It’s very likely that the Phillies will sign one of the big-bat outfielders remaining on the free agent market.
While there obviously haven’t been any rumors of late, the Phillies were said to be in talks with free agents Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, and Kyle Schwarber before the lockout, and Dave Dombrowski said back in November that upgrading the outfield was a complete necessity.
It makes perfect sense. The Phillies have some money to spend, and they have a big, gaping hole in left field. They’ll need to improve if they want to compete in a division with the reigning World Series champion Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets, who now have the highest payroll in baseball. There are several corner outfielders available who would represent a meaningful upgrade for the Phillies.
The three names I mentioned above — Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, and Kyle Schwarber — are the ones I’ve heard linked to the Phillies most often, in rumors, free agent prediction pieces, and fan speculation on the internet. All three were excellent in 2021, and any one of them would make a big difference in the Phillies lineup.
I’d be thrilled if the Phillies signed any one of them to the right deal.
There’s one other name, however, that I’d like to throw out there. It’s another All-Star outfielder who carries a huge bat: Michael Conforto.
Here comes Michael Conforto. The first hit of the game, for either side, is a home run.— Steve Gelbs (@SteveGelbs) August 15, 2021
Over Conforto’s last 12 games, he’s hitting .353 with four doubles and two home runs.
I’ve read a couple of articles suggesting the Phillies could or should target Conforto, but the two parties were not engaged in any discussions before the lockout began (as far as we know) and Conforto doesn’t seem to be as popular an option amongst fans (at least on my Twitter timeline). On most major free agent rankings this offseason (MLB Trade Rumors, FanGraphs, Keith Law of The Athletic, etc.), Conforto was ranked lower than Bryant, Castellanos, and Schwarber.
It’s more than fair to be cautious about Michael Conforto. He had a down year in 2021, and the Phillies have enough reclamation projects as it is. He also comes with a qualifying offer attached to him, meaning the Phillies would have to give up a draft pick to sign him, and Dave Dombrowski has made it clear that he would prefer not to give up any picks this offseason.
Nevertheless, I’d like to take a moment to make the case for Michael Conforto. Not only does he have as much upside Bryant, Schwarber, or Castellanos, but he has a lengthy track record of success, and there is good reason to believe that he will bounce back from his down year. Moreover, because of his down year in 2021 and the qualifying offer attached to him, Conforto might come with a slightly reduced price tag.
I’m not usually one to champion the cheapest option. I’m a strong advocate for paying players fairly and for the Phillies to surpass the luxury tax threshold. But I’m also a realist, and I know that if the Phillies are going to seriously compete in 2022, they’re going to have to find the most cost-efficient ways to improve the team.
With that in mind, here is my argument for Michael Conforto.
Michael Conforto has a proven track record
From 2018 to 2020, only three qualified NL hitters had an OPS+ of at least 120 in all three seasons: Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, and Michael Conforto.
Conforto also had a 148 OPS+ in 2017, but he finished 62 PA shy of qualifying for the batting title that season. From 2017 to 2020, his 134 OPS+ ranks 17th in the majors among hitters with at least 1500 PA. That’s better than Bryant, Castellanos, or Schwarber.
Here’s a comparison of all four players from 2017 to 2020.
Comparing the Phillies’ options in left field (2017-2020)
Conforto and Bryant are neck and neck in this comparison, and both are a step ahead of Castellanos and Schwarber. Conforto had a higher OPS+ than Bryant and Castellanos in three of those four seasons and a higher OPS+ than Schwarber in all four.
This comparison, however, does a bit of a disservice to Bryant, Schwarber, and Castellanos, since it doesn’t include numbers from 2021. So, here is a similar chart, but with numbers from 2017-2021.
Comparing the Phillies’ options in left field (2017-2021)
With 2021 included, all four players have more similar numbers, but nevertheless, Michael Conforto still looks at least as good as any of them.
Finally, here’s one more table comparing all four players from 2017-2021, but this time the numbers from each one’s worst seasons has been removed. For Conforto that means 2021, and for the other three that means 2020.
Comparing the Phillies’ options in left field (2017-2021, worst season excluded)
At the very least, Conforto has been just as good as Bryant, Schwarber, and Castellanos, and at his peak, he’s been the best hitter of the whole bunch. Yet in 2021, he was significantly worse than all of them. So how much stock you put in Conforto really depends on how much stock you put in his 2021 performance.
