Why to Believe in Early Power from Brandon Belt and Freddie Freeman

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Why to Believe in Early Power from Brandon Belt and Freddie Freeman
Rick Scuteri

What we're going to do right now is consider the possibility of Brandon Belt and Freddie Freeman following in Chris Davis' footsteps.

There, that ought to get your attention. If it did and you're sitting there thinking I'm nuts to lump two guys who combined to hit 40 home runs last year in with a guy who hit 53 on his own, let me just say this: Hear me out on this one, guys.

First off, my eyes are on Belt and Freeman because (along with San Diego's Seth Smith) they're tied for the National League lead with two home runs each. Belt has homered in each of the San Francisco Giants' first two games, and Freeman homered twice in the Atlanta Braves' second game on Tuesday.

Per Baseball-Reference.com, Freeman and Belt ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, among first basemen in WAR in 2013, despite relatively modest power production for the position. Belt ranked ninth among first basemen in Isolated Power (slugging percentage without singles). Freeman ranked 12th. 

Give Belt and Freeman some legit first-base power and you can imagine how dangerous they'd be. So here's us asking: Goodness, what if this early-season power is just the beginning?

We have decades of baseball history that says not to pursue this line of thinking, of course. We always see unusual suspects leading unexpected categories this early on, and it usually leads to nothing at all.

But every once in a while...you get a guy like Davis.

The Baltimore Orioles slugger homered in each of his first four games in 2013 to shoot to the top of the MLB leaderboard. The general attitude among fans and pundits was one of mild amusement at such a fluky outburst, but then 49 more homers followed. It turned out Davis was legit.

There's one example of an early-season power surge leading to a big power year. If you're the super-duper-optimistic type, maybe that's reason enough to believe that Belt and/or Freeman could be next.

If you're the skeptical sort who needs more than that, well, good news: There is more than that. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

To a certain extent, Freeman's power potential isn't that complicated. You should believe he has serious power potential largely because he has serious power, period.

According to BaseballHeatMaps.com, the average distance of Freeman's fly balls and home runs in 2013 came out to 293.57 feet. That put him in the same vicinity as Prince Fielder and Mike Napoli, two guys who are renowned for having some of the most explosive power in the league.

Even better is that, per ESPN Home Home Run Tracker, Freeman's home runs averaged 407.9 feet. That outpaced sluggers like Yasiel Puig, David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez.

This is just me putting numbers on something that Braves fans already know: Freeman doesn't do cheapies. When he hits 'em, they stay hit.

If you're wondering why Freeman hasn't broken out as a home run hitter if his raw power is so great, it has to do with how he hasn't made a point of really prioritizing power in his offensive game.

According to FanGraphs, Freeman's kept his fly-ball percentages in the mid-30s while his line-drive percentage has risen from 23.0 percent in 2011 to 26.7 percent last year. Freeman's been a hitter first and a power hitter second.

Maybe that'll change this year, though.

Freeman ended 2013 by posting an uncharacteristic 41.1 FB percent in September. Equally uncharacteristic, however, is how 20 percent of the fly balls Freeman did hit went over the fence.

Since Freeman had such great success getting under the ball at the end of 2013, maybe there's something to how he's been getting under the ball early this season. Two of the three balls he put in play in Atlanta's opener were fly balls, and he, of course, had the two home runs on Tuesday.

Given the kind of raw power he has, it's easy to have high hopes if this keeps up. If Freeman pushes his overall fly-ball percentage from the mid-30s close to or over the 40 percent plateau, he could easily make the leap from a 20- to 25-homer guy to a 30-homer guy.

Oh, and one more thing: With one off a Kyle Lohse slider and another off a Zach Duke slider, it's encouraging that both of Freeman's homers on Tuesday came off breaking balls. Brooks Baseball says Freeman came into 2014 with only 12 career homers off breaking balls. 

There's not much in Freeman's past that suggests he's been building toward increased power against breaking stuff, so those two swings do have to be taken for what they're worth. But if he does start hitting breaking stuff with power more regularly, his 30-homer potential might be more like 35-homer potential.

