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Fantasy Baseball Debate: Yasiel Puig vs. Michael Conforto

Fantasy owners are counting on both Yasiel Puig and Michael Conforto for big things this season, but who is the better bet?

The Debate Series pits two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Michael Shapiro and Michael Beller debate two potentially undervalued outfielders: Yasiel Puig and Michael Conforto.

Michael Shapiro makes the case for Puig over Conforto…

Yasiel Puig stands out as a premier value play in arguably the most impressive outfield crop in recent memory. The former Dodgers’ phenom has a new home in Cincinnati, and he should mash plenty of dingers at the bandbox known as Great American Ballpark. The Reds’ stadium led the MLB in park-adjusted homers in 2018, finishing fourth in ballpark runs created. A move to the heartland could do wonders Puig.

The ballpark boost isn’t the only one he’ll receive in Cincinnati. Puig should be in David Bell’s lineup every day, something that wasn’t the case under Dave Roberts in Los Angeles. Puig tallied 444 plate appearances in 2018, fewer than Matt Kemp, Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor. In Cincinnati, Puig will be a regular, along with Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett. Jesse Winker is going to get plenty of playing time, and top prospect Nick Senzel could eventually crowd the picture, but Puig won’t get squeezed. Rather, it’ll be Kemp or Scott Schebler. Puig’s power is a perfect fit in the middle of Cincinnati’s lineup. He should hit fifth to start the season, immediately behind Votto, Suarez and Gennett. That translates to monster RBI upside that he simply never had as a Dodger, especially with a floor of 500 plate appearances.

Puig has been a victim of two things in recent years: his early success and a lack of playing time. The former drove a perception that he wasn’t playing as well as he was. The latter took away chances for him to increase his bottom-line production. The fact of the matter is he’s belted 51 homers and smacked 45 doubles the last two seasons. He slugged .494 in 2018, and his isolated slugging of .227 ranked 31st in in the league, ahead of Anthony Rendon, Cody Bellinger, Freddie Freeman and, conveniently, Michael Conforto. Puig is an underrated base stealer, too, swiping 15 bags in  both of the last two seasons. Forget the volatile reputation. Puig has been one of baseball’s more reliable producers over the last two seasons.

We can’t expect the same reliability from Conforto. He was a middling player for much of 2018, slashing .232/.346/.404 through August. He turned it on in September, slashing .286/.365/.616 with nine homers in 126 plate appearances in the final month of the season.. Conforto is a solid fantasy option, but neither his power nor plate discipline project elite outfield status. Puig’s ceiling far outpaces Conforto’s if the plate appearances are even remotely similar.

New York’s offseason additions have been discussed at length, but are we so sure the Mets will leap to league-average offensively in 2019? The Mets finished 23rd in runs last season and 24th in OPS. Robinson Cano should make everyone around him better the production to a degree, but Jed Lowrie is already hurt and Todd Frazier could be in danger of a significant decline. Citi Field is still home to the NL East fourth-best lineup, a solid, albeit unspectacular, group.  

Cincinnati, meanwhile finished above league-average in OPS and ninth in OBP in 2018 despite regression from Votto. The six-time All-Star finished with the worst batting average and OPS of his career, excluding a 62-game season in 2014, and hit just 12 homers. Votto finished second in the MVP voting in 2017 and third in 2015. He remains one of the National League’s premier bats, and even with a decline in power, his elite on-base ability makes him an ideal No. 2 hitter . Breakouts from Suarez and Gennett raised the bar in Cincinnati last year, and there’s good reason to believe that this can be one of the best offensive teams in the league. It’s that situation into which Puig steps. His team context is far superior to Conforto’s. Add it all up, and you get an underappreciated player moving to a better ballpark, better situation, and better team-based offensive environment. Give me Puig all day.

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Michael Beller makes the case for Conforto over Puig…

That’s a fine case for Puig, Michael, and I do love the move to Cincinnati for all the reasons you mentioned. It was something else you mentioned that really caught my eye, though. I’ll use your own words. “We can’t expect the same reliability from Conforto. He was a middling player for much of 2018, slashing .232/.346/.404 through August. He turned it on in September, slashing .286/.365/.616 with nine homers in 126 plate appearances in the final month of the season.”

You’re right, Mike, we can’t expect the same reliability from Conforto. Or, at least we couldn’t last year. How reliable would you be if this happened to your shoulder?

Now, yes, I realize Conforto dislocated his left shoulder, which, in theory, shouldn’t be as hard for a left-handed hitter to come back from as a right shoulder dislocation would be. All the parts on the lead arm are more important to a hitter, and Conforto was up and ready to go the first week of the season. Seemingly, the shoulder injury was completely behind him before he compiled that ho-hum line through August, right? Wrong.

Conforto has always had a two-hand finish on his swing. You can see that on homers here, here and here. Now go back and watch the swing on which he injured himself again, if you can stomach it. Pay particular attention to the side angle, which the camera cuts to at the 23-second mark of the video. Watching from this angle, it’s easy to see that Conforto lost control of the bat with his left hand well before he finished the swing. That’s when the injury happened, and is suggestive of something much more serious than your typical dislocation, which often happens as a hitter extends for a pitch, and is why it occurs much more frequently on lead shoulders. Indeed, as this story makes clear, Conforto had something much more serious than your garden variety dislocation.

In other words, Conforto generated so much torque in his swing that his trail shoulder ripped completely through the tissue that holds the entire joint together on the backside of his shoulder. As the story says, that is an extremely rare injury.

So, no, Conforto wasn’t coming back from just a shoulder dislocation, and the injury likely wasn’t totally in his rear-view mirror when last season began. In fact, when Conforto first opted for the surgery to repair his shoulder, it was estimated that he’d be out until at least May 2018. That he was able to get back onto the field in the first week of April was a minor miracle. It also may have set him back a bit, as a comparison of his 2017 numbers with his early- and late-season numbers from last year suggests.

This is the part of the debate where I remind everyone of just how good Conforto was in 2017. When that bizarre shoulder dislocation ended his season, he was hitting .279/.384/.555 with 27 homers, 20 doubles and 67 RBI in 440 plate appearances across 109 games. That comes out to a 162-game pace of 40.1 homers. The injury ultimate robbed him of enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, but, at the time, he had a .392 wOBA, which would’ve been good for 15th in the league, sandwiched between Anthony Rendon and Marcell Ozuna. In case you can’t keep track, that was one of Ozuna’s good years, during which he hit .312/.376/.548 with 37 homers. He had a 148 OPS+, which would have had him 10th in the majors, ahead of players such as Nolan Arenado and Jose Ramirez. He was that good. And then he suffered a freak, extremely debilitating injury involving one of the key body parts involved in swinging a baseball bat.

Now, with all that in mind, how do you characterize Conforto’s 2018, the one in which he slashed .232/.346/.404 with 19 homers through August, and then exploded to hit .286/.365/.616 with nine homers in September? Was that simply another sign of his unreliable nature, or the natural recovery path of a player who was on the verge of a breakout before ripping his shoulder to shreds? I know my answer.