Who is Brandon Belt?

Being a sabermetrically inclined baseball fan resident in San Francisco, I am painfully aware that  Brandon Belt has been a cause célèbre for a number of years. The Baby Giraffe finally came up to stay in mid 2011 after tearing up AAA, and then played in 140 games for the Giants during their 2012 title run. Belt enters 2013 as a 25 year old with over 600 plate appearances in the majors, and for the first time faces a few questions from all corners about where he fits.

Though Belt has occasionally made appearances in the outfield and has proved a bit lighter on his feet than your average 1B (12 stolen bases in 2012), he is a first baseman and must be judged as such. Heading into this season, Belt has 681 plate appearances spread over 208 major league games in his ages 23 and 24 seasons. His raw triple slash stands at 259/344/418, good for a wOBA of .332 and 2.5 WAR. The unadjusted numbers suffer, of course, since he plays more than half his games in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles – but all in all, a hitter 12% above average before reaching the age of 25 would appear solid.

Unfortunately, the bar for first basemen is significantly higher than that for other, more demanding positions. Over the past two seasons, if we sort by 1B that have at least 500 ABs, Belt finishes 31st in wOBA out of 50 qualifiers, just behind Daniel Murphy and tied with the now out of baseball Carlos Pena.

Of course, that comparison ignores one of the large points in Belt’s favor – -namely, his youth. Being a major league hitter is incredibly difficult, doing so at age 23 even more challenging. So while comparisons against some of the game’s best sluggers cast Belt is an unfavorable light, perhaps we should also look at what 1B of the past have done at similar ages. Here is a list of the production of 1B (min 100 games) since 2000 in their years 23-24 seasons. Though only 4 of the 22 qualifiers hit fewer than Belt’s 16 HRs, his 117 OPS+ places him squarely between Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez – a much more inviting neighborhood for those of us that have sung his praises lo these many years. (Sadly, the close comparables also include Daric Barton and James Loney).

So who is Brandon Belt – Adrian Gonzalez or Daric Barton?

Barton and Gonzalez couldn’t be more different – Gonzalez a bopper in the traditional sense, whereas Barton relied on selectivity and defense to deliver value for the A’s. Looking across all three players, however, there are similarities when we look at their 23-24 seasons:

Name
G
LD%
GB%
FB%
OBP
SLG
wRC+
Daric Barton
213
21.20%
37.40%
41.30%
0.388
0.406
123
Adrian Gonzalez
199
22.60%
42.70%
34.70%
0.343
0.481
114
Brandon Belt
208
22.10%
39.20%
38.70%
0.344
0.418
112

All 3 played roughly the same amount (though Belt’s appearances as a late inning defensive replacement cost him plate appearances), and hit line drives and ground balls at roughly the same rate – ultimately Barton’s and Belt’s on-base skills closed the gap created by Gonzalez’s power.

Looking beyond, however, there are some categories that stand out:

Name
BB%
K%
ISO
HR/FB
OBP
SLG
Daric Barton
15.50%
14.50%
0.134
5.30%
0.388
0.406
Adrian Gonzalez
7.80%
18.90%
0.193
15.10%
0.343
0.481
Brandon Belt
10.90%
23.90%
0.159
9.40%
0.344
0.418

Belt’s patience has never been questioned – but his K rate is significantly higher than our comparables, and he doesn’t seem to hit with enough power to stomach the strikeouts. Looking back to 2000 at 1B through age 24, if we sort by K%, we unsurprisingly find that you need to hit with significantly more power than Belt’s .159 ISO to make the grade as an above average 1B.

Who is Brandon Belt?

So does our analysis tell us anything? While Belt has been hyped as a masher, comparing him to similarly aged 1B leaves the distinct impression that he is certainly not elite – though the Giants don’t need him to be elite. Can he become elite? Possible, though unlikely from a historical perspective – those that have made the leap to elite hitter (Votto, Billy Butler , Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Konerko) sported significantly lower K rates and higher ISOs than Belt to this point. With two titles in 3 years, the Giants don’t need Belt to be Joey Votto, but as a Baby Giraffe backer these past few years, it may be time to consider that if he doesn’t show improvement in both metrics soon, perhaps other alternatives (Posey to 3B, Panda to 1B?) make more sense long term.

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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