The Belt Delusion

A preview of Brandon Belt, Giants first baseman

Ever since Brandon Belt tore apart the Eastern League in 2010, hitting .337/.413/.623 over 201 plate appearances in a very pitcher-friendly league, Giants fans have been hyped up on his potential major-league career. When his name first began to circulate, fans and journalists liked to mention Belt’s raw power. 

That’s a dangerous word for Giants fans: power. You say that word, and all of a sudden we enter fever dream hallucinations of riding Barry Bonds home runs like Concords, waving at our houses as we pass over them, never to land. We’ve been pining for a 40+ home-run hitter since Bonds set the league on fire in 2004. No, that’s not hyperbolic enough. Barry Bonds incinerated baseball history in 2004. Relatively impossible standards for any mortal player, wouldn’t you agree?

So why Belt? How did Belt become the Giants’ next offensive savior, when he doesn’t even play Bonds’ position?

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BELT AS BONDS

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The Giants never had a history of developing hitters well. Will Clark was the one true homegrown star that bridged the Mays and McCovey era to the present one. The post-Bonds years were a concoction of otherworldly young pitching, and Brian Bocock: starting opening-day shortstop. Bengie Molina led the 2008 Giants in home runs….with 16.

We were given a Panda in 2009, swinging at everything for a .330/.387/.556 slash. 23-year-old Pablo Sandoval firmly grasped the hearts of Giants fans, but he wasn’t really heralded for his power. To this day, no Giant has hit 30 or more home runs in a single season since Bonds in 2004.

Then came 2011. In Brandon Belt’s second major-league game, he hit a three-run homer to dead center field at Dodger Stadium against Chad Billingsley. Certainly no easy task, but the way Belt just whipped his bat through the strike zone made it look almost routine. “That’s the guy,” thought the Giants fan. “That’s the team’s new 30-home-run machine.” It was that instantaneous.

But it wasn’t that easy. Belt, like most rookies, struggled to keep pace with major-league-caliber pitching: a 23-year-old kid could be forgiven for facing Clayton Kershaw like he was swinging a fishing rod. Belt bounced from Triple-A to San Francisco, from the bench to the disabled list. Every once in a while he flashed his incredible home-run potential, re-igniting the “Savior Belt” narrative. He just needed more time.

In late 2012 Brandon Belt finally, if unspectacularly, wrested the starting first-base job from Brett Pill, another hitter with serious power. Belt locked himself in during a lost 2013 season, perhaps at last realizing his potential. He came out with dingers blazing in 2014, and was then hit in the wrist with a Paul Maholm fastball. Upon returning, he received a concussion from his own teammate. It was a lost season for Belt, even though he did get to be a postseason hero for one night.

In 2015, he finally put it together. Slashing .280/.356/.478, Belt had his best overall season. He had arrived.

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So why do people still call into KNBR 680, and bother the poor hosts with poorly-conceived trade proposals that usually involve purging Belt? Is it because he hasn’t unleashed the stupendous slugging ability that we fantasized for him, an unrealistic threshold that is becoming harder for any San Francisco hitter to reach?

In this era of pitching-dominated baseball, in one of the most dramatically home-run-reducing ballpark in the United States, very few left-handed Giants are capable of hitting 30 home runs. Giants hitters, Belt very much included, succeed by hitting .300, maintaining a terrific eye at the plate, hitting to all fields, and playing solid (and sometimes sterling) defense. Park factors have always pegged AT&T Park, with its Grand Canyon outfield gaps, as a doubles and triples park. Therefore, it benefits the team to fill their lineup with contact-first hitters with…you guessed it…doubles and triples power. This is how the Giants have won. This is how the Giants will continue to win.

That said, how do we value Belt? He’ll be 28 for most of 2016, so he’s likely in his prime, or close to it. Via Baseball Prospectus, Belt was worth 4.7 Wins Above Replacement Player in 2015, and 4.4 WARP in 2013, losing 2014 largely to injury. Belt is a plus base-runner, and a very adept fielder (DRS: 8, UZR: 9 in 2015). But how do we know if these numbers are good?

