Wednesday, January 29, 2014

More Thoughts on Brandon Belt

The "Belt Wars" seem to have died down to an uneasy truce of late since he is coming off a good season and seems to be well entrenched as the Giants starting first baseman with a chance for a breakout in 2014.  The "Beltists" seem to be reasonably satisfied that the Giants management has finally come to its senses and installed him as the unquestioned starter and that he has not been permanently ruined.  The Giants management "Loyalists" seem to feel vindicated that Belt was, in fact handled properly with his success last season as proof.  So, I wasn't really expecting to get hit by a roadside bomb this morning when I read Ray Guilfoyle's rundown of the Top 30 Fantasy First Basemen.  Bam!  It hit me on the blindside!

"Belt entered the major leagues a few seasons ago with much acclaim, but was mishandled by manager Bruce Bochy, who historically favors veterans over prospects.  Then they tried to change his swing, which didn't work, so Belt went back to his old swing, and that resulted in Belt having the best year of his short big league career last season."

Say what?  You know, I've read stuff like this for so long now, I guess I should not let it get to me, but there was just something about the nonchalance of it, like he considers it a proven fact, a closed case, that just ate me up.  I have never figured out how to log into a SB Nation account so I don't post comments on their sites, so I will call him out on this here.  BTW, I consider Ray Guilfoyle to be an excellent source of fantasy baseball information and generally find his writing to be fair and balanced, so this only goes for his comment today about Belt.  I don't expect a guy who has to cover every player and every serious prospect in baseball to necessarily have in depth information about any one player that dedicated fans of that team would have, but maybe he could have couched it in some kind of qualification such as "Many analysts believe Belt was mismanaged in the first 2 years of his career" or something like that. Instead, it's presented as a well known fact without any apparent sense that there may be another side to the story or that maybe some of the supporting "facts" are just plain inaccurate.

Let's go back and review Brandon Belt's professional career from the beginning.  Of course, we all have our biases and we all filter information through those biases, but this is how it unfolded to the best of my recollection.  Folks can correct me in the Comments if I am misremembering.

Belt was a good hitter in college, but a bit light on power for a first baseman:  .323/.416/.523, 8 HR, 15 SB, 40 BB, 57 K's in 235 AB.  Note the strong K/BB that has become a familiar feature of hitters drafted by the Giants under the John Barr Scouting Directorship.  Also note that 2009 was before the introduction of BBCOR bats into college baseball.  Belt was scouted by Doug Mapson who by now famously saw him hit a HR to dead CF off a good pitcher and advocated for Belt in the draft room assuring the rest of the Giants brass that he had enough power to play 1B in the majors.  He was drafted in the 5'th round.  He did not sign in time to play pro ball in 2009.

The Giants reworked his batting stance and swing during fall instructional league opening up his stance and giving him some loft in his swing.  They gave him an aggressive assignment to High A San Jose in 2010 where he tore into the Cal League with a vengeance:  .383/.492/.628, 10 HR, 18 SB, 58 BB, 50 K in 235 AB.  He was given a midseason promotion to AA Richmond where he continued to rake:  .337/.413/.623, 9 HR, 22 BB, 34 K.  He was promoted yet again to AAA Fresno where he finally hit a wall: .229/.393/.562, 4 HR, 13 BB, 15 K in 48 AB.  It had been a whirlwind year and the low BA in Fresno was the only blemish on the entire year's work, probably simply a sample size issue.

When Belt came to spring training in 2011, he was not expected to make the Opening Day 25 man roster.  The Giants had won the World Series the previous season with major contributions from 2 rookies, Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner.  Belt had a strong spring and Bruce Bochy, contrary to popular belief, was itching to see if he could get a boost from another young player.  Bochy got his opportunity when Cody Ross pulled a hammy late in the spring and started the season on the DL.  Bochy was so eager to play Belt that he even moved Aubrey Huff to the OF to make room for Belt at 1B!  That hardly seems like the behavior of a manager who favors veterans now, does it?  Unfortunately, Huff came to camp that year out of shape and the results in the OF were downright comical.  For his part, Belt hit an early HR against the Dodgers, but otherwise struggled to get his MLB career off the ground.  He completely lost control of the strike zone, watching called strikes go down the middle of the strike zone and swinging at sliders that hit him on the back foot.  He consistently got tied up on pitches on the inner half of the plate.  He drew quite a few walks, but that was more from just a reluctance to swing than any kind of plan at the plate.  He was clearly lost up there.  It did not help that the Giants were the subjects of a documentary TV series with cameras recording everything.  Belt cried when Bochy informed him that he was being sent down to Fresno.

