After Buster Posey won the 2012 National League MVP award, it was immediately assumed that he was the San Francisco Giants best hitter. That reputation hung with him for a long time - still does, occasionally, if you look at the frequency with which he still bats cleanup.
Yet it was as early as the next year that Brandon Belt made a strong case as the honest-to-goodness best hitter in San Francisco. In 2013, Belt sported a wRC+ of 140, meaning he was 140% better than the average MLB hitter. It was a few shades better than Posey’s mark that year of 135.
Traditional metrics bore similar results, with Belt slashing .289/.360/.481 to Posey’s .295/.371/.450. In 2014, Posey was much better again, due in large part to Belt’s injury. They were virtually identical in 2015, before Belt had a substantially better bat in 2016.
For the last few years, Belt and Posey - staples of the middle of the Giants order - have been very similar in offensive value, but the baby giraffe’s numerous injury issues have supported his case as the best batter on the team, when healthy.
Much has been made of Posey’s offensive decline, which has been slow and steady, culminating in a mildly above-average year in 2018 (106 wRC+), and a below-average season in 2019 (94 wRC+ thus far). And yet, unfortunately, it’s long overdue that we tie Belt to Posey in such discussions.
Belt’s power almost completely fell off last year, which was easy to pin on injuries. And while he doesn’t appear 100% healthy this year, it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with reasonable justifications for the lack of extra-base hits.
After slugging .473 from 2013 through 207, Belt’s slugging percentage dropped to .414 a year ago. So far this year, it’s a relatively anemic .390. That puts his power behind not only Posey, but Donovan Solano, Mike Yastrzemski, and Kevin Pillar, as well.
This year, Belt has had an extra-base hit once every 13.7 plate appearances. Two years ago, it was once every 9.4 plate appearances.
He’s doing some things better: His walk rate of 14.8% is his second-highest ever, and well above his career mark of 12.0%. He’s striking out far less often than at any point in his career. The discipline and eye are there, better than at any time before.
But when the bat hits the ball, the results are simply falling short. A year after having the worst offensive season (107 wRC+) since his rookie year, Belt’s wRC+ has been 100 in 2019. His OPS+ has been 99. By all the advanced metrics, Belt has been the epitome of a league-average hitter.
Not a league-average hitter for his position, which is one of the most offensively strong spots on the diamond. Just a league-average hitter, up and down. He’s been worse with the bat than Solano, Yastrzemski, Evan Longoria, and Pablo Sandoval.
That wasn’t supposed to happen.
It may be health-related. It may be that he snaps out of it. It may be that he has more than nine extra-base hits in August, which is the mark he currently has in 48 June and July games combined.
Or it may be that, unfortunately, the mounting signs paint a larger picture, and that picture is of Brandon Belt, no longer a good hitter.