On Friday my 2014 MLB Season Season Preview Series covered the emergence of Padres RHP Tyson Ross, of whom San Diego will be hoping can parlay his post All-Star break surge last season into a full season of domination in 2014. Today, I round out the NL West as my focus moves up the California coastline to San Francisco, who had their own second-half breakout performer in 2013; after having experienced a couple of rough seasons since entering the majors as a much-hyped prospect, Brandon Belt looks ready to become one of the best first basemen in the game.
I first hopped on the Brandon Belt bandwagon by playing simulation baseball when I should have been revising for my exams – Out Of The Park Baseball was just far more interesting to me than Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry, as any sane person will attest. Anyhow, with his entrancing 5-star potential drawing my hypothetical GM attention, Belt was always a prime trade target for my many simulated franchises. And such was his top prospect status at the time, he always raked. Accordingly, when the lanky first baseman made it to the majors in 2011, there was one guy across the Atlantic Ocean who joined the thousands of Giants fans in San Francisco in expecting big things. The significant geographic removal however, did not diminish my disappointment when the lynchpin of my fake teams appeared not to be the destined star I, and many Giants fans, had assumed.
Selected in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, Belt spent two years in the minors, advancing quickly by virtue of his posting a slash line of .343 .457 .596 over 189 games. As a much-hyped rookie in 2011 then, Belt struggled to a .225 batting average in 209 PAs and often found himself relegated to the bench – losing playing time to both over-the-hill World Series hero Aubrey Huff and .233-career hitter Brett Pill. Though 2012 saw Belt’s core statistics improve (he hit .275 with a .360 OBP, though just 7 HRs), his playing time still suffered on account of his platoon splits; manager Bruce Bochy‘s reluctance to provide Belt much-needed playing time against fellow lefties drawing the ire of many internet commenters who saw his development stall while buried on the bench. Without the trust of his manager entering 2013, Belt did little to improve his own situation; stubborn to adjust the approach that had brought him so much success in the minors, he continued to hit poorly – at least by a first baseman’s standards – his batting average falling to .260, and continued to play inconsistently.
The turnaround for Belt came on an otherwise innocuous trip to Philadelphia in late July – which he entered with a 1-19 streak – where at the behest of hitting coach Hensley Meulens, he sought out Phillies outfielder Dominic Brown. Brown had significantly cooled down from his ridiculous 12 HR month of May, but was nonetheless enjoying a undeniable breakout – a fact Meulens had noted when coaching him at the All-Star game, along with the physical similarities of Brown and his struggling first baseman. As reported by Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News, Brown had told Meulens how he had simply changed his grip on the bat, and had seen immediate results. Willing to try something new in attempting to turn around his season, Belt decided to give it a go too, figuring “if it only took him a couple of days, maybe I can do it in a couple of days, too.” Belt spent three days on the bench in Philadelphia working on developing his new swing in conjunction with moving back in the batter’s box; when he returned from the self-enforced absence, Belt was a different player.
In the month of August, Belt hit .350 with a 1.051 OPS; in September and October, .341 with a .910 OPS. Armed with a new, more level swing, he not only successfully lowered his strikeout rate (23.5% in the first half, 19.8% in the second), but more importantly cut his FB% from 43.9 to 38.9. With his home AT&T Park the biggest drain of lefty power across the majors in 2013 per Fangraphs thanks to the cavernous dimensions of right field, Belt started lacing line drives into the gaping space rather than continually sending fly balls to die; his second half line drive rate of 27.7% marked a raise of 6.2% from his pre-break rate. By then end of the season, Belt had pulled his slash line up to .289/.360/.481 while also setting career highs home runs (17), runs scored (76) and RBIs (67). Despite his slow start too, his eventual 139 wRC+ led the team; by statistical measures at least, the man affectionately dubbed ‘Baby Giraffe’ had become the Giants’ best offensive player.
With runs once again expected to be at a premium in San Francisco, the Giants will certainly need their lanky lefty’s breakout to be real if they are to return to the top of the NL West; a stern task in a division which includes the reigning Dodgers, gritty Diamondbacks, and supposedly improved Padres (sorry Rockies fans – it just ain’t happening this year). Slated to be the club’s no. 3 hitter on Opening Day – ahead of the big bats of Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, and just plain big Pablo Sandoval – Belt will have every chance to demonstrate last year’s development was legitimate. It might have taken a couple of years to earn the opportunity, but Brandon Belt finally looks poised to lead the Giant’s offense.
They can only hope he produces like he did on my simulation teams.