As I touched on in yesterday’s analysis, one of the biggest issues fans have with the Giants’ 11-22 start is the lack of production from the teams highest priced players. Heading into 2018, the Giants will owe Buster Posey $22.1 million, Hunter Pence $18.5 million, Brandon Belt $17.2 million, Brandon Crawford $15.2 million, and Denard Span $11 million. That’s $84 million next season (more than 4 MLB teams) for a group of 5 players that have combined to hit .265 with 10 homeruns and 42 RBIs through 32 games before tonight. To expose just how poor this production is, Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman has 13 homeruns and 34 RBIs all by himself in 334 fewer at-bats. Clearly, the fans’ cause for concern is entirely valid as the Giants are completely tied up financially, having already committed an MLB-high $137.8 million for 9 players next season (excludes Cueto’s salary assuming he opts out of his current deal).
GM Bobby Evans stated as recently as May 4th that the Giants will be buyers are the deadline. Before I get into what this entails, let me address the “Fire Bobby Evans” notion that seems to be rapidly spreading across Giants nation. Despite the somewhat newly acquired job title, Bobby Evans does not have sole control of decision-making in the Giants organization. While former GM and current Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Brian Sabean has shifted his role to focus on international scouting, I can assure you he still plays a prominent role in each and every roster move the Giants make. When the new roles for Evans and Sabean were announced back in 2015, it was made clear that “he (Sabean) and Baer would still have the power to OK or veto decisions made by the front office” and that “Sabean would still oversee the baseball department…” Giants CEO Larry Baer further cemented the decision-making process in stating that “all baseball people will continue to report to Sabean.”
For whatever reason, the Giants fan-base placed sole-responsibility for the Giants start on the shoulders of Bobby Evans. Does he have a say? Absolutely. But in no way is this Evans ship to operate – everything still runs through Sabean. Having said that, I often wonder what Giants fans expect. As I addressed in the offseason (discussed here), Giants fans’ expectation to be the only franchise in professional sports to be immune to rebuild is a byproduct of the dominance the Giants have demonstrated until this point. Nobody stays on top for an extended period of time – just look at the Kansas City Royals and the St. Louis Cardinals. And for fans to suddenly disregard 6 years of dominance and 16-seasons of competitive baseball for a brutal 30-game start is a little overboard.
Do fans have the right to be upset considering the current state of the franchise? Of course they do. But is it also out of the realm of possibility that Posey mixes in some power from here on out, and Pence/Belt/Crawford get back on track to being productive hitters to compliment Panik and Arroyo? It doesn’t seem too far-fetched for me, and based on their track record, I would bet it’s more likely than not.
As I have attempted to stress throughout Straight 108’s existence, I always try to pose solutions to issues that are based on experience, as opposed to opinions and hypotheticals that are a staple amongst other media outlets. In the last couple weeks, Straight 108 has centered on issues facing the Giants such as lineup inefficiencies (here), Buster Posey’s decline in power production (here), Hunter Pence’s offensive decline (here), the Giants’ effort level (here), and the underlying reason for their brutal offensive start to the season (here). In choosing areas to analyze, I always try to do my best to expose things that aren’t typically exposed. As a longtime player and coach, I’ve been fortunate to develop two lenses that allow me to see the game in a different light.
When I retired from professional baseball in 2009, the concept of swing analysis for hitters was a fairly new. I remember coming to Spring Training in 2006 with the Blue Jays and watching a couple of sales reps give our baseball operations department their pitch on a new video analysis system. However even at that time, video was utilized mainly for pitchers. Towards the end of my career in the minors, video started to finally catch on, and became a full-blown epidemic once I hit the college-circuit in 2010. As the technology became more and more efficient, the benefit of swing analysis became greater, and transformed into a staple in my career as a college hitting coach. To this day, I have thousands of videos of players’ at-bats who as a byproduct, were not only able to evaluate their own swing quickly after their at-bat, they were able to see progress and development overtime (in this case, 4 years).
That ability to analyze constant progress overtime has continued to stick with me as a fan, and is what triggered my analysis on the evolving swing of Buster Posey.
