Advancement to the Major League level is an honor bestowed on less than one percent of all professional baseball players. Getting the call from a minor league manager to the big club is a moment dreamed about and rehearsed in the minds of every prospective athlete from the day he is drafted until the moment officially arrives. In order for every star to align and the day to come to fruition, a convergence of big league need, injury, and overwhelming success at the minor league level must create the opportunity.
Years of preparation and sacrifice lead to a moment etched in memory and never taken away. Since his days with the Oregon State Beavers, Michael Conforto was labeled a future “can’t-miss” prospect and a potential superstar, compiling three seasons with an on base percentage of .400 or better. The New York Mets envisioned a player who could potentially emerge as their best homegrown product since David Wright when they drafted him tenth overall in the 2014 draft. After just thirteen months in the minor leagues, Conforto has been called up to the Mets to replace the injured Michael Cuddyer.
Athletic success was no stranger to Conforto growing up in Seattle, Washington. His father had played linebacker for the once-revered Joe Paterno at Penn State during the late 1970s. After completing his tenure with the Nitany Lions, he opened up a chain of gyms in Seattle and across the Pacific Northwest. (New York Post). It was there he met Conforto’s mother, a synchronized swimmer named Tracy Ruiz, whom he trained and developed to eventually win gold medals and a silver in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympic summer games. Being surrounded by sporting achievement made it natural for the young Conforto to pursue a career in sports, choosing baseball as his natural path.
“Yeah, it was natural for me to be an athlete,” Conforto said. “That’s what my parents pushed me towards. They were always very supportive and I had a passion for sports. I credit any ability they have and my work ethic comes from them. I have to respect it and I realize it.”
Conforto’s prowess on the baseball diamond began at the tender age of eleven, at the 2004 Little League World Series, featuring the likes of Randal Grichuk and Jurickson Profar. “I just remember a lot of people on a big stage,” Conforto said. “It was a crazy time for me. We were a bunch of wide-eyed twelve-year olds who did not realize the magnitude of what was going on. I just remember it was just baseball and having fun.”
Conforto would continue to impress and amplify his name and reputation. From the U.S. Collegiate National Team to being the starting left fielder for three season at Oregon State, Conforto emerged as a leader and a dominating force. Featuring a quick swing and excellent reflexes, Conforto compiled an OPS of 1.038 in his freshman season, along with thirteen home runs and 76 runs batted in over the course of just 218 at-bats. His sophomore season would produce gains in both walks and on base percentage, despite having to counter adjustments made by opposing pitchers. By the time he was on the cusp of the draft, Conforto walked 55 times in 203 at-bats, producing a .547 slugging percentage and solidifying his place at the upper echelon of amateur prospects after becoming a nominee for the Golden Spikes Award.
“I think it just takes experience, Conforto said. “If you look back at my statistics from my freshman year those numbers were flipped-flopped. I think in my three years as Oregon State I just gained a maturity level. Having more at-bats in a good conference like the Pac 12. I saw a lot of pitches. I saw a lot of good pitchers and eventually the repetition makes you better. It takes repetition and the hard work mentality to come to the ballpark every day, willing to learn and wanting to learn and that is how it happened.”
Undrafted out of High School, Conforto became of the top hitters in the 2014 draft class just three years later, taken by the New York Mets tenth overall, and the first college position player selected in the first round by the club under General Manager Sandy Alderson. Before making his professional debut, Conforto took a trip to Citi Field and experienced the life of a big leaguer for a day, touring the ballpark and being acquainted with his future teammates.
“It was a beautiful ballpark, first of all,” Conforto said. “Incredible to see the view from the field. Getting to meet all of the guys. David Wright, Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda. All of the position players and even some pitchers as well, like Matt Harvey. It was very cool for me to meet those guys and for them to acknowledge me.”
Conforto’s advanced plate approach and collegiate credentials would afford him a chance to open his career with the Mets’ short-season affiliate, the Brooklyn Cyclones, located just 22 miles from Citi Field in the heart of Coney Island. Conforto made his professional debut on July 19, 2014, against the Williamsport Crosscutters, collecting his first hit and proceeding to put up a .331/.403/.448 slash line, with three home runs and an appearance in the New York-Penn League All-Star Game played in his home ballpark. Conforto displayed a quick swing, elite plate discipline and a quick glove in the outfield.
Tom Gamboa, a former major league coach with the Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals, managed Conforto in Brooklyn with the Cyclones in 2014 and immediately saw something special in the Mets’ top prospect.
“He is everything that he is billed,” Gamboa said. “When you see first rounders come in, they know that all the eyes of the teammates and the fans are on them. There is no doubt the best is to come with Michael Conforto.”
Off the heels of an impressive pro debut in Brooklyn, Conforto received an invite to big league spring training and impressed Mets brass in his first game in Port St. Lucie, collecting three hits and three runs batted in.
“The guy’s a number one draft pick. A lot of people thought he was the best hitter in the country last year in college,” Mets manager Collins said. “He’s got a short swing, he’s got a quick bat through the strike zone. It’s the first time I’ve seen him. But, for sure, he’s got one of those really nice swings.”
Anticipation of Conforto heightened entering the 2015 season after his strong spring showing and batting .297 between Single-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton. Against better competition, Conforto equaled his OPS from Brooklyn, while developing home run power with twelve home runs in 403 plate appearances. Conforto’s minor league success, coupled with inept offensive production by the Mets offense, forced the club to fast-track the Seattle product to become the fifth player from the 2014 draft to make his Major League debut.
Since the debut of Mike Leake in 2010 directly out of Arizona State, players such as Brandon Finnegan, Carlos Rodon, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber have advanced to the major leagues in less than one year after being drafted. Immediate success in the minor leagues, along with pressing needs in the majors necessitate these moves, raising awareness of top prospects.
Michael Conforto’s debut just one year removed from playing in the New York-Penn League is both unprecedented and widely anticipated. These call-ups represent an emerging trend where teams seek to retain their top prospects for the fraction of the price of a proven veteran while thrusting them into the heat of a pennant race as the best possible option for a contender.
Conforto’s ability to produce a high BABIP and reach base at an elite rate has the makings of a potential star. With the Mets trailing by three games in both the National League East and the Wild Card, the time was now to make the move and allow Conforto to further develop at the highest level and get his first opportunity to live up to his promise.