Now then, as for Belt...

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Unlike Freeman, Belt doesn't need to worry so much about getting the ball in the air more often to have a more direct route to unleashing his power. He had a 41.3 fly-ball percentage in 2013, according to FanGraphs, about where you want a good power hitter to be.

Also unlike Freeman, it's more a question of how much hard contact Belt can make, as a good fly-ball habit isn't good for much if a hitter can't also put a charge into the ball consistently. It says something that Belt's fly balls and homers averaged only 283.81 feet in 2013, a decent chunk of distance from where Freeman finished.

To this end, however, we got a pretty good glimpse at Belt's upside at the end of 2013.

According to Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com, Belt made a few tweaks ahead of a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays that began on August 2. Willie Bans of MLB.com noted that there were three main changes:

First, he's moved back in the batter's box. He's also standing taller there. Lastly, he's adjusted his grip on the bat so his top wrist is pointed away from his body instead of toward it.

If you listen to Giants' hitting coach Hensley Meulens, the first tweak was the big one.

"[Being toward the back of the box] gives you more time to see the pitches, more time to make your decision if you want to swing or not," he said. "That's why you're always in swinging mode because you don't have enough time to recognize the pitch. That's worked out beautifully."

It did indeed work out beautifully, as the adjustments Belt made resulted in this:

Brandon Belt Before and After 2013 Adjustment
Split PA HR AVG OBP SLUG OPS
Through 8/1 358 10 .255 .332 .425 .757
After 8/1 213 7 .346 .406 .576 .982

Baseball-Reference.com

Meulens' point about how moving back in the box gave Belt more time to read pitches would explain why a large part of his success came from how he suddenly started destroying hard stuff.

From Brooks Baseball

Brandon Belt vs. Hard Pitches in 2013
Split Count BAA ISO HR
Through 8/1 846 .284 .190 6
After 8/1 469 .389 .257 6

Brooks Baseball

Belt no longer had to cheat on the hard stuff (four-seamers, sinkers and cutters) after he made his adjustments. He could afford to wait a little longer, giving him more time to read the path of the ball before swinging. 

That's not the only benefit there, though. A hitter who doesn't have to cheat on fastballs also has an easier time reacting to off-speed stuff, and one major improvement Belt made was in hitting breaking balls thrown by left-handers:

Brandon Belt vs. LHP Breaking Pitches in 2013
Split Count BAA ISO HR
Through 8/1 119 .185 .148 1
After 8/1 74 .364 .364 0

Brooks Baseball

Why bring all this up now?

Simple: It's relevant now.

MLB.com isn't letting me embed the videos here, but you can go over there and see that Belt's first homer of the year came on an inside sinker from Brandon McCarthy. His second homer came on a slider from the lefty-throwing Wade Miley. Taking a page out of Freeman's book, neither was a cheapie.

Thus, Belt has picked up where he left off. Adjustments allowed him to start crushing pitches he had been struggling to hit, and it looks like the winter has done nothing to upset his rhythm.

Now, one disadvantage facing Belt that's not facing Freeman is that Belt has to play half his games at the power-suppressing AT&T Park. While he probably could be a 30-homer guy at a neutral park, it's more reasonable to expect Belt to take a smaller leap. Say, from a 15- to 20-homer guy to a 25-homer guy—not that the Giants wouldn't take that.

Since Barry Bonds last played in 2007, the Giants have only gotten three 25-homer seasons. One of those from Belt in 2014 would be a relative rarity for them.

Mind you, the Giants would probably prefer Belt's current pace of 162 home runs. Ditto that for the Braves and Freeman's own 162-homer pace. For both clubs, that would mean, uh, a lot of runs.

But let's not get that carried away. It would be good enough if Belt and Freeman both made like Davis and rode their explosive starts to the best power seasons of their respective careers.

Based on how and what they're doing now and what they've shown they can do in the past, it's not getting the least bit carried away to say that they can do it.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. Stats up to date through games on Tuesday, April 1. 

 

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