The Progression of Brandon Belt (and other notes from 8/11/15)

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In the pre-season, I suggested that Brandon Belt, first baseman of the San Francisco Giants, would be “This Year’s Todd Frazier.” I didn’t truly believe that he would be able to step into the ring be the Ali to this Frazier and go toe to toe with him to match all of Frazier’s 2014 stats, especially in the stolen base category, but Belt did appear to be in a great position to post the best season of his career with something along the lines of a .270 AVG with 25 HR and 10 SB (my actual pre-season projection for Belt was: 266 AVG, 27 HR, 88 RBI, 82 R, 11 SB, 149 K, 58 BB in 580 AB).

Belt started the season off really poorly as he struggled to hit for a .200 AVG for most of April, and he didn’t hit his first HR of the season until May 15 (his 31st game played). But Belt worked through his issues and has put together some hot streaks that have left him with a rather productive stat line. Belt’s most recent hot streak has seen him hit 7 HR in 10 games in August, which includes a 2 HR performance on Tuesday night where he did a couple things that he has failed to do well all season: hit for power at home and produce against left-handed pitching. Both of Belt’s Tuesday night long balls were off Scott Kazmir fastballs that he crushed — one deep to center field and one to the opposite field at AT&T Park.

The big day brought Belt’s season stat line up to a .272 AVG with 17 HR, 52 RBI, 54 R, and 5 SB. Previously, just 2 of 15 of Belt’s home runs this season came against left-handed pitching (with a .205 AVG), and also just 2 of 15 of Belt’s home runs this season had come at his home park. With that incredibly deep corner in the right-center field gap at AT&T Park, left-handed power production is suppressed a lot — that is of course unless you take a little somethin’ somethin’ like one former Giants player with the same initials as Belt used to do, and I’m not talking about taking Wheaties and I’m not taking about Bud Black.

So with the big day of countering some of his weaknesses, it’s worth taking a closer look at Belt to see how he has progressed this season. The first thing that jumps out when digging deeper into Belt’s season is that he has a relatively high .344 BABIP. With the league average BABIP this season sitting at .297, the initial thought may be that Belt has been getting pretty fortunate with the balls that he has been putting into play. However, he’s got a laundry list of things to back up his high BABIP.

Belt has always shown the ability to hit a lot of line drives with a rate as high as 25.6% in 2012 and 24.3% in 2013, but this season he’s taken it up a notch to 29.2%, which is the tops in the Majors. Hitting a lot of line drives usually means a lot of hits from those line drives, and it also can translate to a high hard hit rate. In Belt’s case, it indeed does translate that way as his 42.1% hard hit rate is 2nd best in the Majors. Belt is just one of 3 players that appears in the top 10 in both line drive rate and hard hit rate (Chris Davis and Ryan Howard), but he’s the only player who is ranking at or near the top in each, which truly shows how dangerous of a hitter that he has been and can continue to be.

Also factoring into Belt’s performance at the plate is the way that he is spraying the ball to all fields. Let’s take a look at his spray charts by percentages over the last few seasons.

  • 2013: Pull 43.3%, Center 33.2%, Opposite 23.5%
  • 2014: Pull 48.3%, Center 30.5%, Opposite 21.2%
  • 2015: Pull 36.4%, Center 34.5%, Opposite 29.1%

So as you can see, this season he has become much less pull happy and taking the ball the other way as defenses began to employ defensive shifts on him in the recent years, which had an adverse effect on his BABIP and batting average. By going to the opposite field more, he is keeping opposing teams on their toes and giving them second thoughts on when and how much to shift against him.

Also worth noting is that Belt has yet to hit an infield fly ball this season. Fellow National League first baseman and a player that Belt received some comparisons to when he came up, Joey Votto, has always shown the great ability to avoid hitting infield fly balls as his career infield fly ball rate is a minuscule 1.4%. Infield fly balls are a very bad thing to hit because they will not end up going for a hit in the box score 99% of the time and they also do not generate any type of run production or simply just moving a base runner over. It’s something that Votto has mastered over his career and now Belt seemingly has matured in that same fashion this season, which is just another positive effect on his BABIP and batting average.

