Belt Closer to the Bay

It has been a good year to be a first baseman in the San Francisco Giants organization. Aubrey Huff has been one of the season’s great surprises, having his best season since he was 26 years old, a year after the worst season of his career. Huff has expressed interest in returning to San Francisco next season, and while Brian Sabean said that he has “earned consideration” for an extension, no talks have been planned. Throwing a wrench into those negotiations is surely the unbelievable season that Brandon Belt has had in the minor leagues. Promoted to Triple-A before yesterday’s games, Belt tallied a home run, two walks, a steal and three runs in his first game for the Fresno Grizzlies. Now having played across three levels, Belt is hitting .363/.464/.628 (with a .450+ wOBA) in 123 games.

Belt was an above-slot signee after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas. After transferring to the Longhorns as one of the junior college’s best players, Belt disappointed a bit in two seasons with the Longhorns, hitting .324/.405/.514 for his career. It’s a good line, but for a first baseman with aluminum bats, and considering the hype that surrounded his transfer, expectations had been higher. But credit the Giants scouting team for not judging Belt by his number output, and instead seeing a guy they could develop into an asset. After all, Belt had struck out just 72 times in 469 Division I at-bats (15.4 K%); only his power numbers disappointed.

The Giants saw something in his approach that could be changed, and for that, I’ll turn to a piece Andy Baggarly wrote for Baseball America [side note: buy a subscription!]:

When the Giants first saw Belt in instructional league last fall, he had a closed stance that served him well as a contact hitter but left him prone to hard stuff inside…”All we did was square him up and give him some direction back toward the middle,” [farm director Fred] Stanley said. “Just kind of free him up so his hips and hands can work . . . and my goodness.”

Indeed. After starting his season 0-for-8 in two games, Belt would post just nine more 0-fers in 75 games in the California League. He would put together an 18-game hit streak in April and a 16-game streak in June, flashing more power as time went on. Even his baserunning improved — after going just 11-for-18 stealing bases the first two months, Belt stole seven straight bases successfully before earning a promotion to Double-A. Belt’s Cal League career ended with a .383/.492/.628 batting line (.486 wOBA)in one of the leagues tougher stadiums in which to hit- at an age just under the league average. The team moved him up to Richmond in the Eastern League, where — according again to Fred Stanley in Baggarly’s piece — “it’s taken some of our batting hitting prospects a few months to get used to that league.”

It took Belt one game. In his Flying Squirrels debut, Belt went 0-for-3 against former first-round pick Brooks Brown. He followed that up with a 12-game hitting steak that included five home runs and six multi-hit games. With above-average speed and a strong left arm (he was once considered a stronger prospect on a mound), I was calling for an outfield trial as early as June. On July 29, the Giants responded, giving Belt a start in left field for the first time all season. In his final 23 games with Richmond, Belt would take the outfield seven times. While his defense at first base is considered an asset, adding some versatility can’t be considered a bad thing — and given the AAA Fresno Grizzlies have had Brett Pill at first base all season, Belt sure enough had his first start yesterday in left field.

According to Baggarly, “the Giants expect to call him up in September.” I’m guessing the promotion to Fresno has something to do with the fact that the Grizzlies are in a Pacific Coast League playoff hunt, while Richmond is near the bottom of the Eastern League standings. Many teams like their prospects to get some minor league postseason experience before reaching the big leagues, and I think it’s likelier we’ll see Belt in San Francisco after the Fresno season ends, rather then when the rosters expand on September 1. I think he could help the Giants against right-handed pitchers; he doesn’t have a bad line against left-handers this year, but in High-A he couldn’t hit them for power (.097 ISO), and in Double-A, his BB-K ratio was 2-12 in 53 plate appearances. He has shown some improvements this year, and I’m not calling him a future platoon player, just not a 22-year-old that should be getting development time against big league lefties in a Wild Card race.

We’ll get into Belt’s WAR potential another day, but suffice it to say, we should begin taking this breakout seriously. Belt now has 536 plate appearances with a solid strikeout rate, a great walk rate, and improving power. As Dave Cameron reminded us around the trade deadline, “In prospect land, things can change a lot in a short period of time.” This is magnified when a team combines good scouting with good developing; it’s magnified even gretaer when a player buys into instruction. Brandon Belt isn’t a future star, but he’s a reason for the Giants to re-consider paying Aubrey Huff for his big season.