In my experience, one of the greatest benefits of video analysis is that it helps capture inefficiencies in the swing. With 66 pitchers in Major League baseball averaging a fastball velocity of at least 95 MPH, a hitters room for error is at an all-time low. When addressing how swing inefficiencies or flaws pertains to the Giants, it brings up the issue of inconsistency and more specifically, the prevalence of slumps. When you look at hitters like Buster Posey and Joe Panik, their swings are almost slump-proof as they pair excellent hand-eye coordination with efficient swings. Brandon Belt, on the other hand, is a prime example of a hitter who is constantly either red-hot or ice cold. 2016 was a perfect illustration of this as Belt hit .300 in April, .280 in May, .320 in June, .226 in July, .237 in August, and .284 in September. For comparison, in 2015 (his last healthy full-season), Joe Panik hit .280 in April, .314 in May, .333 in June, .294 in July, .400 in August, and .429 in September. Obviously, Panik clearly didn’t have many slumps in 2015, but it’s important to note the consistency from month to month.
Even if we look at Belt’s career numbers (which you would assume to have more consistency from month-to-month), Belt hits .273 in June, .232 in July, and .295 in August. According to Baseball-Reference, Buster Posey doesn’t have a single month with a batting average differential greater than 19 points – again a model of consistency.
As a hitting coach, the ebbs and flows that a player like Brandon Belt has year after year suggests a hitter who is constantly fighting a swing. Taller hitters in particular have high-maintenance swings due to the holes that their length creates, which means they’re constantly having to tinker based on how the scouting report is dictating the opposing pitcher to attack them. For those who have watched the Giants this season, the best picture I can draw is of Michael Morse (despite being a behemoth of a man), unable to hit an inside fastball. He’s simply too big with arms that are too long to allow him to get the barrel of the bat to cover the inside part of the plate consistently. At 6’5”, Brandon Belt is much the same mold, except his phenomenal plate discipline and hand-eye coordination allow him to excel in areas that taller players typically don’t. This season, I’m hearing a lot about the Yankees Aaron Judge, but I would caution people to label him as the exception this early – pitchers WILL find a hole in his swing, and being 6’7” and 280 pounds will likely make it difficult for him to consistently make the right adjustment to how he’s being pitched. I’m not saying he can’t do it at all, I’m suggesting that the consistency will be the issue.
So back to Belt – there’s a couple of glaring swing inefficiencies that Belt incorporates every time he comes to bat, which I will do my best to translate. Trust me, all of the stuff I will cover, Brandon Belt knows – the problem is that his body works a specific way with specific limitations. As it pertains to many of the issues I bring up, it very well could be that Brandon simply isn’t able to make the adjustment so he implements other mechanics to mask the swing flaw. My hope in doing this is not to make people dislike Brandon Belt, instead it’s an attempt to expose not only how difficult hitting is, but also what makes rare hitters like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols who have stayed ahead of the curve for so long, so special.
Let me start by stating that I’m a big believer in the simplification of the swing when things start to go poorly. The first area I address is the set-up (or stance). If a hitter is not comfortable and balanced to start, it is unlikely that they’ll be able to get balanced in the middle of their swing. For those well-versed in sport, I equate a set-up with the universal athletic position. This would be the defensive position in basketball, or preparing to return a serve in tennis. The universal athletic position establishes a sound foundation that is both balanced and relaxed.
When we look at Belt, the first thing I notice is how offset his body is. His chest, beltline, and knees are all pointed back towards the catcher. When we split-frame him with Bryce Harper, you see how much more square to the plate and pitcher Harper is.
Ordinarily, this would be okay had Belt’s setup also served as his negative movement (think the backwards movement needed to prepare to throw a punch), but Belt’s hands continue to travel backwards and ultimately wrap behind him, as seen below.
The importance thing to notice here (both photos are stopped in the same phase of the swing – where their front toe connects with the ground following their stride), is how much further the knob of Belt bat is over his back food. As a reference point, the knob (bottom) of the bat should never extend further than the back foot, as seen in the photo of Bryce Harper. The further the hands get away from the body, the more you have to incorporate the bigger muscles to compensate for the added motion. In a hitter’s case, the bigger muscles that take over are the shoulders, and the minute the shoulders swing the bat, you create what is known as a “long” swing. Long swings essentially are those that are powerful, but take too long for the barrel to travel into the hitting zone, thus making the hitter vulnerable to high velocity fastballs, and any pitch on the inside part of the plate. Sounds familiar?
The second thing to notice in this picture is the over-rotation of Belt’s upper half during his negative movement. While this rotation does in theory generate torque and tension to swing harder, the entire front side is now forced to spin off the ball in order to settle the barrel of the bat in the proper hitting zone, thus eliminating any balance, rhythm, or consistent timing that may have occurred otherwise. In Harper’s swing, he is completely square to the pitcher. Also note the weight distribution between the two. If you draw a vertical line through Belt’s midline, everything from about his rib cage up would be behind the line. As for Harper, he has a much more balanced, even split – likely about 60-40 on the backside, a picture perfect ratio to generate momentum from the backside through the front.
