Conforto to suit up for San Francisco next year or not.

Conforto has always been well-disciplined at the plate. Constants throughout his career—including this year—has been a low chase-rate and high walk-rate. Power has always made him a threat at the plate, but his discretion has made him dynamic. His approach is what made the front office feel good about “gambling” on his return year. Even with a down year in terms of power, at the very least, Conforto would give you a good AB. That’s exactly what happened last season and that’s exactly what will happen next year.

Really it shouldn’t be a shock that Conforto’s slugging numbers were down. I know the hope was that he and Mitch Haniger would awake from their year-long injury hibernation and resume launching taters…but to expect it? Conforto is still in the process of returning. The strength is back—Conforto’s hard-hit% was back to where it was in 2019. What the lefty needs to reclaim is his timing and swing-path. His barrel-% —a metric he excelled in—was a career low of 7.9%, down from marks like 11% in 2020 and 11.9% in 2019. His launch angle flattened a couple of degrees.

Degrees measured by a hair, fractions of seconds—these things matter. A swing is a swing until you break it down into a hundred different opportunities to succeed or fail. What is the difference between a game-altering 3-run homer or a routine fly out to left? A millisecond, a slight dip in the shoulder. Timing, timing, timing. I know it looked fine for 406 at-bats but there’s still a hitch to Conforto’s signature short and compact swing. A grain of sand in the gears. A loose seam. The contact was there but he may have been just slow enough to the ball to avoid the barrel, the shoulder just stiff enough to throw off its path and get under the ball.

Look at Cody Bellinger. It took him three seasons to reclaim his swing after his shoulder injury. The problem is that the Giants and their testy fans don’t have that time to wait with Conforto. We might have even ran out of time and not even know it yet. The deadline for Conforto to determine whether he wants to return to San Francisco for another year or test free agency is 5 days after the conclusion of the World Series—November 9th at the latest.

It’s unclear what his decision will be. His 2023 was not the greatest showcasing of talent before free agency, but he might benefit from a relatively thin offseason market. His ability to stay healthy, avoid shoulder related issues, while flashing some long dormant slug might be enough for some teams to offer the 30 year old corner outfielder something to write home about. If that’s what happens, Conforto’s year could not have gone worse for the Giants: he played well enough to get a more substantial deal but poorly enough to not truly influence the team’s season.

It does feel like he wouldn’t get much more in terms of salary per year than the 18 million owed to him if he returns. Conforto has said he’s enjoyed his time in San Francisco and appreciated how the team has treated him and his family. I imagine he feels his 2023 season was more of a step than a plateau and returning for a second year will just be another opportunity to impress the market sharks and fetch a bigger contract in winter ‘24/’25. He’s also said who the Giants hire as their next manager will certainly influence his decision. That question has now been answered, and I can’t imagine someone like Bob Melvin would sour Conforto.

Bottom line is money talks, and with Scott Boras as his agent, Conforto will listen to it. If he’s back in the orange-and-black in 2024 it won’t be out of his deep-felt loyalty to an organization that showed faith in him after an injury—it will be because he didn’t like the numbers he heard from other front offices, or that the Giants made a move and said numbers he liked to lock him up more long term.

Personally, I wouldn’t hate the move given that I believe Conforto’s former self is somewhere waiting for him further down the road. I’d chose him over Pederson—not that it has to be either/or, it just feels like the Giants need to trim some fat around heavily-caveated hitters. Conforto is a better defender than Pederson (though given the outfield depth, his role on the team would be more DH than anything). His career splits against lefties were also better (not amazing, but better) than what he showcased this past year—a quicker trigger and firmer front shoulder might get him back to those numbers while making a better argument for an everyday bat.

Obviously, he shouldn’t be prioritized over going after an outfielder like Cody Bellinger, but a great supporting piece to help with draw in other talent. Getting Melvin, then enticing Conforto and Manaea back would be great P.R. and groundwork for the long-awaited, much-needed “splashy” offseason that the franchise keeps talking about. Maybe the Giants will get lucky and bag Belli, and have Conforto come back, and Haniger right his sinking ship, and Heliot Ramos figure out a way to get his bat to work in the Majors, and Luis Matos to find some gaps with his liners, and…and…and…