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Over-analysis: Brandon Belt’s bunt attempt

To bunt or not to bunt...that is the question.

San Francisco Giants v Colorado Rockies Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

During Sunday’s game against the Colorado Rockies, Brandon Belt attempted to bunt an 0-1, 93 MPH fastball that ran in on his hands and struck his left thumb.

He remained in the game to run the bases, but was eventually lifted when the San Francisco Giants took the field in the bottom half of the inning. X-Rays conducted on Monday’s off-day revealed a fracture in his left thumb.

What happens next for Belt is being discussed as I write this. All I know is that it is hard to play anything, especially baseball, with a broken hand. We should expect time on the injured list and brace for a high possibility of Belt missing some, if not all, of the 2021 postseason.

If you are a masochist, enthralled by the wound that has just opened across the Giants starting lineup card and would be interested in feeling more pain—here is a salt shaker:

Belt’s hitting line the past six games .450/.542/.950. That’s an OPS of 1.492.

His OPS over the last 24 games is 1.168.

Brandon Belt is on a hot streak by any metric. Even some kind of football jock doofus behemoth could watch one at-bat from this past month and see that Belt was operating on a different plane than his peers.

Here are some favorite highlights.

And his three-run homer against the Rockies on Saturday.

For a team trying to hang on to their division lead, Belt’s September was manna from heaven for San Francisco—not only a gift, but a covenant, a promise of more wonderful things to come.

Which brings us back to Sunday…

Which brings us back to home-run-happy Brandon Belt in home-run-happy Coors Field, choosing to square up for a bunt with a one run lead, man on first in the 7th inning…

It’s been about 48 hours. The shock is wearing off. The dread has been replaced by anger, bargaining, questioning: Why did he bunt? Why did one of the hottest hitters in professional baseball try to beat the shift and scratch out a single?

The short answer is I don’t know. But Brandon Belt has made a ten year career of swinging a baseball bat and I have not done I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and approach this question critically.

Maybe through this exercise in over-analysis we’ll come to a greater understanding of Belt’s thought process, a deeper empathy for the man...or maybe we’ll just end up more frustrated than we were before.

First, let’s talk about bunts.

Bunts are fun and they’re becoming more fun the more rare they become in this world of launch angle and exit velocity and whatever sabermetrical statistical measurement thing the kids are into these days.

Bunting is a complicated art and one, like painting or poetry, is constantly under scrutiny for its utility. Art is dead. So is the bunt. Put it on a bumper sticker.

To dive a little deeper, I think bunting is about context nowadays.

There is never a bad game situation to hit a home run, but there are good and bad situations for bunt attempts. Bunting with the bases loaded is not a good idea. Bunting when a pitcher is up and there is a chance to advance a runner into scoring position (while avoiding a double play) is often a good idea.

What makes bunting complicated is that it can easily result in an out, which then creates this binary of situations: good or bad.

When is it worth it to potentially trade an out for 90 feet?

In the current game, the cost of bunting is not usually worth it. With the way players swing their bats, the probability of hitting a home run is high in every at-bat in every spot in the lineup. Having three chances in an inning to go-deep is better than two.

That being said, I’m a believer in baseball players taking advantage of any and every tool at their disposal. Gone are the days of 165 pound second basemen who can make a living off drag-bunts and stolen bases, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful skill to learn for 21st century sluggers.

Brandon Belt is a good example of someone who, I think, uses the skill well.

Here is a fun montage of Belt bunting for a base hit.

He also laid down a perfect one earlier this season against the Angels.

It’s a small sample size but there are some things we can learn from these videos. First off, Belt does not bunt in order sacrifice himself to advance the runner. Belt bunts to get on base. He has a total of one (1) sacrifice bunt in his career. When Belt squares up, he is not offering up a trade to the defense, he is trying to take advantage of a weakness and get on base.

That weakness is the defensive shift. Opposing teams load up their infield on the right side to fill in gaps to Belt’s pull side, while vacating the left side and effectively “giving” him a bunt single.

Obviously, Belt does not try to bunt towards an empty third base every time he steps into the batter’s box. If he did, his batting average would be a lot higher—but that’s about it.

A couple of years ago, Barry Bonds said that he would’ve hit .400 if he bunted more and no one should doubt that. But there is a reason Bonds didn’t attempt to, and there is a reason Belt doesn’t now.

Another thing we should take from the Belt Bunting Greatest Hits video is that he bunts in the right situations. He bunts in close games and when the Giants need base runners. He can also bunt under pressure. The final clip in the video is from game 5 of the 2014 World Series. That particular play, advanced Pence into scoring position, who advanced to third on a fly ball out, and eventually scored on a ground-out. Belt’s bunt ended up being the second most significant play in regards to win probability for the Giants in that game.

And yes, for all the fun montages we can make of Belt successfully legging out a single on a little dribbler up the line, there will always be an argument against the bunt. And that deflating trump card is, and will always be, the home run.

Yeah, it was a nice bunt, but what if he hit a home run instead?

Sure. I’ll be the first to admit that home runs are better than bunt singles. But in those situations when a batter chooses to not swing the bat, I think we need to fall back on a base-level of trust I have for these players.

Belt bunts because in that moment a bunt is what’s best for Belt.

Maybe he wasn’t seeing the ball well that at-bat, maybe he has struggled against the pitcher in the past, maybe his shoulder was bothering him—

I return to my mantra: Belt bunts because a bunt is what’s best for Belt.

Let’s get back to Sunday.

It was the 7th inning. The Giants were up by a run in Denver, which is the equivalent of being two runs behind in any other ballpark. Belt came up to the plate with a runner on first and one out. He had singled and doubled in his previous two at-bats. The Rockies defense was in the shift and the left side was open. Lefty Lucas Gilbreath had replaced Antonio Senzatela on the mound. Belt was 0 for 2 on the season against him.

Maybe Belt didn’t feel good after swinging at Gilbreath’s first pitch? Maybe he didn’t like the left-on-left match-up? Maybe he felt like he wasn’t going to get anything low and inside to drive, so he started to look for an outside pitch to poke down the third base line?

Given what we know, it wasn’t the best situation for Belt to bunt in. Simply put: there is never a really good time for someone who has just hit ten home runs over the past month to bunt. But if it had been a successful attempt, maybe it would’ve led to a big inning and we would be talking about Belt’s versatility and creativity at the plate. If he had fouled it off, we wouldn’t be talking about it at all.

But we obviously can’t blame Belt for what he tried to do.

I almost like him more for trying to bunt a single after hitting two home runs in the previous game. It’s cheeky and aggressive and it says a lot about his gamesmanship and style.

It’s just unfortunate that what happened happened and nobody is more bummed than Belt.

All we can do is trust Gabe Kapler and the rest of the Giants to fill in the shoes that need to be filled—a trio of Wade, Ruf and Flores are more than capable, even if the cleats are size 15.