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44 Responses to “Belt Closer to the Bay”

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  1. @sfg1ants says:

    You build him up on what he has done this year and how amazing it has been, then the last sentence says “he isn’t a future star” How can you be so sure?

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Yes, I should maybe explain this, but I want to talk about his WAR potential in a different article. Even if he’s a plus first baseman (defensively), I think he’d have to hit for more power than he has to eclipse 4 WAR or so.

      Do I think he’s the team’s future at first base? Yes. Do I think they did a great job scouting and developing him? Yes. Do I think he’ll ever be a top-3 NL 1B? Probably not.

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    • hairball says:

      I agree that that sentence is awful in the context of the article. This was mentioned back at McCovey Chronicles too. “Star” is a highly subjective term, but I think there’s general objective agreement that there are plenty of star 1B and OF in the NL that are not “top 3″, and frankly, when you are wowing over the potential of someone at an early age, why even say that they won’t be top 3?

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      • Bryan Smith says:

        I think of star as implying All-Star, and moreso, probably regular All-Star. I’m not ready to say Belt will never be an All-Star, but I think expecting a guy whose power potential is, while greatly improved, still a bit limited, to be a regular All-Star is a bit much.

        Sorry if that line thru people off. It isn’t meant to. I really like Belt, and I really respect what the Giants did for him. But just as much as you need to start believing that this breakout is real, you need to temper your expectations on where his potential lies.

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      • hairball says:

        My feeling is that he came out of close to nowhere, and looks very promising. Frankly, attaching expectations to that is not my game, which is why I reacted to the “not a star” label. It’s simply too early, and too arbitrary, to say he will or will not. He is what he is right now- a promising prospect. I’m very happy with that.

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    • fdgtff says:

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  2. @sfg1ants says:

    Thanks for the clarity

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  3. DD says:

    Nice article. However, I am starting to get worried about the attention my favorite “under the radar” prospect is receving…first Project Prospect, now Fangraphs. I’m sure my fellow fantasy baseball owners are reading this……..crap.

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  4. Danya says:

    I’m afraid anyone who thinks a young, big-potential, majors-ready prospect is going to persaude Brian Sabean to not resign an old vet coming off a career year doesn’t know Brian Sabean.

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    • The Ancient Mariner says:

      Yeah, this should encourage the Giants to re-sign Huff, then trade him to the Rangers sometime next season . . .

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    • Bhaakon says:

      In fairness, the GIants did decided to move Huff to the outfield to make room for Posey.

      Though, in even more fairness, they refused to cut into Molina’s PT, and Huff had to publicly announce his willingness to play the outfield before the Giants actually asked him to do so.

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  5. Danya says:

    Along those lines, here’s hoping that when Belt comes up he rattles off a 10-game hitting streak from the getgo, since that seems to be the only way you can stick as a Giants prospect.

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  6. Josh says:

    Yeah that line didn’t only throw people off, it killed the article entirely for me.

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    • Bryan Smith says:

      Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just ridiculous.

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      • The Duder says:

        Hahahah. Right. I liked the article a lot, but without reading any of the comments I was going to chime in about that last line too. I think it’s just the certainty that it portrays. When, in reality, there is still so much uncertainty when you consider the three sigma outcomes, there’s just no need to ever make that kind of statement.

        Are you right that he’s not a “star” (ambiguous term anyway) 98% of the time? Probably…but who knows!

        There just wasn’t any need to muck up an otherwise great article.

        /Criticism off

        Can’t wait to watch this kid, thanks for the piece.

