2019 Stat Line
.234/.339/.403, 616 PA, 17 HR, 57 RBI, 4 SB, +4.8 SDI (2nd in NL), 0.5 fWAR
Brandon Belt exists as a projection in the mind of most Giants fans and well-wishers. You might think that’s an opinion, but it’s objective fact. No other player on the roster conjures up such intensely emotional and imagined expectations as the Giants’ first baseman and we all know why —
The slumping shoulders and pouty face have been burned into the mind of every fan, and from that, a great many grew to hate the player because of the feelings he conjured within him. Let’s do this: people hate Brandon Belt because he reminds them of weakness.
Maybe people hate weakness because it hits too close to home or maybe they just don’t like to watch “weak” players struggle in a very tough sport. They want to watch successful professionals. By every objective measure, Brandon Belt has been a successful professional, which means the anti-Belters of our neverending Belt Wars eschew objectivity in favor of their expert emotions.
But this year just might be different. There’s a new faction in the pro-Belt camp: his coaches. Sure, maybe Bruce Bochy and Hensley Meulens and whoever else was on staff loved Belt in previous years, but I can’t think of any major league coaches issuing such a strong endorsement of his approach and skill set:
“He’s kind of an assassin in there in that he’s not passive at all, he’s very aggressive, but if a pitch doesn’t look like he can drive it, he’s just laying off,” Kapler said. “When something hangs or he gets a good pitch to hit, he’s really taking a good, healthy, aggressive pass.”
I’m going to guess that he’s only ever been called an assassin during a game of Goldeneye.
Anyway, say what you want about the tenets of Gabe Kapler, at least he’s supportive. The core of the Giants is untenable, and whereas the bulk of the roster appears to be constructed around the idea of gathering a heap of hungry guys desperate for work, a different approach is needed for this core (Posey, Belt, Crawford, Samardzija, and Cueto).
Encouragement feels like a novel idea because it’s cheap, requires no technology, and on paper seems antithetical to the concept of professional competitive sports. Viewed through the lens of an analytical front office looking for any edge it can find, wouldn’t a lack of encouragement in an MLB manager’s tool kit be a market inefficiency?
Brandon Belt is who he is and that wasn’t going to suddenly change just because the Giants integrated regression analysis into their development program and hired eleventy coaches. But rather than let these guys wither on the vine until their contracts ran out or could safely be traded — as every other rebuilding team has ever done — what’s the problem in seeing if positive vibes can lead to a modest gain in production from entrenched vets?
Despite the messenger, Kapler’s positive statement felt inspiring. It also felt like a major victory for the pro-Belters. The anti-Belters, however, are implacable because they have new soldiers and facts joining their ranks all the time. Last year, Belt had the worst season of his career (98 OPS+) despite playing a full and healthy season after winter knee surgery.
And then on Tuesday, former All-Star first baseman J.T. Snow said this:
“I would like to see him hit .280 or above, hit 20-plus homers and drive in over 100 runs,” Snow told Mark Willard on Wednesday. “I mean that was the standard mark back when I was playing, and if you didn’t do that you didn’t stick around for very long. I think he’s got a lot to prove playing that position. We all know he has a great eye and knows the strike zone, but I think Brandon Belt is on the hot seat this year.”
One of the most beloved Giants first basemen going on air and singling out the team’s most divisive player is a major victory for the anti-Belters. It signals to them that they were right all along to ignore what Belt has done in his career in favor of how he failed to live up to their expectations.
Here, Snow holds Belt to the first baseman standard of his era. The 20 HR, 100 RBI plateau is something Snow achieved only twice himself (1995 and 1997) and in one of those seasons he was in the same lineup as Barry Bonds.
But the Belt Wars aren’t about what’s logical or hypocritical, it’s about what is: Brandon Belt was one of the Giants’ most exciting prospects and because of his position, the expectation was that he’d be a 30-homer, 100+-RBI monster a la Will Clark or even blippy J.T. Snow.
Instead, he’s like the indie film version of a corner infielder, not wowing with eye-popping numbers/VFX, but satisfying in other ways, like putting together tough at bats, drawing walks, hitting doubles, and playing better defense at first than J.T. Snow — a whole range of baseball playing emotions beyond socking dingers and driving in guys who aren’t on base.
Not entirely relevant to our community projection, of course, but now that there’s context we can really zero in on the point: Brandon Belt has firmly entered the territory anti-Belters had staked out for him eight years ago when they rejected him. On a long enough timeline, all predictions come true, and Belt finally being worse than replacement-level at the plate in 2019 finally satisfied those who always felt he was the worst player in baseball. Maybe in baseball history.
