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Is Something Up With Brandon Belt?

Brandon Belt is one of the most polarizing players in baseball. Even among his own team’s fans, support for the Giants first baseman ranges from ecstatic enthusiasm to downright disdain.

Belt personifies the chasm between old-school and new-school baseball analysis. According to more traditional numbers, Belt leaves something to be desired (at least so far in his career).

He’s never knocked in more than 68 runs in a season; he’s never eclipsed 18 home runs. His career batting average is an unspectacular .273. Although his naysayers will admit that he’s sharp defensively, he’s never won a Gold Glove.

However, Belt excels in less traditional metrics. His career on-base percentage is a robust .350. He’s slugged .458 despite playing half his games in the expansive and cavernous AT&T Park. Despite not yet winning a Gold Glove, his defensive stats consistently rate at or near the top of the charts. Last year, according to the SABR Defensive Index (which uses data instead of the “eye test” to evaluate defense), Belt was the best first baseman in baseball.

To look closer at Belt’s offensive abilities, we must understand a particularly useful and telling stat. According to FanGraphs, weighted runs created plus (wRC+) “is a rate statistic that attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each outcome (single, double, etc.) rather than treating all hits or times on base equally, while also controlling for park effects and the current run environment. wRC+ is scaled so that league average is 100 and each year and every point above or below 100 is equal to one percentage point better or worse than league average.” That may seem like a mouthful, but it’s critically important to use stats like this in the business of modern baseball talent evaluation.

For his career, Belt’s wRC+ is 128, which, by the definition above, means that he’s been 28% better than the league-average Major League hitter. In some of Belt’s better seasons, he’s compiled elite wRC+ totals: 140 in 2013 and 135 in 2015, and he sits at 140 so far this season.

As the numbers show, Belt has been a very good player ever since he put on a Giants uniform, despite the harsh criticism he still receives from more traditionalist fans and analysts.

One of the biggest (and perhaps most legitimate) criticisms of Belt’s game is that he strikes out a lot. For his career, Belt has struck out in 24% of his plate appearances. While this is a pretty high total, it’s not like he’s the worst in the league, or even the worst among very good players.

Kris Bryant, last year’s unanimous National League Rookie of the Year, has a 29% career strikeout rate. Orioles slugger Chris Davis (whom many Giants fans on social media wanted the Giants to sign this off-season) strikes out 31% of the time. Tigers star outfielder J.D. Martinez racked up five wins above replacement last year, and he struck out 27% of the time.

The point is, even the biggest and most legitimate knocks against Belt can be argued against.

And wait a minute. This year, the criticism doesn’t even apply. Brandon Belt isn’t really striking out anymore. Through 92 plate appearances, he’s struck out just 14% of the time.

You may be thinking:

Sure, Belt’s strikeout rate is low so far this year, but he hasn’t even had 100 plate appearances. Surely this is a mirage caused by a small sample size.

In most cases, this is the correct point. However, according to FanGraphs, a hitter’s strikeout rate is actually the fastest element of his game to stabilize (i.e. not fall victim to small sample size). FanGraphs says that is takes just 60 plate appearances for a hitter’s strikeout rate to stabilize.

Let’s take a closer look at Belt’s 92 plate appearances to see how they differ from his career norm.

For his career, Belt has swung at 30% of pitches outside of the strike zone. This year, he’s only swung at 24% of such pitches.

For his career, Belt has made contact with 61% of pitches he’s swung at that are outside of the strike zone. This year, he’s made contact with 67% of such pitches.

For his career, Belt has made contact on 76% of his swings. This year, he’s made contact on 81% of his swings.

The biggest difference appears to be twofold: he’s chasing less and making more contact when he does chase.

One explanation could be that Belt has simply started the year with one of his patented hot streaks. He’s been known to have excellent months, and he’s been known to have miserable months. But even in some of Belt’s best months his strikeout rate has remained around his career average. In May 2015, Belt batted .339/.405/.670 in 121 PA. His strikeout rate for the month was 25%. In August 2015, Belt batted .312/.395/.560 in 124 PA. His strikeout rate for the month was 27%.

Belt has had a few months where his strikeout rate was down, however. He struck out just 11 times in 95 plate appearances (13%) in August 2012. His strikeout rate was 21% in May 2013 and 19% in June 2013, but then it ballooned up to 34% in July 2013. The following month, Belt hit .350/.421/.630 in 114 plate appearances and his strikeout rate was just 16%.

So we have seen some variance in Belt’s monthly strikeout rates, but 16% was the lowest strikeout rate he’s had in a month (min. 15 games played) since 2013. This year, with just two more games remaining in the month, Belt is poised to have one of his best ever months in terms of strikeout rate.

This is particularly interesting because April is the first month of the season. Sometimes hitters come into new seasons and introduce new and sustainable levels of production.

