Don't get me wrong here. I would have been quite upset if the Mets lost a game in that manner. One of my least favorite parts of modern MLB baseball is hitters being allowed to put on protective armor and crowd the plate. In some extreme cases, I've even seen hitters in their stance with part of their front arm actually encroaching into the strike zone. I can't recall ever seeing an umpire instruct a hitter to back off the plate a little on those occasions. It's something that's been tolerated since that armor has come into use.
Hitters do that in an attempt to take the inside of the strike zone away from pitchers. Barry Bonds was a notable example of this, as was Chase Utley. I remember watching Utley get on base in exactly this manner many times against the Mets, including critical late-game situations. I never saw him denied first base for doing it, not ever, not even once. Utley was awarded first base over 200 times in his career for being hit by a pitch, approximately once every 38.5 PA.
As for whether any batter lets a pitch hit him "on purpose," we can try to read his intent, but we'll never really know. I watched the replay of that AB several times because I was curious, and I never had a definitive answer. When a pitch is close, almost every batter instinctively turns their body inward, as Conforto did. This action actually pushed part of the arm further into the plate. Whether Conforto actually made a split-second decision to let the ball hit him, only he knows. If anyone else is "sure" that he did, I could only envy your mind-reading skills. Anyway, it doesn't matter. It still should have been strike three.
Someday soon, we will have robot umpires calling balls and strikes. Presumably, this play would not have happened if they were in place now. The strike would have been called, and Conforto would have been out. No question of intent would matter.
What wouldn't be fixed by that would be if the pitch was an inch off the plate inside, and Conforto made no effort to get out of the way of it. If you're the home plate umpire, what would you call? I believe most umpires would call it a hit by pitch. It might not be as ugly as when it happens on an actual strike, but it's still ugly. I see no reason to believe that this tactic will go away anytime soon.
There is always a tendency in the press to make a big deal of how a game was "stolen" from a team on a call like this. This particularly seems to be a big deal in the New York press when the Mets catch a break like this rather than the Yankees. The way I see it most clearly is to turn it around and imagine that the ninth inning happened to the Mets. How would I feel afterward?
Well, I'd definitely be pissed. But I think my anger would be at least tempered by the following facts:
- My team's beleaguered closer immediately coughed up the lead 5 pitches into the inning, missing his target by a mile and allowing a long home run to a hitter who had been 0-10 heading into the AB.
- After getting an out, he then allowed 2 hits and an intentional walk to load the bases.
- Had the batter been correctly called out, there still would have been one more chance for the other team to win the game with their cleanup hitter coming up. Then my team still would have had to win the games in extras.