As for Belt’s power, he is definitely taking steps forward in that department as well. His total of 17 HR already this season matches a career high that he set in 2013 in 46 more games played and his average distance on home runs and fly balls has shot up from 279 feet last season to 296 feet this season (38th in the Majors).

So Belt has all these great things working in his favor, things that he has likely put a lot of effort into changing, but he does have a few flaws that are preventing him from taking one more further step forward. As mentioned previously, he has not hit lefties well this season nor has he hit for much power at home. The missing power at home can’t really be faulted towards Belt himself, as the park dimensions and outfield fence configuration in San Francisco are just hell for lefties. If Belt were to ever leave the Giants and hit in a hitters park, he could surely threaten to be a 30 HR type of hitter in his prime years. But hitting lefties better is definitely something that he has control over, and over the course of his career so far he actually hasn’t hit lefties much worse than righties. So the ability is there, it’s just not working out for him so far this season. But he has been showing improvements with the 2 HR off Kazmir on Tuesday, and he also had a 2 HR game in Texas this month where he took lefties Cole Hamels and Sam Freeman deep. So perhaps he’s coming around in that regard.

But the one thing that is probably hindering him the most in his offensive performance is his relatively high strikeout rate. His strikeout rate this season sits at 27.1%, but he’s finished a season with a rate as low as 21.9% in 2013. And Belt’s career rate in the Minor Leagues before coming a fixture on the Major League roster was 18.5%. So the potential to cut down on his strikeouts appears to be there, but he’s going to have to do some work to tap into it — and it is against lefties where he does struggle the most as he has a 32.3% strikeout rate against them this season. It’s this high strikeout rate that is preventing him from being a .300 type of hitter. He’s got all the tools (high line drive rate, high hard hit rate, utilizing all directions of the field, low infield fly ball rate) to gets hits, but you can’t get hits when you don’t put the ball in play.

So while maybe Belt doesn’t fulfill the pre-season prediction of being “This Year’s Todd Frazier” (statistically, that would probably be Manny Machado this season), he’s still enjoying a season that will likely turn out to be the best of his career so far and he’s made some very great strides while doing it. A strong finish to this season will give him some nice momentum for his age 28 season in 2016. And one thing’s certain: his stock is definitely higher now than it was at the beginning of May.

Now let’s check out the rest of Tuesday’s action.

Jose Bautista – 1 for 4, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 R, 1 K. Bautista went yard for the 27th time this season. Joey Bats is having another impressive year.

Drew Hutchison – 7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K with the W. Once again, Hutchison continued his Jekyll and Hyde performance between home and road starts. This game came at home and he lowered his home ERA to 2.68 while his road ERA is outrageously at 9.00. Hutchison is now 11-2 despite a 5.26 ERA. He’ll get another home start next against the Yankees, though that could prove to be more challenging.

Roberto Osuna – 1 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K with the SV. Osuna just keeps on nailing down the saves as he already has 5 in 10 games this month after only having 4 saves in all of July. He’s been lights out this year and should be considered a top 15 closer despite the fact that the Blue Jays usually win by a large margin.

Erasmo Ramirez – 7 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K with the W. I’ve been talking about Ramirez for a while now, and even though he had a few mediocre/poor games recently, I included him as a waiver wire recommendation in this past week’s Fantasy Baseball Waiver Wire. He returned the favor by throwing 7 shutout innings against the Braves on Wednesday. However, he will pitch in Texas in his next start where he won’t really be a recommended start.

Mookie Betts – 3 for 5, 2 RBI, 1 SB. Betts returned from the 7-day concussion DL after missing 13 days. He logged a few hits and a stolen base and will look to finish the season strong despite his team not being contenders.

Junichi Tazawa – 1 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K with the BS. I have no idea what is going on with Red Sox manager Jon Farrell. As noted in “The Not So Lean Jean as a Save Machi-ne?” it was reported that Farrell was going to go to Jean Machi as the primary closer after Koji Uehara hit the DL. However, of course when the first save opportunity presents itself, it is Tazawa who gets the chance after Machi set up the 8th inning. And then of course Tazawa goes on to blow it after I said how he would be a better option than Machi. The blown save will probably open the door for Machi to take the next chance, but there shouldn’t be much confidence in him if you’re mining for saves in fantasy.

