Belt is aggressive right now, maybe overly aggressive. He swings first and asks questions later. Or in this case, answers questions. How’s the new approach working out for you, Brandon?
“I’d rather be overaggressive and have to back off than be too passive,” Belt said. “Even today, I was a little bit too aggressive. That last at-bat, I swung at a ball – it happens.”
That’s from Pavlov’s Blog — I know, cute — on Brandon Belt and his new approach this year.
Brandon Belt’s merits have been debated at length on this blog and many others on the Internet. He struggled at times last season, but it was pretty clear that the Giants really didn’t have any idea how to handle the young hitter; and, I think it was pretty clear that the team could have handled things much better.
A couple of heat maps courtesy of ESPN’s Stats & Info.
The first heat map is Brandon Belt’s swing rate.
This mirrors some of the early plots that I looked at when Brandon Belt first came up. He rarely swung outside of the zone last year. In this heat map, you can easily see the large red grouping in the heart of the zone. That red blob looking thing contains Belt’s highest percentage of swings. As far as hitters go — according to the FanGraphs’ plate discipline statistic – Brandon Belt’s swing rate was a couple of points within league average. His swing percentage (49.2%) puts him amongst hitters like Adrian Gonzalez (49.2%), Starlin Castro (49.2%), and Mike Carp (49.3%).
The second heat map is Brandon Belt’s contact rate versus all pitches and versus the “soft stuff” (curves, changes, breaking pitches).
This one — largely the second panel — pleases me as well. I theorized back in September that one of Belt’s biggest issues in his 2011 campaign was his performance against breaking pitches — specifically ones that were thrown at a down-and-in location.
Belt has swung at 65 breaking pitches in 2011 (pitches that are classified as either sliders or curves by the PFX classification algorithm), and of those 65 swings, he’s missed a total of 22 times for a 33.8% whiff-rate (misses/swings). According to this excellent benchmark article by Harry Pavladis, the average whiff-rate for breaking pitches tends to be around 30% by Harry’s grouping standard. So, while Belt isn’t totally out of sorts against curveballs and sliders, he’s missing more than your average hitter.
In the first panel you can see Belt’s contact rate against all pitch types. Very normal looking, as far as I can tell. In the second panel, you get a reiteration of what I was talking about in September; Belt struggled at making contact against down-and-in breaking stuff. I think the biggest question I can think of is: “Is Belt’s struggles against the down-and-in breaking pitch a byproduct of jumbled playing time and league experience or is Belt being too passive with that pitch?”
I liked that the Giants sent Belt to the winter leagues this past offseason. In theory, it should be a breaking ball oriented league. I also think it’s entirely possible that Belt just needs more time against breaking pitches. More time to get comfortable. More time to “see” the pitch. More time to get a read on the league. I think the Giants need Belt this year, and they’re going to need him badly. We’ve all seen the projections. The team, as currently constructed, needs a high on-base player with power like Belt in the worst way. The outfield, while defensively inclined, looks like one of the worst hitting outfields in the game. The infield is littered with question marks. (Will Brandon Crawford hit enough? Will Freddy Sanchez be healthy enough? How long will the Giants go with Huff, and will he be an asset?)
All those things said, I also still recognize that Belt only has 273 career plate appearances in Triple-A Fresno. Starting the year in Fresno, garnering another 250 PAs, and then returning to the majors by mid-season, if not a little earlier, wouldn’t be an Apocalypse scenario. At the moment, everything coming from Giants’ camp indicates that Belt will start in Fresno.
However, I also tend to think that the Giants are confusing the issue with Belt. He’s really not overly ‘passive’. He’s actually a few points over the league average swing rate. To me, Belt appears to be selectively passive — rarely going outside of the strike zone — and I generally have a hard time finding a problem with that. The Giants obviously place a huge premium on things like contact rate and batting average, but Belt could very well be a player that’s going to a .270-batter in the majors. In the best case scenario that .270 batting average would be accompanied with an above-average on-base percentage and power.
Making Belt a more aggressive hitter — whatever that might mean — is an interesting science experiment. But the Giants might have to accept that Belt isn’t going to be a high average batter, and that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker when it comes to the young prospect.