Should Brandon Belt be More Aggressive at the Plate?

With the departure of Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence set to miss the first two weeks of the season, the Giants will need someone to help perennial MVP-candidate Buster Posey drive in runs.

But who will that player be?

Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America The Giants should look to first baseman to help produce some of the run production lost when Pablo Sandoval signed with the Red Sox.

Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America
The Giants should look to first baseman to help produce some of the run production lost when Pablo Sandoval signed with the Red Sox.

While San Francisco acquired Casey McGehee from the Miami Marlins for minor leaguers Kendry Flores and Luis Castillo, the player that should be primed to step into a run-producing role is first baseman Brandon Belt. But in order for the 6-foot-5, 220-pound first baseman to fulfill the role, he will first need to move up in the Giants lineup, and then possibly change his approach at the plate.

Belt, who has primarily hit lower in the San Francisco lineup during his career, has traditionally been a very patient hitter. While this approach has bred some success, he may need to become more aggressive with a move into either the three, four, or five-spot in the lineup to start the season. When given the chance to bat higher in the order during parts of the 2013 season, Belt produced career-highs in all major offensive categories, including 17 home runs, 39 doubles, 67 RBI, and a .289 batting average.

Belt, who was drafted out of the University of Texas during the fifth round of the 2009 MLB First-Year-Player-Draft, rose through the San Francisco system quickly, making his debut on March 31, 2011. Throughout Belt’s career, he has demonstrated a solid understanding of the strike zone, which he displays through his ability to discern balls from strikes. This does not mean he is without fault at the plate, as he can be fooled by off-speed and breaking balls out of the zone and fastballs located up and in. It just means he has an ability to normally recognize a ball from a strike.

Belt demonstrates his plate discipline through the number of pitches he sees per at-bat. During the 2014 and 2013 seasons, he saw an average of 3.98 pitches per plate appearance. The number of pitches per at-bat was slightly lower during 2012 in which he saw 3.85. The 2011 season saw Belt see an average of 4.16 pitches per at-bat.

The patient approach works well for Belt and the Giants when he is hitting sixth, seventh or eighth in the lineup, as pitchers, especially in the National League, often don’t give hitters hitting in the lower portion of the lineup much to hit with the opposing pitcher’s spot looming. But Belt’s approach can get him into trouble, as the lefty often takes very hittable pitches for strikes, which in affect forces him to swing at borderline pitches, which he struggles at times to handle.

I’m not saying that Belt needs to go the route of players like Vladimir Guerrero or the aforementioned Sandoval and swing at anything near or around the plate. That approach works for them. But, what I believe is if Belt starts the year hitting third, fourth or fifth then there will be more opportunity to drive in runs. Plus, if he is located either in front of or behind Posey, there will be a lot of fastballs for the slugger to swing at, thus needing to be aggressive.

The thought of Belt seeing more fastballs to hit should be a positive idea for San Francisco fans and Manager Bruce Bochy

Belt is able to handle both the inner and outer thirds of the plate. His powerful, short, compact swing allows him to handle pitches on the inner third while his 6-foot-5 frame provides him with the ability to reach pitches on the outer third. He shows power to all fields, which was on full display during his breakout 2013 season.

Source: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America Brandon Belt's swing allows the first baseman to drive the ball to all fields.

Source: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
Brandon Belt’s swing allows the first baseman to drive the ball to all fields.

The Giants had been waiting for Belt to tap into his power potential since arriving to the majors during 2011. During 2011, Belt totaled 16 extra-base hits (nine home runs, six doubles and one triple), which produced a sabermetric isolated power (ISO) statistic of .187.

A player’s ISO can simply be calculated by taking a player’s slugging percentage and subtracting a player’s batting average (SLG-AVG=ISO). An ISO of .140 is close to league average, while any ISO average over .200 is usually a result of one of the game’s power hitters.

It is important that an ISO number does not take into account ballparks, but is just a pure calculation between batting average and slugging percentage.

During his rookie campaign, Belt hit .225 and slugged .412 that resulted in an ISO of .187, which was above the league average, showing in a relatively small sample size of 63 games that the first baseman had power potential.

Belt saw a dip in production in terms of ISO during his second season. Many players can see a small decline in production during their sophomore campaigns, as scouting reports have been formulated and pitchers have adjusted the way they attack hitters. While Belt’s batting average jumped to .275 during 2012, the slugging percentage only ticked up a little to .421. The left-handed first baseman did record 27 doubles, six triples and seven home runs, but this was over 145 games. Belt’s ISO number for 2012 was a slightly better than league average .146.

The former Longhorn displayed true slugger potential during his breakout 2013. Belt hit a career-best .289 while slugging .481 with 39 doubles, 17 home runs and four triples. His ISO of .193 was close to the premier sluggers of the game.