Matt Harvey – 8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K with the W. Harvey pitched his second scoreless outing in a row to improve to 11-7 with a 2.61 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. There have been a few bumps, but it’s been a heck of a season for Harvey in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. However, since it is his first year back, he’s going to be on some sort of innings limit. He’s at 148 innings right now and with the Mets currently sitting atop the NL East, they are going to want to have him available for the stretch run and hopefully the post-season. So they are going to have to get creative over these final 49 games if they intend on using him as a starting pitcher in their post-season run. Given that his career high in innings is 178.2, the Mets likely don’t want him to go too far over that mark, which would probably give him somewhere from 6-8 starts left this season. A few less starts obviously hurts his fantasy value a bit.

Carlos Carrasco – 8 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K. Carrasco is running hot right now with his 3rd straight very strong start on Wednesday against the Yankees. He likely has been getting some improved defense behind him as well with the Indians having shipped off some of their poor defenders. He has a 3.68 ERA and 1.05 WHIP with a very nice strikeout to walk ratio of 155 K/28 BB. Outside of the slightly inflated ERA, Carrasco has been an ace.

Luis Severino – 6 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K. Severino’s 2nd Major League start didn’t go as well as his 1st, but it still was quality. He has a bright future and he makes for a decent grab in fantasy leagues, but he has a huge test ahead of him in his next start when he pitched on the road in Toronto.

Andrew Miller – 1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 2 K with the BS. Miller blew his first save of the season on Tuesday to prove that he is in fact not invincible. He is about as good as they come though for closers and his 2.08 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and 13.15 K/9 are all super impressive in his first year as a closer.

Adam Lind – 2 for 4, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 R, 1 K. Lind just keeps pounding those righties. He now has 17 HR this season — all against right-handed pitching.

Taylor Jungmann – 2.2 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 3 K with the L. Jungmann finally ran into some regression as he struggled to locate his pitches. The Brewers rookie has never displayed any semblance of a good walk rate, so it’s been a bit odd that he’s done so in his rookie season. This start could set things in motion for a swift downfall.  He’ll get the Phillies in his next start.

Lorenzo Cain – 4 for 4, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R. Big day for Cain and he’s now batting .316 with 12 HR, 51 RBI, 73 R, and 20 SB. There’s not many other players in the league that have comparable all around numbers. Cain has simply been one of the best fantasy players of the season with a lot of bang for the buck.

Eric Hosmer – 1 for 4, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 R, 1 SB, 1 K. Like Cain, Hosmer hit his 12th HR on Tuesday and he is having some kind of year as well with a .317 AVG, 64 RBI, 67 R, and 5 SB.

Yordano Ventura – 6 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 6 BB, 8 K with the W. Well, this was a bit of a weird performance from Ventura with the 6 walks and 8 strikeouts, but 0 runs. He’s going to have to string together some sort of consistency before being trusted in fantasy circles.

Anibal Sanchez – 5.1 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 4 K with the L. Speaking of consistency, this is the 10th start in a row where Sanchez has been mediocre or bad. This is getting pretty stale and Sanchez is almost too much of a headache to be worth owning in many fantasy leagues. He is 10-10 with a 4.95 ERA and 1.27 WHIP.

Hector Santiago – 5.1 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 K with the L. I said in “What Is Hector’s Achilles Heel?” that Santiago would be in for some regression in the 2nd half of the season and he’s now had 4 straight starts allowing at least 3 earned runs in 6 or less innings pitched. His ERA and WHIP still look good at 2.87 and 1.17, but those numbers should only continue to rise. He’ll get a tough matchup in his next start at Kansas City.

Carlos Rodon – 7 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 11 K with the W. Chalk this down as Rodon’s monthly dominant start. Somehow each month he is seemingly able to put together a game where he walks very few batters while striking out a lot and not allowing many (if any) runs. As a young rookie with control issues, he’s not too trustworthy. But obviously he has some long term potential here with the way that he can dominate an offense on any given night. Despite the amazing start, his ERA sits very high at 4.61 and his WHIP is also through the roof at 1.60 — that just illustrates how bad he’s been most of the time.

Byron Buxton – Buxton had been out for over a month and he was activated from the DL this week. However, instead of rejoining the Twins, he was optioned to the Minors. It’s kind of surprising that he was optioned, but with the way that Aaron Hicks has been playing, it might be the correct move. In this past week’s Fantasy Baseball Waiver Wire article I suggested that the Twins could end up making room for Hicks to continue to start, so they have and Hicks would make for a great pickup in many leagues.

