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Lots of things are hurting Brandon Belt; the shift isn’t one of them

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Brandon Belt does a fine job of hitting the ball over the shift. The problem is what happens when he does.

Colorado Rockies v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Unless Brandon Belt goes absolutely bananas over the last two and a half weeks of the season, 2019 will wind up being his worst full season as a big leaguer. Coincidentally, this is also the year where he’s seen the most shifts against him. Per Baseball Savant, the percentage of plate appearances in which Belt has hit against a shift has risen every year since 2016 when these numbers began being tracked. Teams are getting more and more comfortable about shifting—the Dodgers have shifted in 50.2 percent of all plate appearances, so it’s no longer a shift but the normal defensive alignment.

Belt has seen a shift in a whopping 79.7 percent of his plate appearances. Belt’s expected batting average on all ground balls is .292, but all the shifts he’s seen have dragged that down to .213. If all you knew about Belt’s season was this, it’d be easy to conclude that the shift is killing Belt. Teams have figured out that all you need to do to stop Belt is put a third infielder on the right side of second and he’s powerless to do anything.

But the shift has about as much to do with Belt’s downturn as a new Taylor Swift album has to do with the Giants winning a World Series. Back in April, Bryan wrote about how Belt loves to hit against the shift. His wOBA against the shift was one of the five best in the majors. While Belt’s ranking has fallen, the concept of that month’s worth of sampling has held up. Belt’s wOBA without the shift is .265, deep into Austin Jackson territory. Against this shift, his wOBA is .334.

I don’t know if I need much more to prove that the shift isn’t what’s killing Belt, but taking away a few singles on grounders isn’t do much against a batter who mostly hits the ball in the air. According to FanGraphs, Belt’s groundball percentage is the second-lowest among qualified hitters. The only player to hit fewer grounders is Mike Trout. The rest of the hitters in the top-10 are all great, but when the only player separating you from the top of any category is Trout, you’re doing something right.

Belt is doing a lot right. Despite a nagging knee injury, his hard hit rate, max exit velocity, and overall profile are comparable to his All-Star 2016 season. It’s just that Belt has been one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball. That’s not just me, noted Brandon Belt stan, saying that either. David Adler recently wrote about the hitters who deserve better than they get, and Belt has some of the worst luck when he torches the ball. Belt’s hard-hit rate is above average, but 57.5 percent of his hard-hit balls turn into outs. Only Lorenzo Cain has been less fortunate in that regard.

Belt also has the worst batting average on barrels in the majors. The league bats .814 and slugs 2.820 on barrels, but 45.2 percent of Belt’s barrels have turned into outs. He’s hitting just .581 and slugging 1.839. Give Brandon Belt league average luck on barrels and his slugging jumps from .394 to .460. That’s such an enormous jump that I swore I did something wrong, but I had other people check my math and it checks out.

Now, not all barrels are created equal. Belt’s expected slugging on barrels is 2.410 so he has deserved 17 more total bases. A jump like that would raise his slugging to .433. Maybe a .433 slugging doesn’t get you excited, but that’s a 39-point jump on a handful of batted balls. Belt isn’t that far from turning in a perfectly fine season. Maybe if he didn’t play in a park specifically designed to murder his approach he’d be a perennial All-Star.

Just check out his spray chart overlaid on Wrigley Field which is a pretty neutral ballpark depending on which way the wind is blowing. These are all the fly ball and line drives Brandon Belt has hit at Oracle just this season.

These dots aren’t perfectly representative of where the ball actually landed, but there’s no way Belt isn’t a 25-30 homer hitter if he plays for the Cubs. Not to mention if he played in the central he would play an extra 12 games at Miller Park and Great American Ball Park a year.

This started out as a piece about how Brandon Belt does against the shift, and I’ll try to loop it back around. Shifting the infield against Belt takes away a few singles, sure, but most of the work is done by the ballpark. If the fences at Oracle are ever moved in or if Belt is freed to more hitter friendly environs, I think more teams would start employing more four-man outfields against him. Right now, I think Belt’s willingness to bunt is keeping that fourth infielder on the left side of second, but if he’s not playing where home runs go to die, he won’t even be thinking about bunting. He’ll be crazed with dinger lust, and no one will be able to stop him.