Perhaps we need some context. There are two first basemen in particular whom Belt resembles, both representing existing and theoretical stages of Belt’s development. The first is Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds, and the second is Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves. Let’s show a quick comparison of the three players, in 2015.

Name OPS wRC+ ISO K% BB%
Brandon Belt .834 135 .197 26.4% 10.6%
Freddie Freeman .841 133 .195 20.4% 11.6%
Joey Votto 1.000 172 .228 19.4% 20.6%

All three players had great seasons last year, and all three players are similar in different ways. Belt, like Freeman, is young enough to improve. Belt, like Votto, had his best season in 2015, yet remains criminally underrated. Votto and Freeman both survived team rebuilds, and both represent their team’s best player. Both have had to be superstars, whereas Belt has become a role player. All three are left-handed.

But there’s more to both players than their statistics on the surface; all three players have unquestioned power, and power hitters are expected to command the strike zone. One quick glance at Barry Bonds’ Baseball-Reference page reveals his unbelievable plate discipline, usually getting one good pitch to hit per game. Sluggers command the zone, just as they command respect.

This table shows the percent of pitches outside the strike zone at which each player swung (o-swing%), the percentage of pitches inside the strike zone at which each player swung (z-swing%), the percentage of total swings that resulted in contact (contact%), and the percentage of strike swings that resulted in contact (z-contact%). The final column shows the percentage of balls put into play that were hit hard. We are using data collected through PITCHf/x, displayed on FanGraphs.

Name O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% Z-Contact% Hard Hit%
Brandon Belt 31% 74% 74% 79% 40%
Freddie Freeman 29% 76% 77% 83% 38%
Joey Votto 19% 59% 79% 83% 38%

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BELT AS VOTTO

Joey Votto, being the best and longest-tenured hitter on this list, doesn’t swing much. He swings at only 19% of balls, 11% better than league average. Perhaps more importantly, Votto is very selective about swinging at certain strikes. Many pitches in the strike zone cut the corners, with nasty movement running down, away, or into a hitter. If a hitter were to attempt a swing at one of these pitches, he would make weak contact, and likely make an out. It’s a blatantly obvious, but crucial reminder: hitters get three strikes, and they don’t have to swing at all of them.

Votto has a spectacular eye; he will only swing at the best strikes he gets. His eye and stubbornly consistent plate discipline have earned him an MVP award, and have helped established himself as one of the smartest hitters in the game.

Votto, much like Belt, has drawn criticism for his approach. He has endured the ire of many impatient Reds fans due to his deliberate approach to hitting. Fans know Votto has special power, and they don’t want to watch him walk 20% of the time. The old-guard sentiment still lives strong, and contends that Votto is wasting his offensive capabilities by just getting on base, leaving the damage to the hitters behind him in the lineup. Votto should be the one doing the damage. But the value of getting on base is undeniable these days, and Votto is too smart to swing when he doesn’t want to.

So Votto sets the ceiling pretty high for Belt. Both hitters use the entire field very well, but they each play in vastly different hitting environments. Belt makes the hard contact necessary to intimidate opposing pitchers, but he may never hit enough home runs at AT&T Park to command the respect that Votto does. Belt also swings and misses a lot (league-average contact rate in 2015 was 80%), and needs to lower his strikeout rate, lest opposing pitchers taunt him with junk.

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Belt has improved his offensive prowess every year since 2012, and if he improves further in 2016, he could draw more comparisons to Votto than he does to the next guy.

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BELT AS FREEMAN

The closest current comparison to Belt is Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. Both players are relatively young, and love to swing. Neither makes as much contact as Votto does, but both hit a higher percentage of balls harder. Both are very solid defenders, and capable baserunners.

Whereas Votto personifies Belt’s future potential, Freeman represents Belt’s present and past. While the similarities are there, one glaring difference exists in Belt’s favor.

