Late Tuesday night, the San Francisco Giants and first baseman Brandon Belt avoided arbitration by agreeing on a one-year, $2.9 million deal. While the deal solidified what should be a predictable opening day lineup for the Giants, it still does not address how the organization sees Belt in their future plans. Belt doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2018 season, but some, myself included, feel as though the Giants shouldn’t wait till then to lock him up to a long-term deal.
Despite a slow start to the 2013 campaign, Belt finished the season top 20 in the National League in almost every meaningful batting statistic with the exception of home runs and RBIs. At first glance, his 2013 totals of 17 home runs, 67 RBIs, and a .289 batting average seem pedestrian. However, these stats don’t tell the whole story when it comes to Belt and advanced metrics paint a better picture of the player Belt is and can become.
The figure that jumps off the page when reviewing Belt’s season is his .841 OPS, which ranked 14th in the National League. Belt’s 17 home runs are misleading in that they suggest he has relatively little power for a first baseman, a position typically associated with power hitters. In actuality, Belt ended the season tied for tenth in the National League with 60 extra base hits.
Much of Belt’s minimal home run totals can be attributed to his mechanics. As soon as he entered their farm system out of the University of Texas, the Giants started tweaking Belt’s swing. The 6-foot-5 Belt does a pretty good job of tucking his back elbow, which keeps the bat flat and allows his swing to stay through the zone longer. However, he has some poor tendencies, as well. At times Belt has a stiff back foot, slight forward lean, and rolls his wrists too soon. These poor habits cause Belt to put a lot of topspin on the ball, ultimately preventing any balls he drives from carrying into the seats.
Another aspect of Belt’s low home run totals resides in his approach. He loves to pepper the ball into the huge gaps in San Francisco, evident by his 39 doubles last season. In an interview with Fangraphs.com’s Eno Sarris, Belt said, “You have to hit line drive doubles, triples, whatever, because if you hit the ball in the air, it’s going to get knocked down.” Belt recognizes the difficulties of calling AT&T Park home.
When analyzing any Giants hitter, one must take into account the enlarged dimensions and climate factors in San Francisco. Although it’s nowhere near the cold, windy terrors of Candlestick Park, the dense air on brisk Bay Area nights is still enough to prevent balls from carrying into McCovey Cove at AT&T Park. Unfortunately for lefties, the wind often sweeps off the water coming in from right field, too. Even though Barry Bonds made the dimensions seem like a tee-ball diamond, the immense brick wall in right field combined with the 421-foot death valley in right-center are daunting challenges for any ordinary human. Belt seems to have an uncanny ability to hit frozen ropes off the top of the brick wall and towering 400-foot fly outs in which he would be rounding the bases in almost any other ballpark. If Belt played in the friendly confines of Philadelphia or Cincinnati, he could easily hit 25 home runs and this lack of power dialogue is a non-issue.
An underrated aspect of Belt’s game is his patience at the plate. His .360 on base percentage hints at his ability to draw walks, but it doesn’t completely signify how well Belt works pitchers. In 2013, Belt averaged 3.98 pitches per plate appearance, ranking 14th in the National League. To put it simply, he just wears pitchers down. He doesn’t force swings early on in at-bats, which is beneficial at times, but has also caused him to fall behind in the count at times, too. The next step in Belt’s evolution as a hitter will be to cut down on the 125 strikeouts from a year ago. According to fangraphs.com, Belt swung at 32.4% of pitches out of the strike zone last year. If he can cut that number by 10 percent, it will lead to more hitter’s counts and raise his impressive OPS even more.
Along with his shortage of power, the other knock on Belt’s game is his absence of run production. Sixty-seven RBIs coming from first base isn’t going to cut it. However, much like his power numbers, the stats are misleading. Fangraphs.com shows Belt actually hit .309 with a .942 OPS with runners in scoring position last season. Those are both sizeable increases from his season averages. Belt just didn’t see enough opportunities with runners on base. The sad truth is that the Giants offense was anemic for most of the season. If the top of the lineup can set the plate better for Belt, that number could easily rise up to 80 RBIs or more.
Giants fans are nervous that Belt will require a contract similar to the eight-year, $135 million deal Freddie Freeman just signed with the Atlanta Braves. Fans are right to be hesitant to give out that much money to a young, inconsistent player, but if Belt continues to progress like he has been, he’ll be worth every penny. Place Belt in that strong Braves lineup in the hot Atlanta air and I bet Belt produces similar numbers to Freeman. He wasn’t too far behind Freeman in many regards to begin with.
Belt would provide a reliable, professional approach in the middle of the order to pair with Buster Posey for the foreseeable future. His smooth glove and strong arm at first base seem like icing on the cake after reviewing his potential at the plate. With the Los Angeles Dodgers turning into the west coast Yankees, the Giants are going to need to be aggressive in the front office if they want to compete. So, barring some unforeseen injury or regression in production, the Giants should undoubtedly consider locking up Belt to a long-term deal next offseason.
Unless otherwise noted in the text, stats courtesy of MLB.com.