Ignoring the order of magnitude — at just 0.5 fWAR, he was still a bit better than replacement — Belt’s 2020 looks like the season that will define whether he finishes his contract and then bounces around a couple of years before retiring or remakes himself to extend his career into his mid-to-late thirties.
Belt’s walk rate (13.5%) ticked back up versus his injury-shortened 2018 and his strikeout rate (20.6%) was his lowest ever. So, he walked more and struck out less. But with the juiced ball, he still saw his power decline for the third straight season (.403 SLG). This compelled me to conduct a narrowly defined search on the ol’ Play Index to see how many left-handed first basemen posted a sub-average OPS+ at 31 and managed to rebound the following year.
I set my PA to 600, 80% of games started at first base, and a sub-average OPS+ range of 95-99. Here was the result:
Interesting, but unhelpful. How about with 500 PA and 75% started at first base?
Okay, much more helpful. If I add right-handers into the mix, I get two more players: Zeke Bonura in 1940 (96 OPS+) and the sweet-sounding Candy LaChance in 1901 (95). Conveniently, neither of these players work as comps in the modern era, so, let’s omit them.
Here’s how the rest of this list did in their age-32 season:
- Willie Upshaw’s final season was 1988.
- Yonder Alonso just had his age-32 season. He hit .178/.275/.301 in 251 PA with the White Sox before they released him (remember: they signed him because he’s Manny Machado’s brother in law, and hoped to use that relationship to influence Machado into signing their free agent contract offer). He signed with Colorado in July and hit .260/.357/.479 in 84 PA.
- Mitch Moreland hit .278/.353/.500 (286 PA) in the first half of 2018 and earned a spot on the AL All-Star team. He hit .191/.277/.322 in the second half (173 PA) but still ended the year a little better than league average at the plate (102 OPS+). He didn’t spend a single day on the IL or in the minors. He played himself out of a starting role.
- Chris Davis had one of the worst seasons ever record by a starting player (49 OPS+) and ended his 2018 on a hitless streak that stretched into 2019 and a history-making 62 plate appearances.
Moreland has never been as good or better than Brandon Belt, but he has slugged a bit more than Belt has in recent years. Belt’s lack of power has been the largest power source for his detractors, and while it’s doubtful he’ll suddenly tap into some unknown source, don’t ignore the possibility that Oracle Park’s tweaked dimensions could provide just the boost he needs to makeup for an obvious decline.
As Kenny mentioned over at Beyond the Box Score:
Let’s say, hypothetically, Belt was traded to the Cubs before the 2019 season started. Here are all of Belt’s fly balls and line drives hit at home overlaid on Wrigley Field.
Now, these spray charts aren’t perfect. Not all of those dots are going to turn into homers, but even if half of those did, Belt would have had a decent shot at a 30-homer season. What actually happened is that Belt had his first below-average year at the plate despite walking 13.5 percent of the time and barreling the ball at about the same rate as 30-homer hitters Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, and Paul DeJong(!?).
the fences in Triple’s Alley will be brought in by about five feet and they’ll be shortened from eight feet to seven feet. Much of Belt’s power is to straightaway center, so while Oracle Park might be friendlier to dead pull hitters than its reputation would suggest, Belt has been uniquely hosed by the modern day Polo Grounds. As such, he stands to benefit most from the new dimensions.
A little vocal optimism mixed with some tangible positive changes won’t be enough to quiet the anti-Belters, but for the rest of us, there’s good reason to think that Belt won’t be one of the worst Giants in 2020.
So, let’s be a little bullish here.
These aren’t elite numbers by any stretch. A .764 OPS would’ve been better than Paul DeJong and Evan Longoria and good for just 97th in baseball. But it would be a noticeable improvement.
But I can’t in good faith project a 20-homer season from Brandon Belt. Not because I don’t think he’s capable of it, but because he’s Brandon Belt, and that’s just the sort of bad luck that follows him. He wouldn’t be Brandon Belt if he played like any other first baseman.
Having a tough time figuring out which teams might be in need of a first baseman around the trade deadline. The likely playoff / Wild Card contenders would all seem to be settled at that position, and it’s doubtful that Belt will retain his value even with more time spent in left field this year, should that be what comes to pass in this “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” season.
I don’t think his contract is prohibitive; his performance and genuine utility might be — but a key injury to a contending team could alter the landscape enough. I think we can all agree that the Giants would love to trade Belt and Crawford and Samardzija and Cueto as soon as possible, so I feel like it’ll always be at least 50/50 with these guys. But the community projection demands a firm answer. I will say no. Not this year.