Brandon Belt is set for a breakout year in 2014. The San Francisco Giants first baseman posted incredible numbers in the second half of 2013, batting .326 after the All-Star break after hitting .260 before. His OPS went from .784 to .915, a 131-point increase. But if you followed the Giants in 2013, you already knew that.
So what made the difference? Why did Belt start smashing line drives left and right in the second half of the season? Most of that can be attributed to an all-out change in his hitting style.
Stuck in a 1-for-19 slump in late July, Belt took some wise advice from hitting coach Hensley Meulens. According to Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News, Meulens suggested than Belt look to Phillies slugger Domonic Brown for help.
Brown, like Belt, struggled upon arriving at the majors, despite being touted as a prospect with high potential. Then, in 2013, Brown broke out with 27 home runs. The explanation? An altered grip on the bat.
"Domonic said it only took him a couple of days to change his grip," Belt said, per Pavlovic’s story. "I thought, if it only took him a couple of days, maybe I can do it in a couple of days, too.”
The rest is history, as Belt increased his batting average by 66 points in the second half while finishing with career-highs in every major category.
"I was stubborn in the sense that I had had success a certain way before, and I was assuming I could get back to being successful that way," Belt said, again per Pavlovic. "It just took a little convincing to change, I guess.”
The real question is whether Belt can continue from where he left off when 2014 rolls around. The answer is most likely yes, which can be proven by looking at some of his more advanced numbers.
One of Belt’s most significant improvements in 2013’s second half came in his dramatic fly-ball percentage decrease. In the first half, Belt had an astounding 43.9 percent fly-ball rate, which would have ranked second in the National League had he maintained it for the entire season.
Fortunately, Belt decreased his fly-ball rate to 38.2 percent in the second half. While that number is still much too high, it is a step in the right direction. Decreasing his fly-ball rate even further is key, as AT&T Park’s cavernous dimensions are extremely unkind to fly ball-prone hitters, particularly lefties.
Belt had another important improvement in a batted-ball statistic in 2013’s second half: his line-drive rate. Belt had a mediocre line-drive rate of 21.5 percent in the first half; that total skyrocketed to 27.7 percent in the second half, which would have tied him for first in the National League if he’d done it over the entire course of 2013.
The decreased fly-ball rate and increased line-drive rate both led to a much higher batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in the second half. Belt increased that total by 73 points, from .319 to .392. That is an astoundingly high total, as only Chris Johnson of the Atlanta Braves had a higher BABIP during the entire 2013 season (.394).
Belt also decreased his strikeout percentage from 23.5 percent to 19.8 percent in the second half, a decrease of 3.7 percent. That might not seem like much, but it would translate to 22 fewer strikeouts in a 600-at-bat season. That could, in turn, lead to several more hits throughout the course of the season.
Despite his numerous improvements, Belt must get better against left-handed pitching. He batted just .261 against them in 2013, and his OPS was 112 points lower against lefties than it was against righties.
The Giants, for whom runs will likely be in short supply in 2014, need Belt to step up at the plate. He will likely be their No. 3 hitter, at least on Opening Day. In order for the big bats behind him (Buster Posey, Hunter Pence) to have a chance to drive in runs, Belt will need to repeat his 2013 performance.
If he can further improve his fly-ball rate and become a productive hitter against left-handed pitching, 2014 will be a very fun season indeed for Brandon Belt.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.