Brandon Belt: The First Baseman You’re Not Talking About

Brandon Belt

Neil Weinberg is the Founder of New English D and a writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

When scanning the major statistical leaderboards for first basemen, there are two pretty clear tiers of players at the top. Joey Votto, Chris Davis, and Paul Goldschmidt are the class of the position. They’re a step above everyone else and it isn’t close. If you’re only looking at offense, they’re the three best. If you want a more complete picture and take a look at Wins Above Replacement (WAR), it’s the same story. But below them is a second, distinct tier populated by a few names you’ll recognize as rising stars, and at least one name you won’t.

You’ve probably heard about Allen Craig. Freddie Freeman is getting a lot of attention. Edwin Encarnacion had his coming out party last season. The guy you likely aren’t hearing much about, however, deserves just as much attention. His name is Brandon Belt.

All stats reflect the start of play on August 28th.

Votto, Davis, and Goldschmidt are a step above and deserve more attention, but among the next four, Belt holds his own quite nicely. Encarnacion is the big slugger (33 HR), but the other three are all between 13 and 16 HR. Belt trails in on base percentage (.354) to the leading Freeman (.387), but Belt plays in a much tougher park while still managing to lead Craig and Freeman in slugging percentage (.478). When we translate their numbers into an overall number than adjusts for park and league average, all four have a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) between 135 and 142.

For all intents and purposes, they’re all about equally valuable at the plate. Belt is the low man on the totem pole, but he’s just 2% behind Allen Craig, who some consider to be an MVP candidate. In the field, Belt leads the pack. He leads in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), trails Freeman by one in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and has a sizable advantage in Revised Zone Rating (RZR), which measures the rate at which a player turns batted balls into outs.

Advanced defensive stats are imperfect and come with some uncertainty, but the three best measures we have point to Belt as the best of the group. If we expand the sample back to 2011 in order to verify the 2013 data, Belt is the clear leader in UZR per 150 games among the four in question.

Belt is more or less equivalent to Craig and Freeman at the plate and appears to be at least slightly better in the field. This is not to say that Belt is certainly the best of the bunch, but merely demonstrates that he is a member of this group.

By FanGraphs WAR, Encarnacion leads at 3.7, but Freeman (3.2), Belt (3.0), and Craig (2.9) are all right there. For what it’s worth, the advanced stats consider Craig poor on the bases, which is delivering about a half win hit to his total. Pretty much every context neutral statistic is pointing to Belt as a member of this class.

So why isn’t Belt getting more attention? He’s a young player (25 years old) on a team that’s had a lot of recent success. He’s improved measurably in wRC+ and WAR in each of his three seasons. Maybe he’d get more notice if his team was having a good season, but the Giants have a big fan base and get a good amount of attention more generally.

Belt has improved his power numbers year after year, but he is a bit underpowered compared to the traditional idea of a first basemen. But so are Craig and Freeman and those guys are everywhere. Belt’s a good young player who seems to do everything pretty well.

While Craig is getting attention for his gaudy numbers with men in scoring position, Belt has performed extremely well in those situations as well (142 wRC+). Some put more stock in situation splits than others, but Belt is 31st in wRC+ with RISP.

He’s better against righties than lefties, but his platoon split isn’t terribly large (122 wRC+ versus LHP, 139 wRC+ versus RHP). He’s hit well at home and on the road. After a slowish start in April, he’s been very good since. In fact, since May 8, he’s hitting .301/.380/.523.

Belt has it all. He’s a good, young hitter with a solid glove who seems to have really figured it out over the last few months. He’s a player on the rise who plays in a big market, but he’s not getting the attention that he should. Part of it might be that the Giants are out of it and the Braves and Cardinals are heading to October, but I can’t help but think too many in the media who should be singing Belt’s praises are too caught up scanning the RBI column.

Craig has 96. Freeman has 85. Encarnacion has 97. Belt has just 50. Except we know that Belt has been the same guy with men in scoring position as he has been overall. Belt has fewer RBI because he has fewer chances to drive in runners.

Player

Total Runners On

On 1B

On 2B

On 3B

Belt

279

141

95

43

Encarnacion

347

190

109

48

Craig

345

177

108

60

Freeman

325

176

100

49

This is not to disparage the other three guys on this list, but Belt can’t drive in runners who don’t exist. Craig has hit with 66 more runners on base than Belt with 17 more of them stacked just 90 feet from home. We need to get past a dependence on using RBI to measure offensive value because even at its best, it’s a measure of opportunity.

Belt is a classic example. He’s having a pretty similar season to the others on this list, but he has about half as many RBI because the lineup around him isn’t giving him a chance to drive them in and, to a lesser extent, his home park suppresses offense.

