Last night, a tweet by John Shea really sent shockwaves throughout the Giants’ fan base:
Heard management wants to keep Brandon Belt, leaning toward making him their starting first baseman. Announcement Wednesday.
At the risk of jumping the gun, I think Belt’s going to be playing in Los Angeles tomorrow. And it’s not so much the tweet by Shea, but the fact that Travis Ishikawa is playing first base today and Belt isn’t even so much as in the lineup. He has bags to pack and a plane to catch; he’s probably headed to Hollywood.
I won’t get too much into the details on what this means for the roster. Except I do think this is a farewell game for the aforementioned Ishikawa. He’s an excellent defender, a great guy, and a decent bat off the bench – assuming he’s facing a right-handed pitcher. I’ll also never forget the walk he drew in the divisional series against the Braves that keyed a Giants comeback win. Without that walk, who knows, maybe they don’t win the World Series. But with Belt now in the fold and the incumbent Aubrey Huff, this renders Ishi a superfluous commodity, and frankly one that lacked a ton of utility to begin with.
Despite the Giants’ insistence that Belt would be given a chance to compete for the nod this spring, the news probably came as a huge surprise to many. That’s simply because Giants fans have been accustomed to their front office being cautious with young players in the past, if not a bit perplexing with them. But, when a 23-year-old rookie catcher carries your team to a division crown, pennant and World Series championship – especially with his July laser show – it tends to have a dramatic impact on your management philosophy – it probably really rocked the Giants’ front office.
Me? I’m really excited about the decision. As it turns out, my appetite for competent, cheap top hitting prospects simply cannot be slaked – the considerable gap between Will Clark and players like Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey will do that to a person. But beyond my biased, fanboy pleasure regarding this move, I have reasons to like it objectively.
There is something that gives me some reassurance in this decision, and there’s some chance it’s not what you’ve come to expect from a stats-centric blog such as this. Belt looks good. The decision seems scouting motivated, rather than by a monster spring catalyzed by a huge average on balls in play (BABiP) – so no, Huff won’t hit .369 this season. I’d have thought Belt would need to set the world on fire this spring to make the club; not so. He’s hitting .282/.338/.479 for an .817 OPS with three big flys. That’s decent, but it’s certainly not great. In fact, it’s not good for a first baseman.
The Giants must really like what they’ve seen – or, I guess an argument can be made that they’ve really not liked what they’ve seen from DeRosa, Schierholtz and Rowand. But I think it’s more likely the former. Belt’s probably shown Bochy, Sabean and the player development staff that he can: 1) hit 2) field and 3) run. He’s said to be an excellent base runner; he’s probably proved that. He’s said to be a plus fielder; he’s probably proved that. He’s said to have an excellent eye, excellent plate discipline and an ability to hit the ball with authority from pole to pole; he’s probably proved that. So oddly, the fact that his stats aren’t all that impressive is actually a comfort to me. He stands to provide value… beyond the box score.
Another one is definitely not the major league equivalent (MLE) – which has also been park-adjusted – for Brandon Belt, as provided by this newly rolled out site (a creation of one of my Hardball Times colleagues). The MLE* says his 2010 would have looked like this in San Francisco: .298/.392/.497. I’m not hanging my bells on that, but boy is it nice. Besides, I’m more expecting an Ike Davis type of rookie performance – he would have been in the Rookie of the year discussion if not for stats-greedy buggers like Posey and Jason Heyward – with excellent defense and a slash line of .264/.351/.440 and 19 home runs. That, I’ll take.
*UPDATE: The MLE was far too optimistic, which should have been expected given its audaciousness. The actual MLE slash line should be .244/.329/.406. If you chose to allow it to further your optimism, shame on you; I told you not to. That’ll curb your enthusiasm some.
But another reason is the Giants’ brutal stretch to open the season. They’ll play 22 of 31 on the road to open the season. In what I think we’ll be a tight division with slightly less talented Dodgers and Rockies teams when compared to the Giants – not to mention a still-competitive Padres squad, in my opinion – a few bad breaks here and there, an injury or two or a woeful string of losses (a la Padres 2010), could cost a team the division. If the Giants believe Belt is ready and, when inserted into the lineup, is their best team possible right now, he should absolutely be on the roster from day one.
