Last week, Michael Conforto was demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas for the second time this season. When he returned from his first demotion in July, Conforto continued to struggle, never faced a left-handed pitcher, and was sent back down as the odd man out in a crowded outfield. Since being demoted, though, Conforto has gone 12-for-18 in his brief stint in Las Vegas. Now, that’s a microscopic sample size in the Pacific Coast League, but it’s certainly encouraging to see the talented 23-year-old hit the ball well.
If Conforto continues to rake in Las Vegas, it’s fair to wonder how much longer the Mets can keep him down there. With Yoenis Cespedes likely being confined to left field when he returns from the disabled list and Jay Bruce firmly entranced in right field, there isn’t a corner outfield spot readily available for Conforto. Instead, he will likely have to fight for playing time in center field with Curtis Granderson. And while neither is a true center fielder, the Mets should absolutely play Conforto every day over Granderson.
After a 2015 season in which he was one of the most valuable assets for the Mets during their magical World Series run, Granderson has not seen the same success in 2016. The 35-year-old has posted a disappointing .224/.313/.421 line with a 99 wRC+ for the Mets this year. Regression was probably to be expected from him this season, but Granderson has been one of the biggest disappointments for the Mets in 2016.
What is most concerning, though, is Granderson’s performance over the last few weeks. He has been terrible as of late, posting just a 45 wRC+ since the All-Star break. He’s batted just .179/.239/.292 in that time. Even his power—which had remained consistent and reliable throughout his Mets tenure—has disappeared in this last month, with only four home runs in the second half after his home run on Wednesday night. He’s just 1-for-24 with runners in scoring position since July 7. Simply put, Granderson has been one of the Mets’ worst hitters in the last month and has been one of the main contributors to the Mets’ offensive struggles.
Despite that, Terry Collins recently gave his struggling outfielder a vote of confidence:
“I think he’s a huge addition when he gets it going. This guy was our MVP last year, so he hasn’t had the same year, but we’re going to look up at the end of the year and he’s still going to have some home runs. He’s just not going to have the walks he normally does. But he’s still almost 80 or 90 points above his batting average at getting on base and where he hits in the lineup, that’s what you want.”
It’s understandable that Collins and the Mets are confident in Granderson breaking out of his slump. Granderson is a proven veteran and a notoriously streaky hitter, and the Mets have a lot invested in him through 2017.
With that in mind, the Mets can’t pretend he’s still the player he was last season, even if he breaks out of this slump, and therein lies the problem in Collins’s quote. Granderson was the Mets’ MVP last season, but it is not 2015 anymore. Even though his OBP is indeed about 90 points higher than his batting average, that means much less when his OBP is just .313, a far cry from his .364 mark from last season.
While Granderson is walking slightly less this year, the main reason his OBP has fallen so far is because his batting average has dropped from .259 last year to .224 this season. In addition, his BABIP has sunk from .305 in 2015 to .250 this season. That’s a 55-point drop.
The reason for this appears to be because Granderson has been hitting far more ground balls this year than he did in 2015. His ground ball rate has jumped up almost nine points, from 30.8% last year to 39.0% this year. As a pure pull hitter, this is not an ideal development for him. He’s been shifted in nearly every at-bat this season, so his pulling the ball on the ground more often is playing right into the opposition’s hands, and resulting in easy outs. So while Granderson will probably come out of this awful dry spell, it’s tough to see how much better he can become if he continues to roll over balls right into the shift.
So with bad defense and an OBP being dragged down by a batting average that doesn’t appear likely to improve significantly at this point without a drastic change in approach, Granderson is essentially valueless without his power, which he had not shown for a month before his solo shot on Wednesday night. If those trends continue, the Mets would be hard pressed to support playing Granderson at all when Conforto returns from the minor leagues.
Yes, Conforto has been very bad, as well, so it’s understandable that the Mets would want to play Granderson over him if they’re trying to win games and stay in the race. Even with his huge slump, Granderson has still been the better hitter and has more center field experience between the two. And the Mets do have a lot of money tied to Granderson through 2017. But the Mets are falling further out of out of the race every day, and Conforto is the far more important piece to the franchise going forward. It really cannot be overstated how important Conforto’s success is for the future of this team.
Starting Conforto every day in center field would have two benefits: It would allow Conforto to get consistent reps at the major league level again, and it would enable the Mets to get an extended look at Conforto in center field—and get a better read on his abilities there in preparation for next season. And with the team struggling and now 4.0 games behind the Cardinals for the second Wild Card, it might be time to start thinking more about next season and less about this season.
Curtis Granderson had a tremendous 2015 season that Mets fans will always remember and appreciate. He is an ambassador for the game off the field, and is one of the all-around nicest people in baseball. He can still be a useful player, but with the Mets slipping in the standings, the long-term value of Michael Conforto’s development in the major leagues is significantly higher than Granderson’s potential value to the team for the rest of this season.