Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Believing In Brandon Belt

Friend of Off Base and talented writer, Julian Levine of Splashing Pumpkins, and I shared a pre-season prediction about Brandon Belt winning the National League Rookie of the Year. But after some early hiccups, Julian had to swing by to remind me not to give up on Belt. Here's the guest post.

Coming into 2011, Brandon Belt hype was at an all-time high. And, well, why wouldn't it be? The 2009 fifth-round pick had rocketed himself into top prospect status, hitting .352/.455/.620 across three levels of the minors in his first professional season. Belt was the real deal. A guy who combined astounding plate discipline with solid power, gold glove potential at first, a strong arm, and acute baserunning skills.

I myself had immediately fallen in love with Belt for one particular reason: his on-base abilities. Over the last three seasons, the San Francisco Giants had ranked 21st, 30th, and 28th in the majors in BB%, so it was refreshing to see a guy who could draw walks.

Anyway, everything with respect to Belt looked good entering the season. He had ranked 23rd in Baseball America's top 100 prospects list, and Keith Law had him at 17th overall. Dan Szymborski had released his 2011 Giants ZiPS projections on January 4, and Belt was forecasted to hit .266/.357/.440 as a rookie. Not too shabby. And of course, in Spring Training, Belt began where he'd left off -- posting a .282/.338/.479 slash line over 72 at-bats.

He looked ready for the majors, but few expected him to start the year there. Service time issues and a crowded roster would most likely leave him starting the year in Triple-A Fresno. That was, until Cody Ross suffered a calf injury that put him on the Disabled List to start the season. Belt would enter 2011 as the Giants' starting first baseman. I was excited.

But things didn't go so well. In 52 at-bats, he struck out 13 times, and he seemed to be hitting the ball on the ground too much (22 GB/13 FB). The plate discipline was there (eight walks in 60 PAs), but Belt just seemed too passive at the plate, and the consensus among scouts was that he needed more seasoning:

He needs more time in the minor leagues. Pitchers are disrupting his timing. He isn’t confident up there. He still has terrific plate discipline, but we all know rookies cannot always count on getting the borderline calls from umpires.

So when Cody Ross was activated from the DL on April 20, Belt was optioned to Triple-A. Where he promptly returned to raking. In his second Triple-A stint, Belt OPS'd .994 over 132 PAs; and in the wake of the notorious Buster Posey collision, Belt received a call-up.

Of course, as luck would have it, Belt landed on the Disabled List just two games into his second run at the majors, as a hit-by-pitch left a small fracture in his left wrist.

The latest update has Belt returning within two weeks. From what I've seen, he's not an adequate defensive left-fielder, and with Aubrey Huff heating up (OPSing over .900 in the month of June), Belt will have to fight for playing time at first. But I still can't wait to see what he does.

At the beginning of the year, I had Brandon Belt winning the 2011 Rookie of the Year. In retrospect, that prediction looks rather ridiculous -- as we all know ROY awards are built for RBI machines, not on-base machines (just ask Jason Heyward). Nevertheless, my expectations remain high. Belt will get on base. He won't be a slugger, but he should be able to hit as many as 20 home runs over the course of a full season. And he's still got that plus glove at first base.

Over the past few years, the Giants have developed some pretty nice homegrown talent -- Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, and Pablo Sandoval to name a few. And though things haven't gone well so far this year for Belt, the Giants seem to have developed yet another gem to add to their collection.

Thanks Julian. You can read more of his work at Splashing Pumpkins, Beyond the Boxscore and MLB Daily Dish. He's busy. You can also follow him on Twitter @SPGiantsBlog.

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