Any San Francisco Giants fan who has been following the team over any part of the last decade has heard of the “Belt Wars.” Like the legend of King Arthur, the Belt Wars are a mythological battle that is told and retold hundreds of times, facts changing ever so slightly to support whatever agenda is popular at the moment.
For a long time, there wasn’t a winning camp, per se. KNBR callers tended to take the side that Belt was ineffectual; he was injured too often, didn’t put up the RBI or HR numbers befitting a Giants first baseman, and frequently he was criticized for not possessing “intangibles” (which were something like character/heart/mind). Other fans tended to prefer utilizing advanced stats: Belt was an elite on-base presence, with an eye that often won out over the umpires. It was no small feat to put up those slash lines, year in and year out. His career had been marred by injuries, but most were awful bad luck and not indicative of some sort of greater flaw (insofar as any kind of injury in a sport that pushes the human body to the limit can be considered a flaw).
I’m not interested in rehashing these camps. In the last few years, Belt has cemented himself as an elite presence in all facets of the game. His bat regularly ranks up there with the top players in the game (more on this later). His defense is spectacular at first base. His captaincy during the 2021 season showed his ability be the heart and soul of Giants team that generally shies away from flair. My job in this piece of writing is to get you to appreciate just how spectacular Belt is.
Let’s start with the vote of confidence from the front office: Zaidi doesn’t extend qualifying offers without cause. During his tenure with the Dodgers, Zaidi offered a QO to Hanley Ramirez (rejected, signed for 4/$88m), Brett Anderson (accepted), Zack Greinke (rejected, signed for 6/$206.5m), Howie Kendrick (2/$20m), Kenley Jansen (rejected, signed for 5/$80m), Justin Turner (rejected, signed for 4/$64m), Yasmani Grandal (rejected, signed for 1/$18.25), and Hyun-Jin Ryu (accepted). With the Giants, he’s extended four: Madison Bumgarner (rejected, signed for 5/$85m), Will Smith (rejected, signed for 3/$40m), Kevin Gausman (accepted), and Brandon Belt (accepted). Belt is in pretty good company. To be extended a qualifying offer, the team has to be sure you’re worth an AAV of ~$18m to them, which isn’t an earth-shattering sum, but certainly a top-tier AAV. It’s the equivalent of the AAV you would get if you signed a 5-year, ~$100 million contract, which is limited to elite players. The team also has to think you might have other suitors that would be willing to give you a contract and lose a draft pick in the process, which means you have to be desirable to other teams. So the simple act of extending Belt a qualifying offer already says a lot: he’s worth at least $18.4m to the team, and they believe he was highly desired by other teams as well.
So what is it that Zaidi is seeing that makes Belt such a valuable player? First base is a position that should hypothetically be overrun with talent. In the NL, first base is sort of the equivalent of the DH (along with LF); it’s where you put the players that can’t find a defensive home but can absolutely rake. Is Belt really outraking his competition?
Short answer: yes, and it’s really not close. Over the last two seasons (2020 and 2021), there have been exactly two players who have a higher wRC+ than Brandon Belt (min 500 PA): Juan Soto and Bryce Harper. That’s it. Two of the players who just were duking it out for NL MVP. And while Belt has spent some of that time injured, there’s a large enough sample size to conclude that his bat isn’t merely good, it’s simply elite. Look at this table:
|Ronald Acuna Jr.||ATL||562||38||0.271||0.399||0.591||0.412||157||6.6|
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||SDP||803||59||0.281||0.365||0.598||0.399||154||9.1|
You’ll notice a few things. One, Belt is right there with all of those four other players in contention for the best hitter. While he has less PAs than the others, he’s right in the thick of the home run race: tied with Acuña and on a pace basis, keeping up with home run monsters like Bryce Harper. In fact, Belt has a higher HR/PA (0.068) than Harper (0.057)! Belt has always possessed major home run power despite never having a 30 HR season, but it’s clearly not for lack of tools, just his level of being unlucky with untimely injuries.
First Base Value
It seems almost boring to now compare Belt to 1B, given that we’ve shown he exists in a plane with the best hitters in the game. But another side of NL play is defense, and Belt, despite playing at a defensive position that doesn’t seemingly require top-tier defense, manages to deliver anyways. Over the last two seasons, Belt is 7th among 1B (minimum 500 PA) in DEF, Fangraphs’ defensive value stat. It’s actually higher than that, as both DJ LeMahieu and Wilmer Flores are counted as 1B in this system: if we limit it to players who played the majority of their time at 1B, Belt moves up to #4 (behind Yandy Díaz, Jonathan Schoop, and Max Muncy). For some intents and purposes, we can say Belt has been the fourth-best defensive 1B in the league, pairing that with the third-best overall bat in the league, and the best bat at 1B. Belt’s getting it done on both sides of the ball.
The Belt Wars have been a strangely divisive battle in a fandom that generally doesn’t disagree on much. (For example, Buster Posey is the GOAT catcher of this generation, Bonds deserves HOF, and Willie Mays is a national treasure). It’s pitted the old guard against new analytic stats: before Belt’s offensive explosion in the last two years, much of the arguments for him came from stats that were relatively young. He’s unlikely to win a Triple Crown or lead the league in home runs. He strikes out a fair amount. But he also has one of the best eyes in the entire game: his walk rate over the last five years is 18th in baseball.
This is despite his pitch zones often looking like this:
It’s hard to find data on whether or not Belt gets more missed calls than other batters; that’s an analytical experiment for another day. Still, it’s clear even from this chart that he’s gotten a ton of missed calls off the plate; his eye likely outperforming the umpires. Belt’s greatest asset makes him a valuable part of any lineup, but especially the current iteration of the Giants, which are known for grinding pitches out in order to tire starters. (The Giants were 3rd this year in baseball for pitches per plate appearance; Belt was 57th out of 363 batters with >200 PA. Fun fact: Darin Ruf was 5th in all of baseball!).
All this to say: we’re lucky to have Belt on our team, and one light at the end of the dark lockout tunnel is that we’ll get the Baby Giraffe, O Captain my Captain, on the other side.