This was, initially, a different sort of article; a more general examination of Brandon Belt and what to expect from him in the 2012 season. Then he got benched against a right-hander, and thus, according to the Giants Blogger Bylaws for 2012, I have to completely lose my mind now, and possibly park a van outside Bruce Bochy’s house, full of flaming bags of dog poop.
All kidding aside, it does make one wonder – or continue to wonder – what the plan is for Brandon Belt this year? It seems like the organization is planning on his being first baseman of the future and a middle-of-the-order hitter. We also know that the Giants have a somewhat checkered record with their handling of young players, and that Bruce Bochy is, for better or worse, a very instinctive, hunch-driven sort of manager. He writes up the lineup cards based on microsplits, morning BP, conversations with players, phases of the moon, a D&D random encounter chart he swiped from R.A. Dickey one year, etc. And you know, sometimes that works!
The question is whether, how, and when that’s going to work in favor of Brandon Belt. Monday morning, it didn’t; after Belt admitted to his manager that he was pressing, Bochy decided to give the kid a couple days off (counting tomorrow’s off-day). In the Twitter back-and-forth that ensued lineup posting, Giants beat writer Hank Schulman offered a weird and not previously discussed perspective:
— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) April 9, 2012
Coaches want Belt to stand more upright to hit down on ball, stand back in box to see balls longer. Watch him hit. You won’t see that….
— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) April 9, 2012
Leaving aside the contextual Crawford comparisons, Henry’s sharing an idea that the org is concerned with Brandon Belt’s, uh, “coachability”? Or rather, that said coaching has not yet achieved the desired results. The odd thing about this is that if you take a trip in the way-back machine, you can find the Giants overhauling Belt’s mechanics in 2010, which was what got the previously unheralded pick on the prospect map in the first place. So the implication that he’s now not listening to or unable to follow advice from the coaching staff is…unexpected. And weird.
It’s possible that Belt is letting his instincts take over and reverting to a more crouched stance in the box; certainly you can see him leaning forward a little during games. At the same time, his (thus far unsuccessful) first-pitch swings are almost certainly a result of organization coaching, and not at all in tune with how he approached hitting earlier in his career. So he’s listening to somebody.
So, wherefore the nudge from Schulman? I think it’s entirely possible that the coaching staff has been trying to make changes that have not yet borne fruit, and Hank has a point about Belt being a little hunched in the box. I also think that we are three games in the season and a Giants beat reporter with a good insight into the mindset of the organization is making excuses for Belt’s failure to produce over a pretty tiny sample size – and that’s a good thing. Seriously. As silly as it is, it shows that the team is putting thought into what will become of Brandon Belt and feels compelled to get defensive when he isn’t hitting. (Again, three games into the season.)
Sure, the concern is that by fiddling with Belt’s mechanics, benching him, sending him down, bringing him back up, fiddling with his mechanics some more, benching him again, changing his walkup music six times, and asking him if he’d ever thought of bleaching his hair, the Giants might screw up Belt’s development. (Might screw up Belt’s development some more, I should probably say, as 2011 just kinda sucked.) The counterpoint to that is that Brandon Belt has the minor-league profile of a guy who is seriously, seriously good at hitting, and even in a bizarre rookie year where he was, by his own admission, lost at the plate, he still had enough power and patience to be a league-average hitter. I don’t know how any coaching staff can screw that up at this stage in his development.
And that gets us back to wondering exactly what the Giants are trying to accomplish with all this. There’s the answer that the Giants don’t really know what they’re doing when it comes to developing young hitters, which might be true relative to other organizations in MLB. But they absolutely know something about developing hitters. They’re a baseball team. They have Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey. For that matter, they had Brandon Belt in 2010 and they asked him to mess with the way he hit baseballs, and then he started hitting the absolute merry hell out of baseballs. So even if the Giants are in the bottom tier of hitter development, they’re not exactly fumbling in the dark.
My theory is this: in his meteoric 2010, Brandon Belt averaged a .264 ISO across all levels. That’s a lot of power. Major leaguers in that neighborhood in 2011 included Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, and Evan Longoria. Of course, that number does not directly translate from minors to majors – that’d be ridiculous – but in 2011, Belt had a .187 ISO. That’s pretty good. Robinson Cano and Andre Ethier have done that for their career. Aubrey Huff has done that for his career, which is weird. So with all appropriate small-sample-size caveats, that’s pretty good for Belt’s messed-up rookie year, and in fact, directly equal to his ZiPS projection for 2012. (.265/.365/.452, a middle-of-the-pack line for a first baseman and pretty nice to have on the Giants.)
So yeah, that’s a good projected line. But if you’re a fan of the Giants, you look at that ISO in 2010, and you look at Belt do things like this, and you think: Sure, Brandon Belt hitting .260-.280, getting on base all the damn time, and popping 25 dingers would be nice to have. That’s part of a competent lineup. That’s not embarrassing at all at first base, and he won’t be too expensive. But what if we could get him to hit thirty dingers? And forty doubles? What if, instead of a good power hitter with a really high walk rate, we had a scary power hitter with Pablo & Posey? I’m thinking it. Now you’re thinking it. And I imagine someone actually involved in running the Giants might be thinking it too.
And that’s my guess why they’re messing around with Belt’s pretty-good mechanics – because he has upside just oozing out of his ears. He’s a tall skinny guy who could mature into a tall, somewhat less skinny guy, catch up to more of those fastballs, and use them to concuss kayakers for fun, profit, and RBIs. That’s worth some fiddling with his approach. I just hope that Bruce Bochy rolls “Manticore” on three twelve-sided dice and uses that as his signal to leave Belt in the lineup while they fix what may or may not need fixing. Because even if it doesn’t work, that “pretty good” ZiPS projection is gonna be at least the fourth best hitter on the team.