One of my favorite things to do is play a little game I like to call, Think of the San Francisco Giants now, and then think of where they were two years ago.
There’s no shortage of fun things to look at when comparing the team that was preparing for the 2020 season to the current team preparing for 2022.
That team was coming off a 77-win season; this team is coming off a 107-win campaign.
That team had a rookie manager who had no history of MLB success; this team has the reigning NL Manager of the Year.
That team was banking on Tyler Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and Johnny Cueto in their rotation; this team has five starters who you could easily see making the All-Star Game.
We can do this exercise all day. And trust me, I often do.
But few parts of it are as intriguing and fun as looking at the team’s situation at first base, and the evaluation of one Brandon Belt.
In 2020, Belt was coming off a season with a wRC+ of 98, meaning he was slightly below the average MLB hitter. Even if you expected a bounceback, the year before he sported a 107 wRC+, which was still below average for his position. The assumption was that the Giants, with a new front office and coaching staff that was low on sentimentality and high on platooning, would start Belt against most right-handed pitchers, while giving left-handed starts — and probably some righty starts — to Wilmer Flores, Pablo Sandoval, and the then-unknown entity that was Darin Ruf.
Belt, despite starting the year on the Injured List and struggling when he first came off it, finished the year with a 173 wRC+, making him the fifth-best hitter in the Majors (minimum 150 plate appearances).
It was a pandemic-shortened season, so there was reason for a touch of pessimism. But he backed it up in 2021 by again being the fifth-best hitter in the Majors (minimum 300 plate appearances), with a 158 wRC+.
Put it all together and Belt, over the last two seasons, has a wRC+ of 163. The only players with a higher mark (minimum 500 plate appearances)? Juan Soto and Bryce Harper.
That’s it. Soto and Harper.
Belt has been the third-best hitter in all of baseball over the last two seasons.
Maybe Giants fans should show him more love now? No? Still complaining about his slumpy shoulders? OK, moving on.
Belt’s become an elite hitter by doing what he’s always done (be patient and draw walks), and mixing in some modern elements (changing his swing and approach to chase the fences a little more).
Over that same two-year period, Belt was 14th in the Majors in walk rate. And if you’re one of those cloud-yelling antiquated fans who still thinks walks are fairly worthless, here are the 13 players ahead of him: Soto, Yasmani Grandal, Harper, Joey Gallo, Christian Yelich, Ronald Acuña Jr., Joey Votto, Carlos Santana, Max Muncy, Shohei Ohtani, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Nimmo, and Cavan Biggio.
You may still be stuck thinking there’s very limited value in the passive drawing of a free base, but you can at least accept that it’s a helluva coincidence that almost all of baseball’s best hitters are doing it.
But Belt’s added power to it now. Prior to 2020, his career-best slugging percentage was .481 in 2013, and his career high for home runs was 18 in 2015.
Last year he had a .597 slugging percentage, with 29 home runs ... despite playing fewer than 100 games.
The “fewer than 100 games” makes the 29 home runs that much more impressive, but it’s also the downside with Belt ... and the reason that the Giants may need to play a million people at first base, rather than relying on a single player.
Belt’s numbers may be breathing down the neck of Soto and Harper’s, but he has nearly 300 fewer plate appearances over the last two seasons than each of them.
We know the drill: he’s a little injury prone, hilariously unlucky, and no longer a spring chicken. And, on cue, he’s yet to appear in a game this spring, though he’s remaining optimistic about being ready for Opening Day. We’ll have to wait and see, and hope for a repeat of 2019, when he played 156 games.
Others will play first base for the Giants this year. Flores and Ruf will, as will LaMonte Wade Jr. We might see Tommy La Stella or Thairo Estrada there, and we could see Jason Vosler or Luke Williams. Someone you didn’t know could play first may end up there, and someone who isn’t currently on the Giants might also.
But those are the backup plans. The primary plan is Belt. Lots of Belt. Lots of Belt, who is one of the very best hitters on the planet.