My last point is that financial considerations should be secondary. If the Giants felt they were nearly as good with Belt than without, it might make sense to stash him for a few weeks. But if they believe there’s a measurable difference, a difference that might cost them even a single win, giving him the honor on Opening Day is the right decision. You can’t make baseball decisions that might not affect you for another four or five seasons, not when a playoff spot hangs in the balance. What’s more, the Giants have a $120 million payroll; they’re not exactly the Tampa Bay Rays or Pittsburg Pirates.
But my personal endorsement of this decision doesn’t come without pause. Fellow writer on this space, Otis Anderson, summed up the hesitation perfectly: “maybe expectations are too high right now for a guy who has one year of professional experience and one year with his current swing mechanics.” Indeed. The former I’m not particularly worried about, though it does carry some concern; he was a college hitter first so his development was, in theory, further along when he arrived. Sometimes a polished college hitter can blast through the minors in a season or less.
But the latter of Otis’ thoughts does carry some weight, and a polished college hitter Belt was not. He had virtually no power in college. So, despite his solid plate discipline, he was available in the fifth round. As soon as the Giants got their hands on him, they lifted his hands, got him more upright and opened up his stance, allowing him to add extra leverage to his swing and increase his bat speed, thereby shoring up some of his holes. With that, he rip-roared through the minors – there’s no need to provide his counting stats, slash lines and such across three levels for the zillionth time.
But if there’s one thing we about major league pitching versus minor league pitching, it’s this: it’s better. Well, that’s obviously simplistic but it’s true. The “stuff” is better and the pitches are nastier, sure. But the real difference is control and repeatability. The third starter for the Phillies, heck, even the third starter for the Royals – well, maybe not the Royals but you get the idea – can and will attack a hitters holes with much greater skill than they will in Triple-A. They do a better job of it in Triple-A than Double-A, and on down the line. And it’s probably worth noting that Belt did the majority of his damage in San Jose (Advanced-A) and Richmond (Double-A) last season.
Every hitter has holes – even Albert Pujols. So what the league will be doing over the course of the season is trying to determine exactly where Belt’s are, and exploiting those that are most glaring on a nightly basis. His ability (or inability) to make adjustments will determine his success (or failure) at the major league level. And the worry is that, given the fact that Belt’s swing is so young having been revamped completely just 12 months ago, he simply won’t know it well enough to make those adjustments. It’s a legitimate concern.
But I guess the best way to figure that out might be to stick the kid at first base tomorrow against the Dodgers, versus sending him to Fresno to beat up on the Triple-A pitchers of the Pacific Coast League.
Personally, I like the move. I’m of the belief that you should field your best team possible, that it was refreshing when Heyward make the Opening Day roster of the Braves last season. With the Giants’ schedule over the first month, they need all the help they can get. They say you can’t win a division in April, but you can lose one. That’s probably an overused statement in baseball, but it might be even a little more true when 22 of your first 31 contests will be away from gorgeous AT&T.
And if the kid struggles, they have recourse; they can send him back to Triple-A to regain his confidence. That’s why they have minor-league options. If he is struggling, the activating of a healed Cody Ross will give them the perfect opportunity to do so. The Giants will still be well-covered at first base with Huff, Sandoval, and Mark DeRosa all being able to play the position. And the derivative consideration – keeping him under team control for an extra year – will still be met.
I don’t see his confidence somehow being shattered; I don’t think you can ruin a hitter by allowing him to fail. If it comes to pass, he’ll head to the minors, knock the ball around the park and be back in a month… and the Giants will likely (finally) be able to cut ties with Centerfielder Rowand. And hopefully, another rookie will bolster their chances of success for the stretch run. Maybe he’ll even win a Rookie of the Year award in the process. That’d be something.
It’s official… and I won’t need to eat my shoe.