Belt was given specific things to work on in Fresno and hit well there.  He was brought back to the MLB club but promptly broke his hand on a HBP and missed 6 weeks on the DL.  Bruce Bochy can hardly be blamed for THAT!  Belt went through a normal rehab period after recovering from the broken hand and was brought back to the MLB club in late August.  He finished the year strong and hit most of his 9 HR in the last month.

Belt had a roller-coaster 2012, experiencing more slumps, more temporary benchings, more things to work on, hot streaks.  He ended up on a strong note finishing with a line of .275/.360/.421, 7 HR, 12 SB, 54 BB, 106 K in 411 AB.  He did not get sent down to Fresno!  He was the starting 1B throughout the postseason that culminated in another World Series Championship for the Giants.  Remember, this was Belt's first full MLB season!

2013 saw further progress.  There was one slump around June where he looked lost.  Some posters on Giants oriented websites and blogs noticed that his swing looked awfully funny.  One guy, I forget his internet handle, Speier-something, noted that his knuckles were not aligned properly. The Giants said he was "wrapping" which I understand is a characterized by a misalignment of the hands on the bat.  Belt was taken out of the lineup and spent one memorable day taking extra batting practice supervised by Bruce Bochy himself!  Once again, as soon as Bochy was convinced that the lessons had sunk in, only a matter of a few days, Belt was back in the starting lineup.  From that point on, Belt hit better and better through the end of the season.  He finished with a line of .289/.360/.481, 17 HR, 52 BB, 125 K in 509 AB.  That just happened to be the top OPS on the team, better even than Hunter Pence!  His line for the second half of the season was much better than that.  There were still days where he sat against certain LHP's when Buster Posey would move to 1B to spare his legs.  There were some Giants oriented websites that decried sitting Belt in favor of Hector Sanchez.  What they failed to take into account was the it really wasn't a choice between Belt and Sanchez.  It was a choice between Belt and Buster Posey because Posey was not going to catch on those days!

So, what can we conclude about how the Giants handled Brandon Belt's MLB career?  Based on the timeline of events outlined in the above paragraphs, I would conclude the following:

1.  Rather than favoring the veterans, Bruce Bochy was so eager to play Brandon Belt that he rushed him to the majors and was even willing to move a veteran off his best position to make room for Belt.

2.  Rather than refusing to play Belt, Bochy only took him out of the lineup when he was struggling, gave him specific assignments to work on and always brought him back when the lesson had been learned.  In each case, Belt came back with improved results.

3.  The only times Belt change his swing was at the Giants request.  The only going back to his old swing was when he slipped back into old, bad habits.  He has always hit better when doing it the way the Giants want him to.

4.  Belt's career trajectory has been quite typical of a good young player breaking into MLB.  At this point, his MLB performance is much better and more advanced than you would expect from a 5'th round draft pick with a mediocre college resume.

In conclusion, I believe the preponderance of evidence indicates that the Giants have handled Brandon Belt's professional career very well. It is quite possible, even likely, that Belt would not be where he is today, on the threshold of a possible breakout MLB season, had he been drafted by another organization.


  1. Memory is fading, but I'm pretty sure Belt cried when he made the team out of ST on that show, Bochy offered him a beer.

    The big thing for me is Belt was zoomed, he JUST got to his 2K PAs this past year. That is huge.

    Bochy raved for sure, that is a big point. The beats have big quotes about how much Bochy liked him, and Sabean liked him. Sabean preached caution, Bochy was greedy. This part kills me, because the Mean Bruce Bochy vibe from Moneyball reading fools on the interwebz sure did take off...

    If Ross didn't get hurt the Giants would have tossed him back down to AAA. They were a bit greedy and a bit giddy.

    All credit to Doug Mapson. None to snarky bloggers. That's my mantra on Brandon Belt. A Gigante with a ring!