It appeared Belt was settling in at the major leagues and that 2014 was going to be a year where he could become one of the true bright stars of the game. And for the first 36 games of 2014, Belt was fulfilling his slugger potential, despite hitting out of the sixth spot or lower. From opening day on March 31 until May 9, when a pitch from Dodgers’ pitcher Paul Maholm fractured his left thumb, Belt had connected for nine home runs (good for third in the National League at the time) and four doubles. His batting average was .264 and his slugging percentage was .504 for an ISO of .240.

While it is hard to believe that Belt would have stayed on pace for an ISO of .240, it was not hard to fathom that he could amass somewhere in the 20-25 home run and 30-40 double range while hit in the mid-.280s.

“I’ve seen what I can do. I think 2013 was a good start for me, and I can just build on that and be even better than that. I have pretty high expectations for myself this year,” said Belt, adding that he was going to do whatever it takes this year to get it done.

Unfortunately, injuries derailed the 2014 campaign. Not only did he struggle returning from the thumb fracture, but he also suffered a concussion on July 19 as a result of an errant throw during batting practice. Belt attempted to return from the concussion, playing in games from Aug. 2-6, but lingering effects from the concussion caused the Giants to shut down the first baseman until Sept. 17.

Belt was able to salvage a rather disappointing season over the final 10 games, hitting .286 with a slugging percentage of .464. He totaled one home run and two doubles in his eight hits, good for an ISO of .178.

Belt followed up the regular season with a good showing during the 2014 playoffs, hitting .295 while slugging .418 for an ISO of .133.

“To be able to come back and do that after missing so many games with the concussion, if I can do that, I can do just about anything, it seems like,” said Belt.

Belt began the playoffs with a 2-for-3 performance against the Pittsburgh in the Giants Wild Card win. But it was against the Washington Nationals during Game 2 of the National League Division Series that Belt etched his name into San Francisco playoff lore.

During the top of the 18th inning, Belt crushed an offering from National right-hander Tanner Roark into the right field seats, displaying the power-potential that the player known as the “Baby Giraffe” possesses. It was Belt’s only home run of the postseason but it served notice of the power he has in his swing.

Source: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America Brandon Belt delivered one of the most important home runs in Giants' playoff history when he launched a Tanner Roark offering over the right field wall in the top of the 18th inning of Game 2 of the NLDS.

Source: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America
Brandon Belt delivered one of the most important home runs in Giants’ playoff history when he launched a Tanner Roark offering over the right field wall in the top of the 18th inning of Game 2 of the NLDS.

Belt struggled against the Cardinals during the NLCS, but rebounded to hit .308 during the World Series. The first baseman finished the seven-game series 8-for-26 (seven singles and one double).

It appears Belt is building off his successful postseason into spring training. Through 14 games in Cactus League play, he is slashing .325/.460/.675 with three home runs, two triples and one double. Belt has an ISO number of .350, which is otherworldly.

Belt’s spring numbers are a very promising sign of what the season could hold, but an ISO of .350 should not be expected. I would expect Belt to fall into the ISO range of .170-.188, especially if he takes a more aggressive approach at the plate.

“I have tons of confidence right now,” Belt said recently. “I’m just looking to take that into the year.”

If Belt can stay healthy all season long and produce statistics from 2013 and the beginning of 2014, then the Giants should have no problem replacing the production lost due to Sandoval’s departure and Pence’s injury. In my opinion, Belt could actually exceed what Sandoval produced during the regular season during his time with the Giants.


One Response

  1. obsessivegiantscompulsive

    Great article. I totally agree that Belt can easily replace whatever production people are worried about losing from the loss of Sandoval. I’m not too worried about him not duplicating what he did in the last part of 2013 and early 2014. He has made his transition to his new, better batting mechanics well.

    I would note that while Belt bounced around some in early 2014 in the lineup, the Giants still used him in the 2/3/5 spots 24 times out of the 33 starts he had before the HBP put him onto the DL list (that’s 73% of his starts), and that his starts batting 6th was related mostly to Morse, who regularly batted 6th, just killed LHP, so it made sense to swap the two, even though Belt hit LHP equally well during this career. Plus, he stopped batting 6th once Bochy realized Sandoval wasn’t getting out of his slump, in late April, his last lineup hitting 6th was April 22nd, before his DL, and probably wouldn’t have touched 6th for the rest of the season, as Morse had a bit of a slump (and extended DL stretch himself).

    But I guess it was just meant to be. With both Belt and Morse out, the Giants had to call up Ishikawa. Then he showed his bat enough that they felt the need to put him into LF for the playoffs. And he provided the boom off the bench to win the NL Championship for us.


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