When it was all said and done last year, San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt had a pretty solid season.
He hit .275/.360/.421 over 472 plate appearances. He was worth nearly two wins above replacement (WAR) despite only starting 106 games. He led the team's qualified hitters in walk rate. He played solid defense at first base. He even managed to steal 12 bases.
When Belt tore up the Cactus League this spring, it seemed as though he would break out to start the regular season.
Most spring training numbers are ultimately meaningless. However, research indicates that an increase in slugging percentage during spring training can be a sign of improvement. According to Acta Sports,
Players that show a 200-point increase in their slugging percentage over their career levels have performed significantly above their career marks in the upcoming season 60 percent of the time.
Thus, when Belt hit .410/.432/.833 with eight home runs this spring, there was reason to believe he would carry that performance over to the regular season. It wasn't as though Belt's performance this spring came out of nowhere, either.
He had a solid season last year, and he tore through the minor leagues in just one full season. He established himself as the top prospect in the Giants' system by hitting .352 across three levels back in 2010. He followed that up with a dominant showing in the Arizona Fall League and an excellent performance the next spring to make the 2011 Opening Day roster for the defending champs.
Yet entering play on Wednesday, the man known as The Baby Giraffe has hit just .222/.261/.317 to open the season. The jump in performance that many were expecting has yet to come so far this season.
Belt was out the lineup on Monday and Tuesday of this week to work on his hitting mechanics with manager Bruce Bochy and hitting coach Hensley Meulens. For Belt, out-of-whack mechanics are often the culprit for his prolonged slumps.
Belt has a lot of moving parts to his swing. When the pitcher is preparing to release the ball, Belt loads his front foot back as a timing mechanism. So far this season, when he swings, he's drifting his hips forward and lunging at the ball. This habit causes his head to move forward as well, and it leads to a lot of off-balance swings.
Even if he keeps his hands back, he has no way to derive power from his legs when his hips drift forward. When Belt transfers his weight, his back foot tends to slide around—sometimes creating the illusion that he's wearing ice skates in the batter's box.
In contrast, Buster Posey hits with a very firm back leg. When Posey follows through, his back leg is firmly planted underneath him. Posey transfers his weight in such a way that his legs provide most of his power, and the bat seems to effortlessly fly through the zone as a result.
Posey also rarely lunges at the ball. He lets the ball travel, which is why he accumulates so many extra-base hits to the opposite field or to straight-away center. If he played in Yankee Stadium where there's a short porch in right field, he might hit 35 home runs every year.
Belt doesn't have textbook hitting mechanics, but that doesn't make him a lost cause at the plate. After working on things Monday, he delivered the game-winning pinch-hit. On Tuesday, he came off the bench and tied the game with a two-run homer. Another hot streak could already be in the offing.
When Belt gets into a groove at the plate, his bat can carry the team. However, his complex hitting mechanics make him a hitter that is streakier than most.
Here is Belt's on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) by month since last April:
April (2013): .578
He has months like July of last season where he looks like he belongs in the minors. Then, he'll suddenly get hot again and look like the star he was projected to be as a prospect.
His hitting mechanics and inconsistency have combined to make him a lightning rod player for Giants fans. The more sabermetrically-inclined fans point to Belt's walk rate, on-base percentage and defense and see a guy who Bochy should pencil into the lineup every game. Fans that prefer to rely on their observations more than the numbers are often less fond of Belt's game.
As an analyst that relies on both the numbers and my own observations, I don't see Belt developing into a star player. He's a perfectly adequate first baseman that should continue to put up an OPS close to .800 every year.
That means his offensive peak will be more similar to that of Lyle Overbay than Joey Votto. However, that sure beats becoming Casey Kotchman.
The Giants were good enough to win the World Series with Belt at first base last season. There's no reason why they can't win more titles with Belt at first base this year and in the future.
His cold streaks are hard to watch. His hot streaks are mesmerizing. When it's all said and done, he'll probably have another solid season in 2013.
That's perfectly acceptable, unless you interpreted his spring breakout as a sign of even better things to come.