    SpeierFuentes is the handle you're looking for. Dude played college ball, and he had some constructive things to say. Rotate the knuckles! All credit to the Giants for insisting on good old school work. Take a walk? No, drive the ball.

    Belt is an excellent defensive 1B, a very savvy baserunner and I'm very glad he's a Giant.

    1. I think he cried when he made the team. I thought he also cried when he got sent down, but I could be remembering wrong. I know you have researched this issue as much or more than I have.

      I don't necessarily think the Giants handling of Belt has been perfect. He WAS rushed, after all. If he has been mishandled, it's no more so than many a successful prospect and nothing he hasn't been able to overcome, and certainly not because Bruce Bochy or the Giants hate young players or walks.

      Good point about the 2000 pro AB's.

    2. Yep, he cried when he made the team, and yes, there was beer involved. I saw the free pilot episode, but haven't seen the rest of the season yet, some day, I bought it when it was cheap one day.

      Eh, nobody's perfect, right? But overall, I think that Belt has been handled correctly by the Giants. He was/is a young buck, needing to be both tamed and taught, and he fought it long and hard, almost two and a half seasons before the final piece - the grip - seemed to set him loose. Now we need to see if he can continue that streak in 2014.

      I've thought about the whole "rushed" idea before and I'm not entirely sure that he was rushed. He conquered Advanced A and AA pretty easily, and though his BA wasn't the best in AAA, he still hit for so much power that he still had a very good OPS. Being rushed means that he still had something to learn in AAA. But I don't know that for sure.

      As we all know, the pitching in the majors is nothing like that for even AAA, because if anyone is a MLB pitcher, they don't spend much more time in the minors before being brought up, TINSTAAP and all. And Belt seemingly had a pretty easy time with all of them, though, of course, SSS. Still, dominating season on his part. So I don't know that he had that much he could have still learned in AAA, which leaves learning in the majors, for better or worse.

      But yeah, the Giants rushed him because the Ross injury (I had thought it was Torres; my memory...) opened a window of opportunity to try him out in the majors to see what he got, see what he can and can't handle, before needing to make a decision. That does happen in the majors, getting rushed due to injury. I actually wanted them to keep Ishikawa around instead, so at first I was disappointed, but then I saw the logic of their decision.

      Basically they got a free play on kicking the tires on Belt. The injury means he can come up, even if he's not really ready. If he is ready, well, as Wally Pipp learned, it is not a lifetime job. If he's not, then they get a better idea of what issues he has with MLB pitching, and how they might fix his batting mechanics to improve himself.

      And Bochy is a good hitting doctor apparently, even though he never had the skills to take advantage of it. A study looking into how hitters fare once they are managed by a new person found that hitters improved a lot once he joined a Bochy team, on average adding 1 WAR per season. People should remember this finding anytime they want to accuse Bochy of mishandling hitters.

      And yes to the 2000 pro AB's, one of Sabean's favorite milestones he likes to talk about on talk shows, plus yes to all credit to Doug Mapson, who also saw the potential in Greg Maddux. Two great finds to have on one's scouting resume. I wonder how we can research who else he has had a hand in finding and procuring?

      And double all credit to Sir Hensley for seeking out Domonic Brown and talking with him about what finally make it all click for him, then getting Belt to go talk with Dom in order for Belt to finally take the Giants advice on how to be a better hitter.

    3. "A study looking into how hitters fare once they are managed by a new person found that hitters improved a lot once he joined a Bochy team, on average adding 1 WAR per season. People should remember this finding anytime they want to accuse Bochy of mishandling hitters."

      That is amazing, if in fact that's the case. Care to share where this study came from?? In the future, please feel free to link very interesting studies such as this, so the rest of us can partake instead of just take it on word.

      Thanks OGC.

  2. Great retrospective. SpeierFuentes' claim to fame is definitely the knuckles. I recall hearing him bring up the knuckles on a KNBR call-in.

    Back to 2012. There was definitely a low point for Belt after the broken hand when it seemed as if management would send him back to Fresno to get regular AB's and get his swing and confidence back. Brett Pill was hanging around vulturing AB's against LHP's. But as you said, that bus to Fresno stayed in park. A great turn around. Another great turnaround last season following an episode of the flu and an anemic start in April.