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      • quincy0191 says:

        It doesn’t make total sense, but it’s not ridiculous. Given Belt’s performance this year, plus the fact that the peripheral stats back up the overall numbers and his breakout is accompanied by a change in mechanics, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call Belt a future star. Posey and Bumgarner aren’t prospects anymore, and Wheeler is a couple years away. Belt is very possibly the Giants’ #1 prospect, and to say that he’s not a future star after the article basically described him as such, and considering he’s put up better numbers than Pujols, Howard, Fielder, Morneau, Votto, Gonzalez, Cabrera, Youkilis (excluding a two-game stint at low-A in 2004), and Teixeira both at each level and overall (his AA or A or combined numbers are better than any minor league season of any of those players by OPS), and he’s got plus defense at least at first base, I think right now he has to be considered a future star.

        As for the whole power thing, he’s put up some pretty damned good power numbers considering SJ’s park isn’t a launching pad and the Eastern League is full of pitcher’s parks (not to mention he posted a higher ISO in Richmond than in San Jose). Maybe he doesn’t have a lot of room to grow, but even if that’s true (and he’s only 22), he could probably hit at least 20-25 home runs a year and post a high AVG, walk rate, good SB numbers, plenty of doubles – and quite a few triples given his speed and RF at AT&T – and a good UZR. All that screams “future star” to me. SSS applies, of course, but all the data we have indicates he’ll be one of the best all-around first basemen in the majors.

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      • Paul says:

        I don’t really have a problem with the line if that’s your assessment, but I don’t see how Adrian Gonzalez is not the comp for him. Would love to see an analysis of prospects who put up those kinds of numbers with decent power, relative to their MLB peak. Is there a ISO threshold for a star corner player, or just first baseman (.180 is generally predictive for an average corner player)? I think there might just be too much caution in the prediction. Nobody thought Pujols’ freakish minor league numbers were for real either.

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  7. Giant Torture says:

    How can you say he doesn’t have enough power to be a top 3 1B? I think you should take a look at Bill James’ analysis of Will Clark’s 1989 season. Clark posted an 8.3 WAR, but only hit 23 dingerz. A player can be elite without leading the league in homeruns. Look at Aubrey Huff’s season, he’s having a top 3 season this year and isn’t in the top 10 in dingerz.

    All that being said, Belt has put up an ISO of .434 in Richmond, which is a pretty tough hitters park, not exactly the type of numbers that lead me to believe he’s lacking in power.

    Of course this is all a moot conversation since Belt will be called up this year to sit on the bench, due to his lack of gamery gritty veteranness, have a torrid spring next year only to be sent to AAA to learn how to hit big league pitching while the Giants sign Jose Guillen to play LF. 3 months or so in to the season Guillen will be traded to Toronto for a bag of balls and Belt will be called up. If–and this is a big if–he goes on a 15 game hitting streak, he’ll be allowed to stay, if not it’s back to the minors after 80 or so PA’s before he’s traded to Pittsburgh for a below average LOOGY.

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  8. microwave donut says:

    Even though power is down a bit in the last few years, 23 HR today is still not the same as 23 HR in 1989.

    I don’t disagree with your general premise though. John Olerud (who seems like a good comp to Belt’s upside) posted two 8+ WAR seasons and four more of 4.6+, with many of those in the steroid era.

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    • AndOnTheDrums says:

      If Brandon Belt turns into John Olerud, I will crap my pants with happiness.

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      • Paul says:

        That made me laugh a lot.
        I do agree with many of the other commenters on this article, that it was interesting the Brandon Belt narrative, until you killed it in the last line with “he’s not a future star”. Maybe that was your goal, to build him up and then say, nah, not really. You just don’t prove your final statement, in the slightest, or offer up any argument to support it. And ‘star’ is obviously hard to define, as others have mentioned, partly because it depends on what team you play for too. Is Pablo Sandoval a star? He might have been two years ago and a year ago, this year? no se.
        Last line should be your conclusion; your article didn’t add up to your conclusion

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  9. Bleachers says:

    Giant Torture, I feel your pain, but you need to get over John Bowker, brother. In 513 PA in MLB, his line was .238 BA/.285 OBP/.394 SLG/.294 wOBA/-0.5 WAR. It’s never going to happen for him. Not in SF, not in Pitt, nowhere.

    In contrast, Cody Ross’s line this season in 496 PA is .269 BA/.319 OBP/.406 SLG/.320 wOBA/1.9 WAR. Pretty significant upgrade, no? Just think of it in the context that he essentially traded Bowker for Ross, and got Javier Lopez thrown in. I’ll take that any day of the week.