Freeman had easily his best season in 2013, and has posted progressively weaker seasons in the two years since. Belt, on the other hand, has gradually improved. Belt, like Freeman, had a terrific 2013 season, boosted by a ridiculous second-half surge. In 2014, Belt was well on his way to career highs in home runs, OPS and RBIs, until he was repeatedly and mercilessly struck by baseballs, from Dodgers and Giants alike. Broken wrists and concussions kept Belt from playing a full season.

Then 2015 came, and Belt started to resemble the hitter Freeman had been in 2013. After several years of doubt, it was becoming clear that Belt was trending up. He was still improving. There was no reason to suspect any deviation from the trend, and Belt would continue the dedicated upward march toward the summit of his own potential.

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DOCTOR BELTED AND MISTER SLIDE

Except we’re getting ahead of ourselves again. Part of the reason fans are constantly disappointed by Belt is the incessant, hyperbolic expectation that surrounds him, and the unfair duality with which he becomes associated. He’ll go 3-4 with three singles, and we’re wondering where his power went. Then he’ll go 1-5 with a long home run and four strikeouts, and we’ll throw our hands in the air and complain that he’s too reliant on his power. Why can’t he be more consistent? We can’t allow a middle ground for Belt, because he doesn’t present one: Belt truly is an all-or-nothing hitter.

This doesn’t appear to be the case when Belt’s season statistics are viewed as a whole; he puts up solidly above-average offensive numbers. When Belt plays a full season, he’ll hit 18-24 home runs per year, and posts a batting average between .270 and .290. Sound familiar? We know better, because we’ve watched him play. We know that Belt is one of the streakiest hitters in the major leagues: Does THAT sound familiar?

In 2015, he didn’t hit his first home run until May 15, six weeks into the season. In the two weeks following, he proceeded to hit seven. Belt managed only three through June and July combined, then hit seven again in the month of August, two of those in the same game. He finished with only one in September.

Belt by Month, 2015 Home Runs OPS wRC+
April 0 .613 80
May 7 1.075 198
June 1 .586 65
July 2 .818 133
August 7 .955 170
September/October 1 .738 109

It wouldn’t be so difficult to evaluate him if he spread his 18 home runs equally, one every nine games. If he hit .284 in every month, we would know exactly what Belt’s true value was. But every year, we go through the same cycle:

“What’s wrong with Belt? Are his injuries still bothering him? You know concussions are persistent little things right? Wait, he’s back baby! Damn, Belt for the All-Star Game? Nope, there’s ol’ slumpy again. Why does he always look so sad? Should we trade him to Miami for…wait who’s the Marlins first baseman again? What the hell is a Justin Bour? Yeah okay, sure. Why not. Wait there he is again! Two home runs to right-center at AT&T against a tough lefty, impressive! Can’t believe I ever doubted you Belty. Aaaand he’s gone again. Wonder what Brett Pill is up to these days…”

Every. Damn. Season.

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BELT AS BELT

It’s increasingly clear to us at this point what type of player Brandon Belt is becoming. He’s a streaky, high-power guy who hits to all fields, strikes out a good amount, plays a mean first base, and will occasionally slump his shoulders. And that’s fine. Because he’s good enough to start, and he fits in perfectly with the rest of the Giants lineup.

Belt doesn’t need to hit like Joey Votto; the Giants already have Buster Posey. Belt doesn’t need to hit like Freddie Freeman; the Giants already have Hunter Pence. With Brandon Crawford’s continued ascent, as well as the dramatic emergence of Joe Panik and Matt Duffy, all Belt really has to do is remain healthy and hit as well as he can.

Even if Belt never blossoms into the next great Giants slugger, even if Belt repeats his 2015 season ad infinitum, during which he was a well above-average baseballer, he’s making the team better by simply showing up.

Perhaps it’s time we leave Brandon Belt alone. He’s doing just fine.

beltout

“Belt Out”

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 You can follow me on Twitter @theabsolute19



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Ryan DC
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Ryan DC

The Votto comparison doesn’t make much sense to me, but I didn’t even care because this was such an enjoyable read

acastle_10
Member

Well-written and entertaining piece. Nice job.