Belt may well be onto something, and he could have a year in which we see a sustained dip in strikeout rate. Or he may simply be having a rare month in which he doesn’t strike at least 20% of the time. Only time will tell, but the early season has been particularly intriguing and promising for Belt and his supporters. For now, at least, the critics are silent.

Who Are the 2014 Giants?

The 2014 season has been weird for the San Francisco Giants. They began the year an MLB-best 42-21 (.667) and have gone 27-41 (.397) since. They led the N.L. West by 9.5 games on Jun. 8, but currently trail the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers by five games.

At 69-62 (.527), San Francisco leads the second wild card by one game over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Marty Lurie, a host on the Giants’ flagship radio station, KNBR 680, says that a baseball season is like a mosaic: you can’t judge it by its individual parts, its moments, games, and plate appearances. Only when you step back and look at the big picture do things come into focus and make sense.

So, now that we’re about to enter the season’s final month (can you believe it’s September already?), it’s appropriate to look back on the season that has been and see how all the moments add up. That’s what baseball is all about.

It’s interesting (and fun) to look at a team’s overall numbers in some key areas, then find individual players whose career or single season statistics are comparable. Let’s get right to it:

2014 San Francisco Giants wRC+: 98

Notable hitters with a career 98 wRC+:

Rich Aurilia: .275/.328/.433, 7.2 BB%, 13.7 K%, .158 ISO, 23 SB, 6,278 PA

Delmon Young: .283/.317/.425, 4.2 BB%, 18.0 K%, .141 ISO, 35 SB, 4,143 PA

2014 San Francisco Giants starting pitcher FIP: 3.66

Notable starting pitcher(s) with a career 3.66 FIP:

Ben Sheets: 3.78 ERA, 7.47 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9, .295 BABIP

Mike Krukow: 3.90 ERA, 6.07 K/9, 3.15 BB/9, 0.81 HR/9, .288 BABIP

Notable starting pitcher(s) with ~ 3.66 FIP in 2014:

Ryan Vogelsong: 3.68 FIP, 3.78 ERA 7.26 K/9, 2.58 BB/9, 0.78 HR/9, .299 BABIP

2014 San Francisco Giants relief pitcher FIP: 3.24

Notable relief pitcher(s) with a career 3.24 FIP:

John Smoltz: 7.99 K/9, 2.62 BB/9, 0.75 HR/9, .283 BABIP

2014 San Francisco Giants UZR/150: 0.0

Notable player(s) with ~ 0.0 UZR/150 in career:

Matt Holliday (0.0 UZR/150 spanning ~ 13K innings in LF)

Edgar Renteria: (0.2 UZR/150 spanning ~ 11K innings at SS)

As you can see, the Giants’ lineup this season (including the pitcher’s spot) has essentially been nine Rich Aurilias or Delmon Youngs, or any combination of the two. Having nine Delmon Youngs in your lineup (disregarding defense) is not the worst thing in the world, but it’s also far from the best. The potential for damage is there, but he’s going to let you down more often than not. If this sounds just about right for the Giants, that’s because the comps are accurate.

Next, the Giants’ starting rotation has been five Mike Krukows or Ben Sheets, or any combination of the two. Or it’s been five 2014 Ryan Vogelsongs. This means that Vogelsong is the typical Giants starter this year—he’s right in the middle of an up-and-down rotation.

The bullpen has been good. John Smoltz (in his career) is a pretty good comp to have for your bullpen as a whole in a season.

Lastly, the Giants defense as a whole in 2014 has been equivalent to how Matt Holliday plays left field or how Edgar Renteria plays shortstop. It’s possible to do worse, but it’s also possible to do a whole lot better.

Delving deeper into the Giants’ defensive issues, Michael Morse has an atrocious (and I mean atrocious) -24.6 UZR/150 in 577 innings in LF this season. His deplorable defense almost completely offsets his terrific 135 wRC+, as he’s been worth just 1.0 WAR this season.

Let’s take the comps a step further by looking at two elite teams in the N.L.:

The Dodgers’ 105 wRC+ this season means they’ve essentially had nine Ray Durhams in the lineup every night.

Durham’s career stats: 105 wRC+, .277/.352/.436, 9.7 BB%, 14.3 K%, .158 ISO, 273 SB, 8,423 PA

And the Dodgers’ 3.50 team FIP in 2014 means that their entire pitching staff has been Garrett Richards.

Richards’ career stats: 3.66 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 7.25 K/9, 3.07 BB/9, 0.63 HR/9, .288 BABIP

Even scarier, the Nationals’ 3.23 team FIP this season means they have been a staff of Curt Schillings.

Schilling’s career stats: 3.46 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 8.60 K/9, 1.96 BB/9, 0.96 HR/9, .293 BABIP

And Washington’s 1.5 UZR/150 team defense means they’ve collectively played as well as Justin Upton plays right field and Erick Aybar plays shortstop.

In summation, the Giants are a decent/pretty good MLB team, but they are clearly not as good as some other teams in the N.L. (and the A.L. for that matter) in some key categories.

