Brandon Belt is entering a critical year. A former top prospect, it would be fair to say that Belt hasn’t lived up to the hype during his one and a half seasons in the majors. As we know, it’s not entirely his fault. Despite Belt’s billing as an impact prospect, he hasn’t been utilized in a full-time role all that much. But entering his age-25 season, Belt will go into the season with no competition for the San Francisco Giants’ first base spot. Playing for a team that has shown little patience with his struggles in the past, Belt is going to have to prove that he has what it takes to make it as a big league first baseman.
First basemen who have posted similar numbers to Belt’s at the same age do give some reason for optimism. Belt hasn’t been awesome during the last two years, but some very talented first basemen struggled just as much as Belt early in their careers. When sorting by wRC+, some players with similar value to Belt include Todd Helton, Derrek Lee, Justin Morneau and Rafael Palmeiro. Some of those players were, at one point, considered some of the best players at their position over a decent stretch of time. And Morneau might have been even longer if he hadn’t sustained that terrible concussion, but that’s another article. There are some busts on that list, of course, so it’s no guarantee Belt will get better. But, at the very least, the list does give us some evidence of talented first basemen struggling early in their careers.
What about the players who have employed a similar approach at the plate. When narrowing our search to focus on players with similar walk and strikeout rates, we see some interesting names appear.
The first thing that jumps out on that list is the number of current players at the position with the same skill set. Belt, Ike Davis, Paul Goldschmidt and Justin Smoak have somewhat similar numbers, and have put them up during the same era and at similar ages. Since we’re dealing with players roughly the same age, that makes it tough to predict how Belt will perform. Bob Robertson and Fred McGriff also present problems, as both guys were much better than Belt at the same age. And while Dave Kingman has nearly the same wRC+ as Belt, the different in strikeout rate is too much to compare, in my opinion. That leaves one of the guy mentioned initially, Derrek Lee.
Both Belt and Lee displayed similar numbers during their age-23 and age-24 seasons. The only area where we see a large difference is slugging percentage, where Lee’s .450 was a good deal better than Belt’s .418. And that is a legitimate concern, as Belt’s lack of power has been troubling at this stage in his career. Lee managed to hit .282/.346/.474 during his age-25 season, with 21 home runs. Those numbers were actually a downgrade for Lee, who hit much better the previous year. Belt has yet to accomplish those heights as a player, making it tough to use Lee’s age-25 season as a great predictor for Belt. Plus, even if it’s reasonable for Belt to match Lee’s average and on-base percentage, he won’t be nearly as valuable if he doesn’t develop his power.
Belt has shown an ability to hit for power in the minors, but he’s had difficulty carrying it into the majors. There’s been a lot of talk about the Giants trying to make him change his swing, which could have been a contributor to Belt hitting just seven home runs last season. He might be able to turn himself into a useful real-life first baseman even with below-average power for a first baseman, but he won’t be fantasy relevant until he flashes the ability to club 20 home runs. There’s evidence that similar players have gone on to be successful, but the lack of power adds another obstacle Belt must overcome in order to emerge.