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Brandon Belt Gets His Opportunity

The San Francisco Giants have finally committed to Brandon Belt. Now the team has to figure out how to best use him.

After finishing 29th in runs last season, the Giants were in desperate need of some offense. While Belt’s transition to the majors last year wasn’t all that impressive, his .343/.457/.596 line in the minor leagues proved that he’s more than capable of being an above-average hitter for the Giants. Despite Belt’s eye-popping numbers, manager Bruce Bochy said that the 23-year-old will platoon with Brett Pill to open the season—and move Aubrey Huff to the outfield. Despite the fact that Belt hit .348/.412/.522 against lefties last season — albeit, in just 51 plate appearances — the Giants think he needs more work against same-handed pitchers. Belt, however, did show a platoon split in 2010. Pill, on the other hand, has generally been better versus lefties during his time in the minors. When you consider those stats — and the fact that Belt is on the better half of the platoon — the strategy could actually work in the Giants’ favor.

Unfortunately, this strategy also prevents Belt from facing lefties. If the Giants want him to improve against left-handed pitching, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to hide him from lefties. And for Belt to fulfill his status as a prospect, he can’t be a part-time player. With Buster Posey also slated to get some time at first base, that could cut into Belt’s usage. Belt could play left field at times, but Huff is currently slated to play there.

While it’s imperative that Posey gets as many at bats as possible, Belt has a higher ZiPS projection than both Huff and Pill.

Brandon Belt 0.268 0.365 0.452 0.356
Aubrey Huff 0.261 0.329 0.422 0.325
Brett Pill 0.267 0.298 0.412 0.306

According to ZiPS, Belt should probably replace Huff in left field when Posey starts at first. And based on the poor projection for Pill, Belt should probably be the full-time first baseman, too.

By platooning Belt and Pill, the Giants have decided to make Huff the full-time left fielder. The Giants attempted this last season and got disastrous results. In 86 innings as a right fielder, Huff posted a -9.1 UZR — good for a -125.0 UZR/150, which is almost too improbable to write. Now, no one should draw firm conclusions from a sample size of less than 100 innings in the field, but every bit of evidence suggests he’s been a comically bad outfielder.

The Giants did try Belt in the outfield last season, and while he wasn’t great, he was an improvement from Huff. (Belt had a pulse and generally ran in the same direction as the ball.) From a defensive standpoint, San Francisco is going to give up a lot of runs in left if Huff plays there the entire season — but of course that’s not likely since no manager could stand to watch Huff play the outfield for extended periods and convince himself that this it was a sound plan.

If the Giants want to utilize their best hitters while also employing the best possible defense, they might want to consider playing Huff at first and Belt in left a little more often. But it’s not that easy. Both players are more susceptible to injury in the outfield, and keeping Belt healthy is far more important than keeping Huff healthy. As awful as it sounds, if you’re going to risk the health of one of the two, it should probably be the end-of-his-career veteran in the last year of his contract.

The Giants made the right decision by promoting Belt to the majors, but how he’s used isn’t quite as straightforward. While a Belt-Pill platoon might work, it also prevents Belt from improving against left-handed pitchers. At the same time, playing Belt at first means that the Giants will have to suffer through the Aubrey Huff experience in left field. While the optimal alignment for the Giants might involve Belt playing the outfield, it’s unclear if the team is willing to put him out there, or what the constant position switching might do to his development.

Brandon Belt certainly deserves to be in the majors. How the Giants choose to use him will play a big role in whether they make the playoffs.