    The rest is history.

    1. I forgot about the early season flu last year. Another temporary setback that had nothing to do with Giants "mismanagement."

    2. He raked in ST, looked great. That flu laid him low. Great point foothills. And then July with the 28 Ks in 82 PAs, a little more Pill threatening, the adjustment credited at various times to Sir Bam Bam or maybe even Dominic Brown, the rest is history. No snarky Keith Law, the Giants aren't stupid enough to trade off one of their prize wins in the draft. No snarky bloggers, the Giants do actually understand the amazingly complex statistic of On Base Percentage.

      It goes back to the losing seasons. This entirely wrong concept got built up that Sabean & Co didn't know how to build an offense. Then that wasn't enough. So a new (wrong) concept had to be built up that the Giants "ruin" hitters. These are big time mistakes made by a portion of the Gigante "fan base" that should really just relax and enjoy the ride instead of spouting off wrong headed opinions. So it goes...

    3. I talked a little about it above, but I think the credit goes to Sir Bam Bam and the Giants management, they knew what they wanted Belt to do, but Belt wasn't having it. Then Bam Bam, being a good hitting instructor, goes to Domonic to talk with him about how everything started working for him, just talk ball, and once he heard what Brown did, probably ran to Belt and told him to talk with Brown.

      I forgot about the flu too, that is a great point, I agree, that contributed/caused his late/slow start in April. But he was good from mid-April on, then took things to another level once he decided to try out the new grip.

      Yeah, well, that is just Sabean Naysayers for you. They just hate him and will find any way they can to disparage him, just to avoid having to thank him for bringing us two championships. A lot of them like to spout off about Sunk Costs, like for Zito, which they totally got wrong, but then the irony is that they don't understand that their stance on Sabean is built up like an investment, they have invested a lot of time and effort in denigrating Sabean's abilities that for them to change their mind would mean that they invested all that time and effort for nothing, and thus they, ignoring the sunk cost concept, double down on their hatred.

      So first, he's an idiot for trading Matty. Then it's that he can't build an offense, that it was all Bonds. Then it's that he can't build a Championship with Bonds, wasting his career. Sigh, yeah, they should relax and enjoy the ride...

  3. I am looking forward to a healthy Belt, Scutaro, Crawford Pablo, Pagan, a full healthy season from everyone else on the roster. Rotation re-energized. Perhaps 20 homers from Buster, 25 homers from Pence, 30 plus from Pablo, 15 to 20 dingers from Morse. Perhaps another 20 to 25 from the rest of the roster. If the cosmic tumblers fall into place and they stay healthy. We can compete with and defeat the "Bums"!

    Richard in Winnipeg

    1. Good thoughts! I would say at least 20 HR from Belt too, another 10 from Crawford. And 10 between Pagan and Scutaro. Yes, here's to health!

  4. DrB, you and others are good at remembering all those details. I wish I could like that. In any case, I agree with you that 1) no one is perfect 2) Bochy and Sabean, on the whole, did pretty good and even if I had a complaint here or there, it doesn't mean I could have done better overall. So, mistakes an all, they are all human, but better at judging and developing talent than us, I look forward to a good year from Belt.

    1. Sabean, for one, has spent a lifetime doing just this - drafting and aligning the development paths for future MLB guys - for nearly 30 years. He played in college, coached a college team (U Tampa), and was the director of scouting for the Yankees starting in 1896 - famously scouting/signing the likes of Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and I believe Andy Pettitte.

      So yes, these guys do it better than a regular Joe like you and me, because - the way I see it - this is what Sabean was born to do. At this point, I'm very comfortable saying that Sabean has the "IT" factor which has made him CLEARLY one of the best GMs in the game of baseball over the last nearly 15 years. Quite honestly, fire Sabean and replace him with any other GM in the game, and I'm not so sure I'd be happy with any alternate choice.

      Bruce Bochy was a supreme choice as Manager of our team - and also comes with the "IT" factor or someone who just understands the more subtle and fine elements of the game. That's why, in my opinion, when Bochy manages in the playoffs, he typically makes the opposing manager look like a child in a man's game.

