What to make of Brandon Belt?

From the moment Brandon Belt burst onto the scene for the San Francisco Giants following their first championship season since moving from New York, he’s been tough to figure out. He homered in his second ever game for the Giants, to dead center field, off Chad Billingsly of the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. From that moment on, the expectations for Belt and the actual results have always varied.

Fans of the Giants have either loved of hated Belt for his ability to hit to all fields or his lack of power. His ability to field his position or his tendency to slump at the plate also make him a lightning rod for debate. No matter what the argument, Belt, more than any other Giant, has been a talking point for Giants fans. When other players slump, they don’t seem to receive nearly as much criticism. When other players get hot, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much skepticism. It seems like no matter what he does, Belt simply cannot win over all of the fans.

Maybe it’s because he has never lived up to the power numbers fans expect from a first baseman. Or maybe it’s because he has had some long stretches at the plate where he’s looked lost. Or maybe it’s because he’s the second most popular Brandon on the team. Or it could be simply because fans tend to stick to their opinions.

There is some rationale for fans who want to see Belt traded, and it has very little to do with Belt himself. Buster Posey, the team’s franchise player and All-Star catcher, has been playing some games at first base. In fact, 144 of Posey’s 706 career starts have been at first base. Thanks to his numbers at the plate, there is growing support for a permanent Posey move to first base, which would keep his bat in the lineup and his legs strong into September and October.

The Giants have experimented with Brandon Belt in left field to keep his bat in the lineup as well, while also allowing Posey to play first. Another Giants homegrown talent, Andrew Susac, has started 53 of his 69 career games at catcher. Susac would become the everyday catcher if Posey makes a move to first base.

Here is the problem. Unless the Giants trade Belt for a left fielder with the production of Posey behind the plate, their lineup loses more than it gains. Also, the defense suffers at all three positions. Both Belt and Posey received Gold Glove nominations this year and Gregor Blanco in left field has been an above-average defender as well. With Susac behing the plate, Posey at first and Belt in left, the team built on defense and pitching will have downgraded defensively at all three positions.

Ultimately, Giants fans don’t see what they have with Brandon Belt. In Belt’s three full seasons, he has had a Wins Above Replacement of 2.8 in 2012, 4.2 in 2013, and 3.9 in 2015. His best season was 2013, where he had a slashline of .289/.360/.481 with an OPS of .841. Last season, he had a near identical slashline of .280/.356/.478 with an OPS of .834.

In the Giants’ two World Series seasons of 2012 and 2014, Belt played in 32 post-season games. He had a slashline of .245/.349/.355 with an OPS of .703 which also included an 18th inning home run against the Nationals to help the Giants advance in 2014.

At first glance, those numbers aren’t overwhelming. They are good. They are productive. They are, as the stat would suggest, above replacement. This is the whole reason the Giants should keep Belt. It wasn’t that long ago that the Giants were lost at first base. J.T. Snow last played first base regularly for the Giants in 2005 and the Giants replaced Snow through the years with Lance Niekro, Shea Hillenbrand, Ryan Klesko, John Bowker and Travis Ishikawa, among others. Ishikawa’s WAR of 0.9 in 2009 equaled Brandon Belt’s worst seasons, where he only played 63 games in 2011 and 61 games in 2014. He shared time with Aubrey Huff in 2011 and was out with injuries in 2014. The only other player above replacement between 2005 and 2009 was Klesko’s WAR of 0.3 in 2007. Bowker’s WAR of -1.2, on the other hand, was the low point in 2008.

Belt might not be putting up All-Star numbers so far in his career. He might be overshadowed by teammates at the plate and in the field. And he might seem like he should be the odd man out in the Giants’ lineup. However, if you look at the recent past and you look at what Belt has done by comparison, it’s easy to see why the Giants have stuck with Belt since 2011. It’s also easy to see why trying to replace Belt would be tough to do.

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