Friday, September 3, 2010

Below the Belt?

Bryan Smith of Fangraphs recently wrote a piece on Brandon Belt just after he was promoted for the second time this season – this time to AAA Fresno. The writing was informative, and overall it was flattering towards Brandon Belt, until within his conclusion he dropped the (apparent) bomb: “Brandon Belt isn’t a future star, but he’s a reason for the Giants to re-consider paying Aubrey Huff for his big season.” Outrage from the commentors – and no doubt many of them Giants fans – ensued.

I don’t quite understand why this was so offensive to many. Whatever Bryan Smith, or Keith Law or Jim Callis thinks, essentially means nothing when all is said and done. Their job is to make broad assumptions on the informatin they have – the mechanics of the swing, the track record of skills, and the makeup of the player. Their job certainly isn’t to predict the future. The other issue is that the term “star” is relatively subjective, and, Bryan mentioned in the comments that his use of star in this case was a top-3 player in the league at his position. Well, the NL has Price Fielder, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez and Joey Votto. The NL also currently has Adam Dunn. Is Belt going to be good as these guys? Is he going to be close? I really have no idea, but I know the odds are stacked against him. Waterworld had $175 million reasons to succeed, and Clerks just $27 thousand. The point is, you never really know until they get to “The Show.”

Here’s what we actually know. In Belt’s professional debut which begain in A-Advanced, he hit .383 with a .492 on base percentage and .628 slugging percentage. He also only stuck out 50 times while walking 58 times. He hit 28 doubles, 4 triples and 10 HR of 333 plater appearances. He was considered slightly young for this level but less so considering he came from the NCAA. Belt moved up to AA where he joined essentially the California League Champions of 2009, where the Giants were hoping he would avoid the same fate of Brandon Crawford. Many standouts and legitimate prospects from the Cal League champs who had moved up a level – Neal, Ford and Kieschnick – had struggled mightily there. Belt took the challenge and hit .337 with a .413 on base percentage and a .623 slugging percentage. He also hit 11 doubles, 6 triples and 9 HR in just 201 plate appearances. His BB/KK ratio took a slight hit but was still solid with 22 walks and 34 strikeouts. The Giants flipped him to AAA Fresno about a week ago and thus far he’s stepped up to the challenge. In the admittedly tiny sample of 39 plate appearances, Belt has already hit 3 HR and 2 doubles. He’s thus far hit .276 with an on base percentage of .462 – thanks to already drawing 10 walks – and a slugging percentage of .655. His strikeout rate has certainly increased as he has ascended, but not alarmingly so.

There are two factors that I believe might be most important in all of this. First off, Belt has been younger than average at every level this year. That’s important because a collegiate hitter or an older player beating up on lower level pitchers just isn’t that impressive, as Rob Neyer pointed out in lieu of Brandon Wood’s scheduled trip to the Arizona Fall League. Secondly, the Giants completely revamped Belt’s swing prior to setting him loose in San Jose this year. The fact that he’s been so consistent and put up such ridiculous numbers while also trying to figure out the new Brandon Belt in the box is remarkable.
The Giants know that Jose Guillen is one speed bump away from a full blown blowout. They also obviously have the greatest feel among those who care for what Belt’s capable of, considering all of the scouting they did of him both prior to taking him in the fifth round last year out of the University of Texas and across three levels this year. He’s played 8 games thus far in Fresno, 5 of which he spent in the outfield (and 4 in right). If they didn’t feel there was some possibility he could help this year, why would they do that? Maybe he’s just a plan B in case of injury, but to say that there is a strong likelihood that a third straight homegrown hitting prospect will soon be contributing significantly in San Fran after years and years of disappointment has me properly stoked would be a gross understatement.

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