In case you have not noticed, the Giants haven’t given me much to write about lately. And that’s fine, by the way, because the World Series championship is doing a pretty great job keeping me content. A while back, I wrote a post advocating my wish for the Giants to allow Huff to walk, to give Belt the opening at first base, and to use the money saved to upgrade in left field. The Giants didn’t take my advice and for the record, I’m fine with it. But what the Giants did do was openly admit they have high-hopes for the kid and see him as an impact player. They even went as far as to say that he’ll be given the opportunity, in the spring, to earn an opening day spot in the lineup. If he can’t justify an everyday job, he’ll head to Fresno. So it figures that Mr. Belt will either be playing first or left field in 2011 on Opening Day, or in Triple-A. Let’s explore that a bit here.
I recently emailed Adam Foster over at Project Prospect who had a chance to see Belt play – and play well – in the Arizona Fall League. Adam recently came out with a list of their Top 25 Prospects. Much to my delight, Brandon Belt landed sixth on this list, which would have been unimaginable when he was drafted in the fifth round in 2009. I asked Adam his thoughts on whether or not Belt would have a pronounced platoon split – i.e. would he struggle versus left-handed pitching (LHP) – as well as if he’s ready to step in now, if his defense is plus at first, and whether or not he can handle left field. This is what he had to say:
“I think Belt will make some progress against quality lefties, but he'll do most of his damage against righties. He looked like an above-average defensive first baseman to me at the AFL; he moves around a lot better than you'd expect based on his body type. Strong arm. Good feel for the position. I wouldn't want him as my left fielder. He could play passable defense … but he probably wouldn't be an average defensive outfielder, due to his lack of speed…”
“I'd give Belt at least another half season of experience in the minors. He made a lot of swing mechanics adjustments last season and he may be able to learn even more in the right environment. I love his patience, strong wrists and opposite-field approach...” “Belt has more holes in his swing than Posey. Good fastballs inside can beat him, and like any hitter -- especially given that he's a lot more open than he used to be -- quality breaking balls on the outer half of the plate are going to be an area where he'll need to get comfortable.”
There are a couple of things in there that we’ll want to pay close attention to, stuff I have thoughts on. First of which would be his performance against LHP. This has to be a huge factor in his overall ceiling – or as Adam puts it, his Overall Future Potential (OFP). Those left-handed hitters who handle lefties are simply more valuable. If you look at a player like Chase Utley, he can play everyday and have an impact whether or not he’s facing C.C. Sabathia or Matt Cain. That’s important. While there are far fewer lefties and thus fewer plate appearances against them, a left-handed batter can really hurt his value by not hitting them well – see Curtis Granderson. If it’s to the point where they need to be benched against lefties – again, see Curtis Granderson – it’s obviously a problem. But also, it can be a huge factor in attacking that player’s weakness in high-leveraged, late-inning situations. I probably don’t have to explain to you why Ryan Howard’s growing gap between his skills versus lefties and righties is a concern, and how that had an impact on the 2010 NLCS. Simply put, if Belt can keep his platoon split to a minimum, he’ll be that much more valuable.
When he does crack the 25-man roster, where should he play? Adam has pretty much solidified my stance on this subject – Belt should play first. Look, I know that Huff looked pretty decent at first in 2010. I know that the Giants praised his defense there, and also that the defensive metrics available to us were complimentary to him. But we have about ten years worth of defensive metrics and scout opinions prior to that, and the consensus is far from flattering. Neither is going to be Carl Crawford in left, so you can forget that. And it seems clear that Belt has the chance to be a plus first baseman, or at least an above average one, whereas Huff stands to be about average at best there. I think this should be an easy choice, especially considering that’s where Belt’s future is almost certain to be. Then you live with Huff in left and hope he continues to hit.
That last subject I’d like to broach is his readiness. I’m on board with Adam here, more so than I was prior to this exchange. Adam makes a couple of points that I think stand worth repeating. 1) Belt has more holes in his swing than Posey, good fastballs on the inner-half can beat him, and he needs to work on soft-away stuff. And 2) he made a lot of swing mechanics adjustments in 2010 and may be able to learn more in the right environment. Boom goes the dynamite.
Both of these points go hand in hand. In order to truly blossom as a hitter, Belt needs to make those holes – and every hitter has them, it’s the size (and prevalence) that matters – as small and difficult to hit as possible. The smaller and fewer the holes, the more difficult it is for a pitcher to spork* that location. That’s the main difference between an A-ball pitcher, a Double-A pitcher, a Triple-A pitcher, a Big League pitcher, and an All-star pitcher. Sure, some of it has to do with stuff, but most of it has to do with the ability to command multiple quality pitches. Those that can only command one or two, even if they have great stuff, are usually relievers. Those that can command three – with good stuff – crack the rotation. Those that can command four become All-stars. As Belt graduates, the pitcher’s he faces will become more and more adept at exploiting his weaknesses – his holes. That’s why, when Belt went from A-advanced to AA, his strikeout rate went from 18.5% to 19.4%, and why it ballooned to 31.3% in AAA. And the 61 plate appearances he received in AAA – as well as around that many in the AFL, largely a hitter’s league – probably just aren’t enough for him to have already adjusted to the advancing skills of the pitcher’s he’s facing.
*Meaning: pinpoint, nail, and hammer-down. When you spork something, you knock it out of the park. I mean, you just really hit the bullseye. I think it works here, because it’s also a utensil that combines fork and spoon, an awesome invention that presents the best of both worlds. You can really dominate a lunch, if in a hurry, with a spork by getting both food and sauce in one bite, never missing a beat.
Here’s the thing, by all accounts Belt stands to be an outstanding hitter. But he’s a very young hitter. He spent most of his college career as a pitcher. He has one season as a professional hitter. And perhaps most importantly, he has just one season of at-bats with a completely re-built swing. I think the Giants would probably be wise to give him every chance to succeed, and the best way to do that is probably to be cautious with him. I don’t think it would ruin him to bring him to the big leagues right away, but I think there’s a decent chance it might stunt his development. I don’t know if he needs two weeks in Triple-A. I don’t know if he needs two months in Triple-A, or a full season for that matter. But I do feel comfortable in saying this: the best place for him to learn his swing, to learn to repeat it and make adjustments, is probably Triple-A; it’s probably not the National League where pitcher’s are so adept at attacking a hitter’s weakness, and where Ubaldo Jimenez and Mat Latos would love nothing more than to crush a young hitter’s confidence.
If I’ve somehow quashed your unbridled crush on Belt, here’s something that might shed a little more light on the subject – pun very much intended – from Adam:
Belt is “…one of the best hitters I saw this year…” and “… every scout I’ve talked to about him also sees him as being the real deal.” He’s “… going to be fun to watch.”
And quickly, if you’re wondering what my thoughts are on the Phillies’ projected rotation for 2011, and whether or not I think it’s now better than the Giants’, I think it should be pretty obvious. If not, here you go: the Phillies rotation is better. And before you lose it, and again remind me that the Giants beat basically all of them in their march to their World Series rings, stop. My stance has everything to do with an admiration of the rotation Ruben Amaro has amassed, and nothing to do with my thoughts on what the Giants have. Old jacket – AKA Otis Anderson, or vice versa – said it about right at Bay City Ball. Both are great rotations, but for 2011 and if in a pinch, I’d go with the one that has Halladay and Lee headlining.