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.

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