    Belt has the makings of a true, homegrown, every day player in the Giants lineup. That’ll make two! Progress. Slow, slow progress. If he’s half as good as Posey is proving to be, count me in.

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    • Graham says:

      Actually three, or are you writing off Panda?

      I’m very high on Belt, largely because skills like plate discipline and defense and baserunning tend to transfer pretty well between levels. John Olerud’s not a bad best-case-scenario. Maybe Hal Morris? Pre-steroid Palmeiro? I think he’s capable of .300/.400/.525 with around 20 homers and a ton of XBHs with Mirabelli Alley beckoning him. Here’s hoping!

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      • Brandon T says:

        A non-smoking Mark Grace, perhaps — that’s what sprung to my mind. Lots of double, never once struck out more than he walked.

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    • Giant Torture says:

      Sporadic PA’s are not indicative of a player’s actual ability and also he made a major change in his approach at the plate after about 400 of those PA’s. The thing to look at with Bowker is xBABIP, when you factor in park, league etc. Bowker’s xBABIP shows that he was actually fairly unlucky this year as well as throughout about 1 season’s worth of AB’s (.332-’10, .316-Career vs. BABIP of .241 in ’10 and .280 career). But my real issue with Bowker is neither you nor I really know whether he can produce at the big league level because he was never given a shot. It’s not just Bowker though, Bochy sat Posey during his callup last year, has never really given Schierholz consistent AB’s and has yo-yo’d Ishikawa in and out of the lineup even though he’s played great. It’s an organizational development issue that’s a large contributor to the Giants inability to develop position players. They’ve only developed 3 starters (Feliz, Sandoval & Posey) since Sabean took over 13 YEARS AGO!

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  10. Bleachers says:

    Graham, I forgot about Panda. Whoops! Thanks for the correction.

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  11. Dale says:

    Votto was never looked at as a “future star” during his stay in the minors, Ancient Mariner.

    Belt has absolutely destroyed Cal League/EL pitching.

    He could be a future perennial .925+ OPS hitter.

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  12. merizobeach says:

    Considering that Huff had tallied as many PA in the OF as at 1B prior to the Gs acquiring Guillen, I think that Belt’s emergence doesn’t factor into the consideration to retain Huff. Furthermore, anyone familiar with Sabean’s “methodology” (I use the term liberally) will not expect Belt to see regular playing time in SF any faster than Posey did: as Giant Torture points out, even a breakout ST would still likely have him start the year in AAA. Perhaps only a first ML swing HR against Nolan Ryan–or Jimenez–could nullify that prospect.

    IMO, Sabean should attempt resign Huff for a season with an option if Huff isn’t out to break the bank one time in his career, though he’s certainly earning the opportunity. Other big questions for Sabean are what to do with Burrell and Uribe, who have both been solid assets this season.

    A good article here a few weeks ago about marginal utility indicates that the Giants greatest margin for improvement is 2B, but 0 WAR Freddy Sanchez is signed for another year (as is Mark “Aurilia-off-the-precipice” DeRosa; oh, yeah, the kool-aid says he was just hurt.)

    Back to the original topic, I’ll take that bet, Bryan Smith, about Belt’s future stardom. Belt belts, and I’ll bet he’ll be next year’s Posey if given a shot.

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  13. teej says:

    If his power numbers are the only thing preventing Belt from being a ‘star,’ then I think his potential in SF is bigger than we realize. We all know power goes to die at AT&T, so if Belt is more of a line drive/gaps hitter, that just happens to put a few over the fence, I think we’ll be in good shape. WHAT SAY YE

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  14. teej says:

    P.S. I am king of the run on sentence

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  15. Paapfly.com says:

    Quit complaining that Bryan didn’t say Belt is assuredly going to be a star, and start thanking him for actually writing about Belt. Not many have to this point! It’s his opinion and everyone has their own. Some “stars” come from no where and some future stars end up being… I believe they call them flops.

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  16. Roy Weck says:

    i made use of the service a couple of months ago and i know it was a lot better than I had envisioned.

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