      Perhaps one of the less heralded moves of Boch', but the one I enjoyed the most: After he got smacked around good in game 1 of the 2012 Divisional Series, and looking absolutely exhausted, BB held Madison Bumgarner out of his usual slot in the rotation in games 4/5, instead opting to use Lincecum. WHILE the Giants lost game 4 behind Tim, they won Game 5 behind Zito and the rest was history....and in Game 2 of the World Series, Bochy brought Big Bumgarner back out, and Bummy shut the Tigers out over 7 innings on 2 hits and 8Ks. It was beautiful,and it was a direct result of Bochy knowing his players, and TRUSTING that the rest of his guys would pick up the slack. I was so proud of my team that day, and it was the joy of a dedicated fan, and something that most of the rest of baseball missed completely. That's OK, it just keeps it to our advantage in the future as well! Let them never learn from our success! lol

      Anyways, great post by Dr. B. Hopefully, folks from other sites will check this out and become the slightest bit more educated for it. I recall the entire story basically the same way you have here, Doc.

    2. Great stuff RainBall. Couldn't have said it better myself. Sometimes in our daily conversations we forget to point it out, but the good majority of us around here are so, so proud of this organization for what they've accomplished. Sabean may not be the most popular or liked GM in the game, but I wouldn't want him to be anyway. I think there are still some great times to be had by the core group of players on this team, even if a few negative Nancy's out there refuse to believe it. Let them wallow in their pity while we celebrate the accomplishments.

    3. I think some Sabean/Bochy followers do not understand is that a person can still be very good even if he/she makes some mistakes.

      Do they insist on an impossible 100% batting average?

    4. Rainball - I wouldn't want any other GM in the game for sure. Thanks for putting that thought out there. Is Sabean perfect? Hell no, but he's been very good for a long time. This is the best period of Gigante baseball in history. I like going to the playoffs. I like competitive baseball. He's provided a ton of both. Plus a lot of amusement by... being Sabean.

      DrB has put down some great posts on this, but I just go back to the dark days of 2005-08, the fan base wants him gone, the ownership is paniking with PR signings for big money, the Moneyball sect is taking off. What does he do? Draft and develop 3 players back to back to back, goes and competes, knocks it down. That is a great 2nd act, an American tradition that is revered. If you hate Brian Sabean you actually hate America. Boo yah!

    5. Thanks folks, and props to ya'll for being great contributors on this site.

      "This is the best period of Gigante baseball in history."

      Man, it's hard read that and really let it set in...The history of the Giants runs so deep... But it's hard to argue! I mean, what a joy to watch the 2010 run, there was truly never a better time to be a fan of any team in any sport (in my opinion..of course). I was so involved in every pitch, every player on the team...and we couldn't have asked for a better group of players to root for! Renteria, Huff, Posey, Cain, Lincecum, Cody Ross. Jeez, I feel bad for the folks who aren't still enjoying that, because I still am. And to the point, I give ALL credit to Sabes, Bochy, and Tidrow, all the FO and everything it took for the Giants to quietly piece together the most dominant young homegrown staff in perhaps the modern era of baseball. Plus Wilson and Romo!

      Yeah, this team just doesn't get old for me. And to boot, following this current crop of great looking young pitching prospects is like wondering if we're watching it again!! LOL Man, this is what baseball is all about fellas!

    6. Agreed.

      Gotta to root for your team; it's a group where everyone seems to enjoy playing with each other.

      There will be errors and mistakes, but that's life, and when you reach the top, it's all the more sweeter.

  5. The main thing is Belt has earned the 1B job (in all aspects), struggled and adjusted, and is now on the verge of a breakout season. Isn't that where we want him?

    Of course, the Giants screwed Belt up, just like Harbaugh screwed up, just like Jackson is screwing up the Warriors - every knee-jerk fan knows this. And the Sabes, fire Harbaugh, fire Jackson. When are we going to get coaches who respond to my every whim!

    I really look forward to our homegrown players kicking ass in 2014; Belt, Posey, Pablo, Crawford, Cain, Madbum, Timmy, Vogie, Romo, etc. The Giants, more then most, have a team of home grown stud players.

    More Pandas, Giraffes, scooters and home-grown fun please.

  6. I miss Brett Pill already.