Brandon Belt Fooling Around with His Identity

We know not to read too much into statistics at the beginning of the season. As of right now, Allen Craig is hitting a line of .154/.211/.231. Sure, it’s ugly — but then it’s only been 14 games. A year ago, Michael Morse hit six homers in his first 14 games, and then only hit seven more for the rest of the season. The small-sample-size game can work so many different ways. A hot start could indicate a breakout season, but then again it could not. A cold start could indicate a clunker, then again it could not. One interesting story in the first 14 games of the season is Brandon Belt.

Belt is off to a hot start this season, and is tied — with notable power hitters Jose Bautista and Pedro Alvarez — for second in the league in homers, with five. There is reason to think that this is Belt’s year to become a legitimate power threat. Belt’s power did increase from an ISO of .146 in 2012 to .193 in 2013. For context, Adrian Beltre had an ISO of .193 in 2013 and hit 30 home runs.

Given this evidence, and the hot start, it could be that Belt is developing into a first baseman’s mold. A first baseman who can hit for power, hit fourth in the lineup, and drive in RBIs, excites baseball fans.  However, Belt hasn’t been a conventional first baseman. In fact, he goes against the positional identity.

Belt has been well known for his passivity. In his first two full seasons, he had a walk rate of at least 9.1% and a .360 OBP in both of those seasons. Belt has always shown tremendous knowledge of the strike zone. As a 21-year-old, he took a page out of Nick Johnson’s book and posted a walk rate of 17.4% in 77 games at High-A Ball.  Although Minor League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, Belt’s high walk-rate definitely means that he’s no free swinger. Belt is a similar first baseman to Freddie Freeman and Joey Votto. Belt might not be as good as those guys, but the profile remains the same: first basemen who walk a lot and hit well, but don’t hit an outrageous number of homers.

Oddly enough, the passivity for which Belt has been known hasn’t shown up in his hot start. Through his first 14 games this season, Belt has had a walk rate of 4.8%. Again, this is based on only 14 games and therefore there is a lot of time for Belt to show his patience, however the trend is interesting: Belt is known for drawing a lot of walks and not hitting home runs, begins the season by hitting a lot of homers and not drawing a lot of walks.

Belt’s walks are definitely going to go up; he’s too much of a passive hitter to not walk a lot, and you can’t be a viable major leaguer walking only 1.9% of the time. However, the main question is whether or not the power is sustainable. The updated ZiPs and Steamer projections estimate that Belt finishes the season with between 21-22 homers this year. Both systems don’t see Belt having a significant power jump.

However, it is worth noting that most of the dingers Belt has hit have come on pitches that were low and inside.

Belt was able to turn on a loopy off-speed pitch from Zack Greinke that was low and inside, and take it to right-field. Most of Belt’s other home runs have come off of low inside pitches. This is where Belt’s power is coming from.

While the early power surge is promising, Belt may not make a gigantic leap as a power hitter. Neither projection system sees this kind of leap, and pitchers are probably going to learn to avoid throwing inside to Belt. Belt may be a little more aggressive this year, his OBP and SLG may trade some points, however he’s still going to get a good number of walks. It’s too early to tell whether Belt has turned into the power hitting first baseman that most people want him to be. For now, Belt is still Belt — a first baseman with moderate power and a lot of patience.

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Nice title