Perhaps most critical in this photo, is to look at what the foundation does to the eyes. Harper maintains balance and athleticism throughout, and therefore is able to keep a level head and both eyes on the pitcher. Due to severe overwrapping, Belt’s chin is pointed towards 3rd base (as opposed to the pitcher), suggesting he isn’t maximizing his ability to see the ball.
If we move one step forward in the swing to the contact point, we see another big discrepancy in what it looks like to have a strong foundation. Unlike Harper, Belt is unable to maintain a strong posture throughout his swing mainly due to the fact that he never had a strong, athletic foundation to begin with. As a result of all the moving parts and excess motion, Belt compensates to get to contact, rather than explodes through contact. As you see from the photo, his lower half has not fired at contact, meaning he is not in a strong position to provide power and resistance to redirect the ball with his bat. If you look at his belt line, you can see Belt’s belt buckle, whereas Harper’s is directly facing the pitcher. To put the difference between the two in a different light, imagine punching a punching bag with all your might, once with the midline closed (or slanted inward for right-handers) versus making contact with the bag with your midline pointed directly at your target. I can assure you the impact will be significantly greater if the momentum you have generated in the first half of your swing, is then fully transferred to the impact point, versus being somewhat cutoff.
As a result of this, Belt is unable to maximize his leg drive, standing mostly upright at his point of contact. Harper, on the other hand, has formed nearly a 90 degree angle with his back leg, a common characteristic of players who consistently drive the ball. It’s important to note that both balls hit went over 450 feet – Belt’s in Colorado to centerfield, and Harper’s in New York to right. This shows how strong Belt is – he’s able to drive the ball despite his inefficient mechanics. But this is where his inconsistency stems from – without an athletic base, the ability to consistently repeat a violent swing is close to impossible.
As we touched on previously, Belt’s excess movement causes other swing inefficiencies including altering his eye-level. Ideally, a hitter wants to maintain an even eye-level throughout the swing with the only movement occurring on a horizontal plane during the negative movement/load and the stride. As you see from Belt (another at-bat with a homerun result), his eye’s work on 3 different planes, and incredibly difficult thing to compensate for as the ball is in flight. The first photo marks his eye-level at setup (white line). The second photo tracks his eye level (blue) on his negative movement/leg-kick. The third photo (yellow) tracks his eye level at contact. If we compare this to Diamondbacks power-hitting lefty Jake Lamb, you see that he works on 2 planes, and both working very close together.
The lesson here, is simple – the more your eyes are settled, the easier it is to see the ball. The earlier you pick up ball spin and angle, the easier it is to hit it. Simple principles, but one’s that aren’t as easy to abide by when compensating for inefficiencies that exist in your approach to the ball.
As someone who has worked with college and professional hitters for a long time, it isn’t as easy as understanding flaws and implementing a solution. Hitters like Belt have hit the same way for years and have been extremely successful in doing so. Telling Belt to alter his setup to be more square changes the entire way the swing works. Does this mean that what you see is what you get with Belt? Possibly. But I can assure you he’s constantly tinkering with things that can help him get into a better hitting position.
Is it fair to compare Brandon Belt with Bryce Harper? Probably not, but Harper provides such a phenomenal example of balance, control, and violence that it’s important to show what the swing looks like when done flawlessly.
Again, my purpose here is not to criticize Brandon Belt as he’s been one of the Giants better offensive players going back to last season. But at Straight 108, part of the importance of what I try to get across is the reason for struggles based on concrete evidence, not speculation. So much of what I’ve heard over the past couple of weeks revolves around Belt’s inconsistencies and the thought for the Giants to part ways with him. I’m not trying to provide reason to keep him or let him walk – instead I’m hoping through this analysis to help people understand why these inconsistencies that people talk about, exist – and what would need to happen in order for them to fixed.
Every hitter in the big leagues has issues with their swing that they’re constantly trying to adjust to. Not a single hitter, Mike Trout or Bryce Harper included, can cover every pitch at every velocity in every location, consistently. And therein lies the beauty of hitting. It’s a skill that nobody in the past, present, or future of this game will ever master. The best players in the world fail over 65% of the time, but being able to help players understand where their inefficiencies lie is critical to their overall development.