Over at Baseball Nation, I wrote about a fascinating study published at the Atlantic on ethnicity and race in baseball. Yeah, that's a link to a link to the article with the real meat. Welcome to the Internet. My only regret is that SBN doesn't have slideshow capabilities. Anyway, the article is definitely worth reading, but that's not the best part for Giants fans.
The researchers wanted to study how broadcasters treated players of different races and nationalities, so they collected all of the positive and negative comments for each player from Aug. 11 through Aug. 17 last season. This was for every player, every team in the league, mind you. The article's list of "Top 10 Most-Criticized Players" included some familiar names:
7. Pablo Sandoval
8. Brandon Belt
Sandoval, okay. I get that. Not only is he fluffier than the average player, but he swings when the pitcher does the fake-to-third/look-to-first move. More than that, he's one of the Giants star players; announcers are going to talk about him more, especially opposing announcers. Apparently a lot of the talk that week wasn't nice.
But Belt's inclusion is amazing. All the players on all the teams in all the gin joints in the world, and little ol' Belt somehow cracks the top 10? It gets better, though. During that seven-day study, Belt played in only four games. In one of those games, he hit two home runs. That means that in the three bad games he had -- 12 plate appearances, two walks, four strikeouts -- there must have been so many comments slipped in about how bad he looked, that he vaulted to the top of the charts.
It was an imperfect study, of course. It was for one week in August; if it were a week in September, he might not even show up in the top 200. And maybe the Giants announcers are prone to be more honest when they're calling a game, and the lack of homerism is a good thing. Maybe there was an opposing announcer who was bitten by a giraffe as a kid. I'm not going to pretend I know the exact reasons Belt was on the list.
It fits, though. Belt, for whatever reason, is a walking episode of Pardon the Interruption, with people screaming all around him for no good reason. He makes people froth at the mouth. I mean, look at the guy. He just thinks he's all that.
That study was in 2011. If it were in July of this season, hoo boy. There would have been some interesting results. A reminder: Belt looked like the worst player to ever pick up a bat. He was swinging right through pitches he should have hit, and he was chasing pitches he never had a chance to hit. Many Internet nerds lost their pride in the Great Belt Wars that month. It was ugly.
Then a funny thing happened. Belt started hitting. He's at .362/.436/.493 for the month. He doesn't have a home run, but he had a booming double and triple that likely would have been out of 29 other ballparks. He's looked much, much better. Heck, he's only struck out in one in every 7.8 plate appearances -- a rate that's more Robinson Cano than Adam Dunn.
This isn't a neener neener post, though. Good god, you can't think I'd be that stupid. Belt is still an enigma. He could be Lyle Overbay, he could be John Olerud, or he could be Todd Benzinger without the power. He's still a young unknown. His August has been nice, but it's not proof of anything. That sort of thing will take years.
What I'm hoping, though, is that the hot streak has allowed everyone to move on from the idea of Brandon Belt, polarizing player. With his second hot streak of the year, there isn't a lot of room right now for that extreme anti-Belt faction -- the one that suggested he was never going to succeed, that the Giants should send him down, that Brett Pill should be the full-time starter. That was a seductive tribe for the casual fan when Belt looked awful. They passed out a lot of pamphlets.
It seems like the discussion can be elevated just a bit now. Instead of "Is Belt ever going to be useful in the slightest?" the question is "Is Belt going to hit enough to be an asset for a team at first base?" And the answer to that is … hell, I have no idea. Not yet. I like the OBP and the defense, and that's a mighty fine start, so I'll remain optimistic. He's been an asset this year, for sure.
But my hope is that the discussion starts at a smarter place now. It turns out that slumping players look bad, and that hot players look good. Huh. And when the dust settles, the Giants have an interesting young player who could go either way; he could be a player who would be a star even on a good team, or one who could be the last resort of a bad team. The important part is that we know he's not the worstest player to ever worst, a complete debacle of a ballplayer. He has enough good stretches mixed in with the bad that we can all discuss the possibilities of his career like normal people. It's about time.