Brandon Belt might not be as good as Craig, Freeman, and Encarnacion, but if he isn’t, he’s extremely close. He’s a better defender and nearly their equal at the plate. We’ve done ourselves a disservice by failing to notice his rising star. Maybe it’s because his team is struggling, but it’s probably because too many still put too much stock in RBI totals.

Put Brandon Belt in Allen Craig’s spot in the lineup and he’d have 80 or 90 RBI too. He can hit, he has a good eye, and he’s a solid defensive player at 25. Stay up late and watch Brandon Belt sometime, you won’t be disappointed.

  • Andreas

    smoke weed every day

  • Eric Ritz

    He’s also the most negatively talked about Giant. Until his hot August (even though he’s been putting up a 137 wRC+ over the last calendar year), Bay Area radio has been a constant forum for complaining about Belt, bashing Belt, talking about how the Belt “experiment” has failed, etc. In all my years as a fan I’ve never seen a player with his talent criticized so much by a fanbase. Thank you for giving him some positive attention.

    • tensaip

      You must not remember the Bill Mueller years.

    • Neil Weinberg

      I have a Twitter follower who’s a big Giants fan and he was telling me a couple of weeks ago how much people go after Belt – I couldn’t believe it. Happy to be part of the solution!

  • JWLumley

    I’m still a believer in Belt, hopefully the Giants give up on him and trade him to the Nats.

  • SofaKingCool1

    Belt is putting to rest any Pill-Belt platoon talk, and heck, may even make the Giants think about moving Posey to 3rd base long-term rather than 1B, and investing in Belt rather than Pandoval.

  • channelclemente

    Among Giants fans, there are those who support Belt, and idiots.

    • SofaKingCool1

      Belt was a 5th round pick and not some 1st round bonus baby, signing for $200K.
      He was the starting first baseman for a World Series champ, and is progressing nicely.
      He is clearly one of the top defensive 1B in baseball….maybe the best?

      • channelclemente

        I live there, and watch him nearly daily. As good as he’s become, it’s still all upside. He has the fastest bat in the zone I’ve ever seen. If he can learn to make the game to game adjustments to ever changing pitching, Lufkin’s favorite son has quite a future in front of him.

  • Jcosey

    Thanks for sharing Neil. Great article. He’s a good Giant and someone I hope is here for the long run.

  • ScottinMarin

    The Brandon Belt post grip change is a very different hitter. Prior to August 1 he was headed in the wrong direction. It really cracks me up how the stat nerds are now telling people…”told ya so” especially in light of the fact they didn’t think he needed to make ANY changes at all.

    To finally learn Belt had resisted these changes for so long was disappointing. They could have and should have happened much, much sooner.

    Credit must go to the hitting coaches, Buster Posey and Domonic Brown for finally getting it through Belt’s thick skull that he needed to junk the ridiculously unsound grip that was locking up his hands.

    We now see the results. This is not just some hot streak. These are profound changes that make big things possible for Belt. He is now hitting pitches HARD that he could never touch previously.

    Amazing what can happen when you free your hands and in turn the bat head. The bat speed increases and the swing plane flattens out.

    All I can say to Brandon Belt is……duhhhhhh. Just like that (snaps fingers) the Giants have a middle of the order bat. And that was never going to happen unless he made the exact changes they’d been asking him to for so long.

    Oh well, it’s over now. Belt is going to do some serious damage from here on out. And it’s gonna be fun to watch.

    • CK

      To think that Belt has suddenly become a great hitter because of a minor change in batting grip is behind moronic. Belt has been 1 of the best 1B in the league ALL SEASON, not just since the bat grip change. But keep making up reasons to hate people, I’m sure that’ll work out well for you. Oh yeah, and the Giants fucked up Belt’s batting stance a couple seasons ago, which is why it’s taken so long for him to TRULY break out.

      • ScottinMarin

        LOL Yeah, yeah, yeah….pfffttt…..

        Brandon Belt himself agrees with me…not you.

        “I was stubborn in the sense that I had had success a certain way before, and I was assuming I could get back to being successful that way,” Belt said. “It just took a little convincing to change, I guess.”

        “I want to make the jump,” he said. “I didn’t want to keep spinning my wheels in the same spot. I knew there was more in there. I just went all-in on these changes, and it’s working so far.”

        Henry Meulens on continuing to hit Belt 3rd:

        “Of course,” said Meulens, noting Belt is smacking breaking pitches, not merely fastballs and changeups. “He has the talent and ability to be the No. 3 hitter like he’s showing here the last few weeks. It wouldn’t have been possible without the adjustments he’s made. We’ve been trying to fix him all this time, and it’s finally catching on.”

