Fifth-round picks out of college don’t usually garner attention at the minor league level compared to higher upside high schoolers or high picks out of college, but Brandon Belt made evaluators notice him early on.
Out of University of Texas at Austin in 2009, Belt hit his way to Triple-A Fresno in 2010 after posting an OPS of 1.117 with High-A and 1.036 with Double-A. He struggled to hit for average at Triple-A, but still finished with a .956 OPS in 61 plate appearances. The following year, Baseball America had him ranked number 23 on their prospect board.
After winning the first base job with the Giants in 2011 he struggled, posting an OPS under .600 the first three weeks of the season. He was demoted back to Triple-A for a month before breaking his wrist two days after being recalled. From July on he posted an above average wRC+ of 113 with an OPS of .765; he made his adjustments.
In 2012, he was gradually improving, posting a .360 OBP, .781 OPS, and 119 wRC+ in 472 plate appearances. He struggled in the postseason, but was the starting first baseman on a championship club.
After nearly 700 plate appearances, there was a sense that it could be break out time for Belt in 2013. It happened. He played a full season without any major injuries or demotions and hit .289/.360/.481 with a 140 wRC+. He ranked fifth among major league first basemen in fWAR (4.4) and 31st among all position players.
It was reported in 2013 that Belt was finally convinced to change his grip from big knuckles lined up to his big knuckles lined up to his lower knuckles. Here’s a look at the change in grip from April of 2013 to now. His old grip is the photo with his front leg up. Since the change, he has a wRC+ of nearly 140.
In 2014, Belt was getting power happy. In the first month he hit nine home runs, but his walk rate was down nearly five percent along with a 60-point decrease in OBP. But he still had a 136 wRC+ in 139 plate appearances until he broke his wrist again, on a hit by pitch. He missed two months, came back and posted a dismal 90 wRC+ with a .292 OBP. His hard hit rate was down, but his walk rate was back at around ten percent. Even with a down season plagued by injury, he still hit .295/.397/.361 in the playoffs for the club leading to another World Series.
With expectations through the roof with Belt, he was looking to break out again in 2015 and he has. In 502 plate appearances of injury-free baseball, he is hitting .283/.359/.483 while playing half his games in a pitcher-friendly park. He ranks fifth among first basemen in fWAR (4.1) and first in defensive value. FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement is flawed, but it says something if you have the 22nd-best fWAR among major league players. That kind of production from the first base spot hasn’t been there for San Francisco since Aubrey Huff in 2010 and J.T. Snow for a couple seasons in the early 2000s.
More impressively, his pop-ups have gone way down. Notice the lack of purple in 2015 compared to 2013 and 2014. Also, notice the difference in opposite field line drives this season (Brooks Baseball). The change is staggering and is a sign of having a good approach.
Belt has a career-high hard-hit percentage (39.1) and a career-high BABIP (.363), which both resemble his 2013 season. His strikeout rate is up nearly five percent, but hard hit balls are making up the difference. He essentially has the same slash line: .289/.360/.481, 140 wRC+ in 2013, .283/.359/.483, 138 wRC+ in 2015. Here are heat maps of Belt’s ISO from 2013-2015. Notice how he’s been able to cover more of the plate this season compared to past seasons, especially inside pitches (FanGraphs).
Belt, 27, is due to be a free agent after the 2018 season, which means three more arbitration seasons. He is making $3.6 million as a super two this year and it could go up to around $6 million in 2016, $9 million in 2017, and $12 million in 2018 before he finally hits free agency at age 30. With his neutral counting statistics, it is unlikely that he gets major raises in arbitration, so an extension to give Belt some security might be an option. A $60 million extension for five seasons seems reasonable with club/vesting options at the end. The deal would buy out his arbitration years and possibly two free agent seasons.
After a down year 2014, Belt is back on track to post career highs in major categories at the beginning of his prime years.