On any given day, Ryan Vogelsong might pitch a shutout; Curt Schilling sometimes got rocked. Every now and then, Delmon Young goes 4 for 4 or hits a home run and a double; Ray Durham surely took his share of 0 for 5s. These things happen sometimes. That’s baseball.

But when you step back and look at the big picture, Schilling dealt, Durham outplayed Delmon, and Justin Upton made a fine running catch and throw while Matt Holliday just couldn’t quite get there in time.

Time for Giants to Part Ways with Hector Sanchez

San Francisco Giants backup catcher Hector Sanchez is a ball magnet.

Every single time he plays — and this is no exaggeration — he takes a savage beating behind home plate. Foul tips rock his hockey-style catcher’s mask at least three or four times a game. He also takes baseballs to the shoulders, fingers, feet and groin like you would not believe.

So to no one’s surprise, Sanchez finds himself on the disabled list with a concussion. And the Giants are taking their time bringing him back, as the team is all too familiar with concussions caused by multiple blows to the head (Mike Matheny’s playing career came to a screeching halt because of multiple concussions sustained when he strapped on the tools of ignorance for San Francisco back in 2006).

While it may seem cruel to add insult to injury, now is the perfect time for the Giants to part ways with Sanchez.

The trouble is that Sanchez’s bat is a ball magnet, too — and not in the good, solid contact kind of way. He simply can’t stop swinging at pitches in or out of the strike zone.

Simply put, Sanchez is not a good baseball player, while his replacement, Andrew Susac, is.

Sanchez has been one of the worst players in MLB this season. Take a look at how he’s fared in some key statistical categories, along with how those stats rank among fellow National Leaguers with a minimum of 170 plate appearances:

OBP K% wOBA wRC+ O-Swing % Swing %
.237 (2nd-worst) 31.1% (6th-worst) .237 (2nd-worst) 52 (4th-worst) 47.1% (2nd-highest) 63.0% (highest)

This chart essentially shows that Giants fans have selected an appropriate nickname for Sanchez. They call him “Hack-tor”.

Susac, on the other hand, is known for his plate discipline. He’s never had a BB% lower than 12.9% in four minor league seasons (Sanchez’s career BB% is 4.0%). Susac’s slash line for AAA-Fresno this season was .268/.379/.451. Hopefully he never goes back.

In 26 plate appearances for the Giants this season, Susac has a .250 average and a .308 OBP. He’s swung at just 22% of pitches outside of the strike zone (compared to 47.1% for Sanchez) and he’s struck out only 19% of the time (31% for Sanchez). Perhaps most importantly, Susac has already been worth 0.1 WAR, meaning he’s added value to the team even though he’s played in only parts of 10 baseball games. Comparatively, Sanchez has been worth -0.2 WAR in 66 games, meaning that even an average minor league replacement player would have been more valuable.

And Susac is an average replacement-level catcher at worst. In fact, it’s hard to argue that he is that bad. So there’s essentially no question that Susac is superior to Sanchez.

In a baseball era where it is increasingly accepted and known that getting on base — not making outs — is the most important baseball skill, Sanchez has proven himself to be a free-swinging out machine.

That’s why the era of Susac ought to be upon us. What’s more, backup catcher is an especially interesting position on this Giants team.

There is increasing sentiment within the organization that Buster Posey needs to be moved out from behind the dish. He’s arguably their most valuable offensive player, but as a catcher, he requires frequent days off, and the physical demands of catching already seem to be wearing Posey down.

Offensive skills deteriorate faster for catchers than for non-catchers, so as Posey ages and navigates the seven remaining years of his 9-year, $163 million contract, the Giants are absolutely right to seriously consider moving Posey to a less demanding and offensively-crippling position.

Third baseman Pablo Sandoval will be a free agent after this season, and if he walks away, it will create a glaring hole at third base — a hole that could be filled by Posey. Posey played all over the diamond in college, including shortstop and pitcher, so it’s at least possible that he could man the hot corner next year and beyond. If Posey moves to third base, Brandon Belt could stay at first and Susac could settle in as the everyday catcher.

But if the Giants re-sign Sandoval, there could be a logjam if the Giants indeed have intentions of getting Posey out of the squat.

Belt has good speed (he has 23 steals in 409 MLB games and he’s only 26 years old), so it’s possible he could play a decent left field, allowing Posey to play first base and Sandoval to stay at third. This is not ideal, and I understand that it’s possible Belt will not be a good defensive outfielder (but hey, he can’t be worse than Michael Morse, can he?).

Even if Posey remains behind the plate, he gets a lot of rest (as most catchers do), so it’s important to have a good backup catcher if at all possible. That’s why it’s time for the offensively skilled Susac to leapfrog the offensively challenged Sanchez on the organizational depth chart.

Sorry Sanchez, but Susac is the catcher of the future. It’s time to let him play.