In the fantasy game, if a first baseman hit 16 homers and stole 15 bases, you’d be interested right? Well it turns out those are the numbers posted by the Giants’ Brandon Belt during his two seasons in San Francisco. Due to the way he has been utilized by the team in those two seasons he’s only been able to accrue 598 at-bats meaning his 16/15 effort has pretty much been accomplished in a season worth of playing time. What can the youngster bring to the field this season? Will the Giants play him on a daily basis? Does he have a shot to go 15/15 making him a legit option to finish the year as a top-12 first sacker. To the digging we go.
How many first basemen went 15/15 in 2012? The answer is one – Paul Goldschmidt. Over the past five years how many seasons of 15/15 have been produced by a first baseman? The answer is four – Goldschmidt, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Lance Berkman. Clearly the ability to steal a base is pretty foreign to the first base position. That makes Belt an intriguing addition to a fantasy club. In addition to his 15 steals he’s only been caught four times for a solid 79 percent success rate. It’s hard to count on 15 steals from Belt, but if he plays every day double-digit thefts should happen.
‘But Ray, the Giants haven’t been playing Belt everyday. Why is that?’
First, the Giants have been a championship caliber team the past few years as you might be aware, so the club hasn’t wanted to give away at-bats to a youngster merely because he had talent. Second, Belt has a few holes in his game that I will address in a second. Third, Bruce Bochy, the Giants’ managers, prefers to go with capable veterans if he has them at his disposal. Heading into 2013 the Giants don’t have a veteran option to play first base, it appears that Brett Pill could function as the backup when healthy (he’ll likely miss the start of the season with a knee issue that required surgery), so it’s really Belt’s job to lose.
Belt hit .225 as a rookie but he upped that mark to .275 last season as he showed marked improvement in the second half when he hit .293 over the course of 72 games. Belt knows how to take a walk, his 11.4 percent walk rate last season is solid, so that should help him to maintain his average. He’s also done a great job with a 22.1 percent line drive rate with his .328 BABIP mark reflecting that of hard hit balls. However, as we know, both of those marks are elevated (19-20 and .290-.300 are usually the big league averages). Players can hold on to those marks, they set their own baselines as we also know, but they are still big numbers even though Belt posted a .392 BABIP and 27.1 percent line drive rate in the minors in 2011. Maybe Belt is one of those players who will settle in at a higher level? We need more data to formulate a concrete answer.
What we do know is that he strikes out a lot. In the minors in 2011 Belt struck out 48 times in 53 games. He then cam to the big leagues and struck out 57 times in 63 games. Last season he knocked a bit off that K-rate, down to 106 in 145 games, but 106 punchouts in 411 at-bats is a poor 22.5 percent K-rate. That level of whiffs could certainly have a detrimental effect on his batting average production.
What kind of power does Belt have? As a left-hander at AT&T Park, his home ball yard does him no favors as Park Indices the last three years tell us that lefties have a mark of 63 in the homer column. That’s 37 percent below the NL average. It’s a terrible place for left-handed power hitters to play. Not surprisingly, Belt has a total of 16 homers in 598 at-bats even though most talent evaluators this this is a 25 homer bat. For his brief career Belt owns a fly ball rate of 39 percent an a fly ball rate of nine percent. Both of those marks are pretty much league average. Oddly, Belt has been a better hitter at home during his career (.289/.368/.465), much better in fact than he has been on the road (.232/.321/.376).
Some other tidbits.
Belt swung at more pitches in the strike zone last season than the year before (many in the Giants’ organization want Belt to keep his eye at the dish while augmenting that with a little more aggression at times). Belt pushed his swinging mark at pitches inside the strike zone from 73 to 77 percent in year two as he seemed to embrace the clubs direction. Unfortunately his contact rate fell from 77 to 74 percent, pretty much negating the improvements first measure.
Belt is intriguing. He’s a young fella, he’ll turn 25 in late April, and as a former college star with a lot of hype, there’s a solid chance that his 2013 effort becomes a memorable one. Given his draft day cost, Belt would seem to be a solid option as a corner infield play in mixed leagues, even if his power and average don’t take the next step (thank the wheels). The Giants finally appear likely to play him on a daily basis, and with the growth he flashed in the second half the trends are encouraging, even if his home ball park might mute his overall production at the dish a wee bit.
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By Ray Flowers