The Phillies have enough question marks on the roster already (Didi Gregorius, Alec Bohm, etc.), so they really need their new left fielder to have a bat they can rely on. Is Conforto too much of a risk?
How much of a risk is Michael Conforto?
For all the talk about his down year, it’s worth mentioning that Michael Conforto was still better than average in 2021 — his 101 OPS+ was 1% better than league average, and his 106 wRC+ was 6% better than league average. That’s not the kind of impact bat the Phillies are looking for, but it isn’t a liability either.
Conforto also grades out as average outfield defender according to several advanced metrics. Since 2018, he has 7 outs above average, which ranks 47th out of 136 qualified outfielders. Castellanos (-41 OOA) and Scwarber (-29 OOA) rank last and second-last, respectively, while Bryant (-6 OOA in the corner outfield spots) does not have enough outfield experience to qualify.
Conforto is also the only one of these four to grade out as an above average corner outfield defender throughout his career according to both DRS and UZR/150.
Michael Conforto just saved the game for Edwin Díaz and the Mets. What a throw, 91.3 mph from right field to cut down the tying run at home.— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) July 29, 2021
Mets 2, Braves 1, top nine. pic.twitter.com/XjztMLYglV
Here is how these four compared defensively last season. A single season of defensive statistics can’t tell you too much, but if I had to pick among these four to play a corner outfield spot, I’d pick Conforto.
Comparing the Phillies’ options in left field defensively
|Player||Outs Above Average||Defensive Runs Saved||UZR/150||Outfielder Jump|
|Player||Outs Above Average||Defensive Runs Saved||UZR/150||Outfielder Jump|
|Kris Bryant||-4||-3||-7.36||19th percentile|
|Nick Castellanos||-6||-7||-1.9||9th percentile|
|Kyle Schwarber||-6||-5||-6.3||22nd percentile|
|Michael Conforto||1||-4||-6.8||35th percentile|
Thus, Michael Conforto’s average-ish defense further mitigates any “risk” associated with signing him. (And for what it’s worth, Conforto is a full year younger than both Bryant and Castellanos, and only four days older than Kyle Schwarber.)
Hopefully, however, Michael Conforto’s bat will be a lot better than league average, and hopefully he’ll hit well enough that the Phillies won’t care about the quality of his defense.
Will Michael Conforto bounce back from his down year?
A quick look at Michael Conforto’s FanGraphs page will show you several of the markers of a season marred by bad luck.
His career average BABIP heading into 2021 was .305, while in 2021 his BABIP was just .276. That’s the difference between a .232 batting average (12 points lower than league average) and a .256 batting average (12 points higher than league average).
His wOBA in 2021 was just .322, much lower than his career .352 wOBA, but his xwOBA in 2021 was .350, which is right in line with his career .354 xwOBA. That .350 xwOBA puts Conforto in the 73rd percentile. That’s not as good as Conforto has been in his best seasons, but it’s still great production and would have ranked third on the 2021 Phillies (behind Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins).
Finally, Conforto’s HR/FB rate in 2021 was just 13.5%, while his career average heading into the season was 19.9%. That’s a huge difference. Conforto was hitting the ball as hard as he usually does and there was no change in his average launch angle, so there’s a very good chance that Conforto just had some really bad luck on fly balls in 2021.
Had he converted fly balls to home runs at his career average rate, he would have had approximately 7 extra home runs, giving him 21 for the season instead of 14. Just those seven additional home runs would bring his OPS up from .729 to .812. That’s the difference between a league-average OPS and an OPS that would have ranked 24th in the National League, just ahead of Nolan Arenado (.807) and Trevor Story (.801).
Michael Conforto finished the season on a strong note, hitting for an .829 OPS and a 128 wRC+ from August to October. In his final week of games, he went 9-for-23 with 2 home runs. There is a good chance that his poor performance in the first few months of the season was the result of a hamstring injury he suffered in May. By August, it looks like he was fully healed and back to normal.
I’m not trying to argue that Michael Conforto is the best player of this foursome. He certainly has been at times, but Kris Bryant has had the most impressive career, and Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber both looked truly remarkable in 2021.
However, Conforto is a solid option for the Phillies to consider, and he very well might be the best of these four next season. If the Phillies can sign him to a slightly cheaper deal than any of the other options — and therefore, if that gives Dave Dombrowski the financial flexibility to sign additional players to improve the roster — I think the Phillies should jump at the chance.