High heat is burning Conforto

Looking into Michael Conforto's slow start

I have hesitated writing about Michael Conforto’s early struggles, because it is exactly that, early. While it’s possible he isn’t the .322/.412/.515 hitter we saw over 54 games last season, it’s reasonable to presume he probably won’t remain a .120/.313/.160 hitter either. Perhaps Scott Boras has him seeing dollar signs instead of red dots on baseballs, causing him to play a little tight to start the season.

That said, there is one thing from his early results that is worth pointing out: Conforto is having an impossible time trying to hit fastballs, a pitch he clobbered to the tune of a .600 slugging percentage last year. While he has only seen 48 four-seamers over the first few weeks of April, he has only put two of them in play (both for an out), and has whiffed on an eye-popping 25% of them. 

The soon-to-be free agent has particularly struggled against high fastballs, swinging through seven of the nine located in the upper third of the strike zone. It’s not that pitchers have found a new way to approach Conforto — he is seeing the same percentage of high fastballs — he just can’t hit them.

Again, some of this could be from focusing on such a small piece of the season. One game can skew the results. Last week, left-hander Trevor Rogers had a game plan against Conforto to pound him up in the zone, and whether he found the current hole in his swing and capitalized, or Conforto just had trouble seeing the ball out of Rogers’ hand that day, it’s hard to say, but Rogers blew four high four-seamers right by him. That accounts for over 50% of our sample size.

However, if we look at his swing against other pitchers this season, there is a recognizable difference in his approach compared to last season. Almost imperceptible in real-time, below is a freeze frame of Conforto facing a high fastball—one he whiffs on; and the other he drives for a hit.

In the 2021 frame (left image), he is slow to move his hands after he loads to swing. You can see the bat is still angled above his shoulder as he prepares to enter the zone and try to hit the pitch. Focusing on the 2020 frame (right image), when he plants his foot and begins to launch, he moves his hands in sequence, which allows him to release the barrel and enter the zone at an angle where he can drive ball. You can see how the barrel cuts his back arm in the 2020 frame, but instead of dragging his swing, he is speeding it up by keeping everything timed as he creates an optimal plane to hit the high pitch.

You probably guessed which swing resulted in a whiff versus a hit.

BOTTOM LINE: I’m not a hitting coach, and it’s still very early in the season. There is plenty of time for Conforto to find his rhythm against fastballs and punish them the way he did last season. But if you’re looking for something to focus on when watching Conforto’s at-bats, pay attention to those high fastballs and whether he makes solid contact, as a sign things could be getting better.

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