Brandon Belt: 3 Reasons to Remain Skeptical About the SF Giants First Baseman
After a torrid June in which he hit .296/.400/.563 with all four of his home runs on the season, it appeared that Brandon Belt had finally arrived.
Then, in July, he fell off the face of the earth, hitting just .186/.266/.214. He heated up toward the end of the month and has hit .362/.436/.493 thus far in August.
While Belt has been inconsistent, there are things to like about his performance. Among players with at least 200 plate appearances, Belt ranks 23rd in walk rate, and first on the Giants. His .361 on-base percentage is third on the team behind Melky Cabrera and Buster Posey and in the top 50 in all of baseball.
He's also got surprising speed given his size and propensity to look awkward. He's a positive asset with the glove, saving between two and five runs depending on your metric of choice.
However, there are three reasons to remain skeptical that Belt will live up to the potential he showed in the minor leagues, when he hit .343/.457/.596 and forced his way to the big leagues after only one full season on the farm.
No. 1: Lack of Home-Run Power
Belt has only hit four home runs all season, none of which have come against right-handed pitching.
To be fair, the Giants as a team have hit only 20 home runs at AT&T Park all season.
AT&T Park has suppressed offense more than any other stadium in the National League this season, playing like an extreme pitcher's park after years of being fairly neutral. AT&T has always been particularly difficult on left-handed pull hitters not named Bonds.
Yet Belt has hit .308/.402/.487 at home with three of his home runs, compared to just .221/.318/.305 on the road. Thus, while AT&T Park has no doubt knocked down a few potential home runs off of Belt's bat this season, that isn't the only explanation for his power outage.
He's hit home runs on less than five percent of his fly balls this season after hitting home runs on nearly 16 percent of his fly balls last year. His lack of home-run power this season could just be random variation or bad luck, or it could be attributable to the ongoing issues he's had with his swing mechanics.
Whatever the reason for the lack of home-run power this season, Belt simply strikes out too much for his current home-run rate to be acceptable.
No. 2: Too Many Whiffs
Belt leads all qualified Giants hitters with a strikeout rate of 24.2 percent, which is in the bottom 50 in all of baseball.
There's nothing inherently wrong with a strikeout as compared to a weak grounder or a lazy pop-up.
However, the combination of meager home-run power and a high strikeout rate is usually a death knell for a player who makes his living on the corner of the diamond.
Belt has still managed to hit .265 despite all the whiffs by increasing his line-drive rate by 10 percent over last season, fueling a very high .351 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
His strikeout rate is also down three percent over last season, so perhaps he will see continued improvement in this area.
If Belt could hit 20 home runs per season, the strikeout rate wouldn't be an issue. However, if he isn't going to hit the ball out of the ballpark, he's going to have to make enough contact to hit closer to .300.
No. 3: Inconsistency
Part of the reason for Belt's aforementioned month-to-month inconsistency this season is due to the way he has been handled over the past two seasons.
He won the first base job out of spring training last season, only to lose it after just 13 starts.
He was summoned to the big leagues after Buster Posey went down with a season-ending injury, but only as a bench player.
When he finally did get another chance to start, he got injured when he was hit by a pitch. When he was recalled for a third time, he continued to be moved in and out of the lineup for the remainder of the season.
Even though he's been the Giants' primary first baseman this season, he's started just 81 of the team's 128 games despite not missing any time due to injury. He's split time with the oft-injured Aubrey Huff (10 starts), non-prospect Brett Pill (16 starts), Pablo Sandoval (2 starts) and Posey (19 starts).
While playing Posey at first is a wise move to keep his bat in the lineup, perhaps the Giants could keep Belt in the lineup as well by moving him to left field when Posey is at first.
While the Giants have not handled Belt ideally over the past two seasons, he's ultimately responsible for his performance. It's a shame that he's only received 572 plate appearances over the last two seasons, not even a full season's worth, but he hasn't exactly forced manager Bruce Bochy's hand with his .249/.341/.402 career batting line.
In the end, there's a lot to like about Belt. He's a big guy and a good athlete. If the talent wasn't there, he wouldn't have been in the big leagues after only one season in the minors.
Even though he hasn't been handled ideally by the Giants, he's managed to produce the third-best on-base percentage and the fifth-best OPS on the team this season.
Going forward, Belt will either have to hit a lot more balls out of the ballpark or cut down on the strikeouts in order to become a more consistent performer.
He's only 24 years old, and there are no other first base prospects knocking on the door in the Giants' farm system, nor are there any great options in free agency this winter.
At first base, the Giants are either going to sink or swim with Belt. Right now, they're merely treading water.