Last night, in the eleventh inning of a scoreless, priceless piece of pitching between the Giants and Phillies, Brandon Belt came to the plate with one out. The situation was surprising. Here was the left-handed Opening Day first baseman, then platoon caddy backup first baseman, then bench piece — coming in against a left-handed reliever with the game on the line.
The results turned out well for the Baby Giraffe and the Giants — his single started the game-winning rally — but the moment itself brought to mind all the anti-Belt arguments that have been thrown the first baseman’s way over the past two seasons.
In some ways, these reasons given for his lack of playing time represent straw men. We weren’t in the front office, or the dugout, or next to the batting cage, when they were proffered by his coaching staff or front office suit. Each of those arguments was relevant in that eleventh-inning at-bat, however. Unraveling the twine that holds them together seems to produce even more straw men, but the overall picture becomes clear as each single argument gets cloudier.
Is there really any good reason to keep Brandon Belt from regular playing time?
1) Brandon Belt has platoon issues.
Aubrey Huff will be the Giants’ every-day left fielder in 2012, leaving Brandon Belt and Brett Pill to platoon at first base. Belt will face the lion share of right-handers with Pill taking the lefties.
“I don’t want to switch it up,” Bochy said. “I want to stay consistent.” — Nate Stuhlbarg, CSNBayArea.com, April 4, 2012
There was the supposedly lefty part of the first base platoon, striding to the plate against Antonio Bastardo… a lefty in the Phillies’ pen. So it was a strange use for the supposed platoon first baseman.
Do we know that he has platoon issues? Lefties, as a group, fare worse against lefties — across baseball this has been proven true — but Belt doesn’t seem to be any worse in that regard. He only had 126 plate appearances against southpaws in the Minor Leagues, but he proved adequate enough in posting a .395 on-base percentage against them. In the Major Leagues, he’s added 53 more PAs and a .415 OBP. He’s now about 800 plate appearances short of having a good enough sample to use his observed platoon split, and our sample is so small that even estimating his true talent platoon split with our data seems futile.
Here’s where we birth another straw man — perhaps someone has seen something that suggests that he will be worse against lefties in the future. Something in his batting stance perhaps?
2) Brandon Belt won’t adjust his batting stance as the coaching staff has asked him to.
Coaches want Belt to stand more upright to hit down on ball, stand back in box to see balls longer. Watch him hit. You won’t see that….
-— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) April 9, 2012
Someone said this, it looks like. Maybe it’s not a straw man. But it feels like one.
Once upon a time, Belt was more known for his college pitching at Texas. He hit 14 home runs over 473 at-bats back with the old bats, but there was still something that caught the Giants’ eye. A team renowned for spotting great pitchers (not hitters) picked him, retooled his swing, and set him loose on the Minor Leagues as a first baseman (not a pitcher). After destroying the Eastern League, the patient slugger gave all credit to the organization that gave him a shot.
Brandon Belt: In college I was a lot more squatty — believe it or not. My hands were a lot lower and I was a lot more closed off. So pretty much as soon as I got in the [Giants] organization, they opened me up, they raised my hands, and they got me up out of the crouch just a little bit just so I could stay stacked in my upper body. And so far it’s worked out pretty well for me. — as told to Adam Foster at Project Prospect, November 7, 2010
So this guy now won’t make changes similar to ones he once made? With a starting job on the line? Seems unlikely.
[Some have pointed out that Belt supposedly has a hole in his swing. This was an attempt to address that topic, but here’s another way to talk about it. What hole?]
3) Brandon Belt is too patient of a hitter.
[Belt] also plans to attack strikes, which he did not do consistently last year. Bochy considered Belt too passive at the plate, searching for walks instead of trying to crush pitches over the plate. Belt was the first to agree, saying, “When I’m aggressive, I’m a lot better.” — Henry Schulman, SFGate, February 19, 2012
After he retooled his swing once for the organization, the Giants told him he needed to attack strikes more last offseason. They asked him to play winter ball to that end. This, after a debut season that had him show near-league-average production at 23 years old. He acquiesced, and dominated in Dominican Winter Ball. Once again he showed he was willing to make an adjustment for his team. Wednesday night, he came into the game with the Giants needing a baserunner and saw one pitch from Bastardo — it was a low strike down the middle and he roped it for a single.
As for being too patient… there isn’t a hitter on the Giants this year that is projected to have a better OBP the rest of the season than the .363 that ZiPs has in store for Belt.
We don’t need to re-invent the wheel and provide a link between getting on base and scoring runs. It’s a bit anecdotal, but in this case apropos: The Giants have scored the least runs in the National League since 2007; The Giants have had the second-worst OBP over that same time frame.
Perhaps this team could use a hitter that is too patient?
4) Brandon Belt is unproven, and the Giants need a sure thing.
This one hasn’t been said by anyone in the papers, but it’s possibly lurking behind Belt’s usage. First, he was the platoon outfielder, but after a few oh-fers, he ended up missing time against against right-handed pitchers. But what of his competition? Aubrey Huff is providing a .207/.333/.379 line this year — hence the straw man’s emergence here. Huff must be getting more of the benefit of the doubt because he’s a proven veteran. That’s why Belt’s the rook grabbing some pine, meat.
But we aren’t talking about giving Huff more than 36 PAs to recover. Because Huff has played to a .244/.307/.371 line over his last 615 PAs. Belt has been given 231 PAs over the same time frame and has a .220/.307/.395 line.
He’s already better.
As murky as it is navigating each of these particular proffered reasons for his lack of playing time, it does seem like a clear picture emerges. He may or may not have problems against lefties. He may more may not be able to make adjustments. He may or may not be too patient. But, over the pat year-plus, he’s been better than the alternative, already.
Wednesday night was a strange night for Belt. The platoon first baseman found himself in the game facing a lefty, probably because the Giants had few other options (Manny Burriss?) and were desperate for baserunners. The same Belt that wouldn’t make an adjustment and wouldn’t be aggressive on strikes and had a problem against lefties reached down and pokes a single, right past all those straw men.
Maybe he can continue to do the same if given regular playing time.