Gregory Polanco – 3 for 4, 1 R. Polanco finally seems to be coming around with a .344 AVG, 2 HR, and 2 SB so far in the month of August. He even hit a bomb off Clayton Kershaw last week despite having some severe struggles against left-handed pitching this season. If he can fix his issues against lefties, then he’s going to be able to put together a breakthrough season in 2016.

Carlos Martinez – 8 IP, 9 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 8 K with the W. It was a solid start for Martinez who is now 12-4 with a 2.62 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 139 K/51 BB in 137.1 IP. With his career high in innings pitched in a single season before this year being just 108 IP, we have to wonder just how much the Cardinals will let Martinez pitch this season. Typically, teams don’t like their young pitchers to have much more than a 30-40 inning increase over their career high or previous season, but Martinez will be in that zone after his next start. The Cardinals lead in the division (6 games) is large enough that they should be able to find opportunities down the stretch to rest Martinez and not let him throw too many innings, and it would be a bit shocking if he pitches more than 175 innings this season, which would give him about 6 more starts.

David Peralta – 2 for 4, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 1 R. You have to know the drill by now — Peralta destroys right-handed pitching. He’s been on a big hot streak in the last few games and he is now hitting .301 with 11 HR, 60 RBI, 45 R, and 5 SB — and 90% of that production has come against righties. Peralta makes for the perfect platoon guy to use in a fantasy outfield for leagues that have daily lineup changes.

Jeremy Hellickson – 8 IP, 7 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K with the W. Hellickson isn’t really enjoying a nice season in his first year with the D-Backs, but oddly, he is actually pitching pretty well at his home park of Chase Field that is known as one of the better hitter parks in the league. At home he has a 3.55 ERA and 1.21 WHIP compared to a 6.09 ERA and 1.51 WHIP on the road.

David Buchanan – 1.2 IP, 11 H, 11 ER, 2 BB, 1 K with the L. So if it wasn’t clear before, the Diamondbacks sure wanted to make it crystal clear for the Phillies that Buchanan does not belong in a Major League rotation.

Adam Jones – 1 for 5, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 R, 1 K. Jones has now homered in back-to-back games to bring his season total up to 19. His AVG is sitting at just .280, but as noted in “Jonesing for More,” the Orioles outfielder still has the upside to hit at least .290 or .300 this season for the first time ever. He still appears to be getting slighted by the BABIP gods.

Chris Davis – 2 for 4, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R, 1 BB, 1 K. Davis = hot. Yard again.

Chris Tillman – 2.1 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 0 BB, 2 K. Tillman had been really hot with 3 strong starts in a row, but he’s just not that great of a pitcher and so it was no surprise to see him get lit on Tuesday. Even after that hot streak that he had there was no way that I could recommend him in fantasy.

Nelson Cruz – 1 for 3, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 1 R, 1 K. Cruz extended his hitting streak to 21 games with his league leading 34th HR of the season. He is just incredibly difficult to get out right now, and his 1.514 OPS in August is insane in the membrane.

Todd Frazier – 3 for 4, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 R. Frazier had been mired in a 2 for 34 slump in August entering Tuesday, but he was able to bust out of it with a solid day at the plate that included his 28th HR of the season.

Joe Ross – 4.2 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 1 K with the L. Ross was the big waiver wire pickup of the week for starting pitchers, but he had his worst start of the season by far. This shouldn’t be too much of a concern as he had shown excellent stuff this season before this start. His control was uncharacteristically out of whack, so look for him to do better in his next start at San Francisco.

Yasiel Puig – 2 for 4, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 1 R. Puig provided all of the Dodgers offense on Tuesday, but he’s got a long ways to go to resemble the player that he was in the past two seasons.

Zack Greinke – 6 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K with the W. Well, Greinke bounced back strongly after the Phillies touched him up in his last start. Greinke is just pitching out of his mind this year and he’s looking into the face of regression and giving a very inappropriate gesture to it.

Madison Bumgarner – 9 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 12 K with the W. Yeah, that Bumgarner guy is pretty good.

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