        It’s really unbelievable that fools like you are still in denial. Why? Because you’re absolutely clueless. It’s that simple. You’re a flat out ignorant fan incapable of seeing anything beyond the box score. Look man, denying the existence of a problem you haven’t the ability to identify doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means you’re incapable…YOU.

        I saw the same problems people like Posey saw. They were readily apparent. They have now been addressed. And guess what? Brandon Belt is a MUCH, MUCH better hitter. Amazing ain’t it???

        Those “minor” changes are going to have a profound affect on his production for years to come. So just stop with the “he was already” good BS and wake up.

        • Neil Weinberg

          May 8 to July 31: .357 OBP, .463 SLG. .342 BABIP. Numbers up since, but with a .414 BABIP. He’s made an adjustment, but he was, in fact, good already.

          Since start of 2012? 7th in wRC+, 10th in fWAR among 1B.

          • ScottinMarin

            Good god almighty.

            You’re missing the point. What is it with you stat people anyway? No one said he wasn’t good before. The problem was he had the ability to be much BETTER. For some reason that fact is beyond your ability to grasp.

            All we said was he can be better. We want him to be better. He is capable of being better. We have identified a way for him to be better.

            And he IS better. Not because of some random theory but because he made physical, mechanical CHANGES. There are REASONS for the numbers players put up. Apparently you have no concept of what it takes to produce the numbers you so fervently crunch.

            If you did you wouldn’t have posted that response.

            PS: Please post Belt’s July stats. There was a reason for those numbers too…

          • Neil Weinberg

            Verbatim from your comment:

            “So just stop with the “he was already” good BS and wake up.”

            July 2013: .710 OPS, 103 wRC+. Single month splits aren’t big samples, but even in this cherry picked example you want, he’s still solid. Overall, he’s been very good. I don’t understand your comments at all. No one is suggesting that Belt can’t improve with mechanical tweaks, but rather that he was already working from a very good baseline.

            You have called me/us, “stat people,” with absolutely no information about me. I’m presenting statistics that reflect a player’s performance. I’m sorry for bringing facts to the conversation.

            Belt is good and has been performing well for the better part of two seasons. The facts are in front of you.

          • ScottinMarin

            Let me clarify something for you. I’m calling the “he was already good” narrative BS.

            I mean really, who gives a fuck that he was already good. I have never, ever said he wasn’t already good. But I did say this for a very long time…now pay reeaal close attention….

            >>>>>>>>>>>>HE COULD BETTER<<<<<<<<<<<<

          • Neil Weinberg

            So the narrative that he was already good is BS, but you agree that he was already good?

            I don’t understand why you are so upset that people think he was already good when you just said yourself that he was already good. If you want to clarify your argument please do, but right now it’s contradictory.

          • ScottinMarin

            It’s really simple. The narrative was used as a defense against those that dared to suggest Brandon Belt needed to make changes.

            You see it in every response to me in this thread. Including yours.

            The fact of the matter is that those using the ‘he’s already good’ narrative were/are incapable of seeing Belt’s problem because their understanding of the game stops at the box score.

            His problem was readily apparent to those that know anything about hitting and mechanics. A simple fix (grip change) could make him better.

            It never even occurred to them. And they rejected it as nonsense. Then proceeded to tell me….

            ‘He’s already good.’

            Well guess what? Turns out he could be better for the exact reasons I and others had suggested.

          • Neil Weinberg

            So your argument is that people who recognized Belt’s very good performance were distracted by his performance and didn’t recognize that he could be better with a mechanical change?

            Most players are always working to get better. Why would Belt’s high level of performance keep him from working on his game? I guess I just don’t understand why you’re all worked up about this. Belt was good. Belt continues to work on his swing, Belt is still good. How is it harmful for people to celebrate his strong season?

            And you’ve now gone to this argument about “us” not seeing anything beyond the box score or the numbers of the game, but you don’t know anything about me or anyone else commenting here. If you’re not looking at the numbers, you’re analyzing the game incorrectly. A mixture of statistical analysis and visual scouting is ideal. A holistic approach is best.

            It seems like you’re going for an “I told you so” moment, not that “stat nerds” you seem to despise.

  • Rich

    a lot of Giants fans are always demanding for another bat in the line up. while that might be the case for LF, I thought going into the season the Giants had RBI and HR potential with Posey, Sandoval, Pence & Belt. Sandoval went through his time on the DL, Posey was probably the most consistent, while Pence would go through streaks and Belt was struggling to find himself.

    I like the adjustments Belt has made and Sandoval has made some adjustments too. Pence’s numbers are starting to pick up again, where as Posey is still right around where he should be, but the power numbers are down. I’m not concerned because it’s been a long season for him.

    I still think going into next year, the potential is there to have (4) 20 HR guys and (4) guys driving in 60+ runs w/ Posey, Sandoval, Pence & Belt, but that’s a lot of IF’s.