In Friday's opening game against Mike Minor and the Atlanta Braves, the Giants decided to sit Brandon Belt for the second time in three games. Belt has struggled lately, hitting .139/.205/.250 over the last 14 days. In that time, Belt has struck out 15 times to just three walks. Despite Belt's recent struggles, he's still off to a good start in 2014. By wRC+, he's 19 percent above average (119) on offense. Belt's striking out more -- 30.1 percent compared to a career rate of 23.6 percent -- and he's walking less.
The Belt Wars are over. The OBP faction has gone home to read Bill James and worship at the altar of STATS. The Brett Pill faction packed up and headed across the globe to Korea. Brandon Belt won, man. Brandon Belt won.
But despite Belt's lopsided start, we can see a few differences in this year's Belt compared to years past.
|Year||Swings Outside Zone||Pitches Outside Zone||Swing Percentage|
Belt is currently swinging at a career high percentage of pitches outside of the zone. In 2014, he's seen 284 pitches that have been outside of the standard strike zone; he's swung at 111 of them. That's a swing rate of 39 percent. Between 2011-2013, Belt swung at 31 to 34 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone.
Swinging outside of the strike zone isn't always a death sentence to hitters, but another troubling sign with Brandon Belt is that while he's swinging at more pitches outside of the zone, he's also making less contact. And that's a deadly combination.
A data table to illustrate the last point:
|Year||Outside Whiffs||Outside Swings||Whiff Percentage|
Going out of the zone hasn't been kind to Belt this season -- he's whiffing nearly 50 percent outside of the zone. Belt has pulled the trigger on 111 pitches outside of the zone; he's come up empty 53 times. These aren't foul tips, or fouled off pitches, we're talking about pure, uncut whiff. Our quick-and-dirty numbers match up pretty well with Belt's plate discipline numbers on FanGraphs. Belt, across the board, whether it be in the zone or out, is swinging more. According to FanGraphs, his swing rate (55.2 percent in 2014) is up nearly four percent over his career average (51.4).
Belt's recent results are discouraging, but remember: it's extremely early in the year. Brandon Belt has accrued 113 plate appearances. If we put him down for 600 PAs of playing time, he's played 18 percent of this season. So, there's still a tremendous amount of time left. There's a bunch of theories we could come up with: "Brandon Belt has been infected with dinger lust and now he's swinging at everything" or "his knuckles are misaligned" or whatever. But it's most likely that he'll cut down on going outside the zone and return to rates closer to his career averages. From 2011 to 2014, only four hitters have posted strikeout rates at 30 percent or higher: Adam Dunn (33.3), Mark Reynolds (30.9), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (30.2), and Pedro Alvarez (30). It's hard to think that Belt now belongs among these players.
Belt is a hitter that seems to go through mechanical funks at times. He'll struggle for awhile, and then correct things. I think he'll do the same this year. A good indicator of Belt getting back on track will staying in the strike zone, which given his scouting report as a prospect and his past record of success, should only be a matter of time.