In a recent phone interview with NBC Sports Bay Area, Giants 1st baseman Brandon Belt acknowledged that he is still dealing with concussion-related symptoms due to being hit in the head with a pitch back on August 4th, and as a result, will likely be shut down for the season. Belt has been the subject of fan scrutiny for years, combining enormous potential with inconsistency. Many fans have gone as far to say that the Giants would be better off trading Belt, suggesting an unproven prospect or two could provide more impact for the team over the long-haul.
For those who have read my articles this season, you know that I don’t make statements based on opinions – instead I do my best to back up claims based on concrete facts and/or personal experience that is grounded within my 16 years in college and professional baseball. Evaluating a player like Brandon Belt by looking at box scores and basic stat lines doesn’t adequately assess his value. He has proven over the course of his 7-year career to be one of the more impactful hitters in the National League despite playing at an EXTREME discount for the first 7 years of his career (he’s averaged $3.03 million per season through 2017). It’s why the Giants have always and will continue to back Belt, and why he’ll be an integral part of either the rebuild or reload that will take place in the offseason.
Through 104 games this season, Brandon Belt was hitting .241 with 18 homeruns and 51 RBIs. He is in the 2nd year of a 5 year, $72.8 million extension, which will pay him $17.2 million through the 2021 season. The way I see it, Belt and his contract are an easy target – the Giants are the worst team in baseball, Belt has “underperformed” (according to fans), he’ll have missed 58 games due to injury, and is now due a salary increase of $13.2 million. While there is merit to some of the concern, Brandon Belt is a very good all-around baseball player, and given the fan backlash from “letting Adam Duvall walk out the door,” I’m surprised that fans would be so quick to rid themselves of a hitter who has proven to be one of the best 1st baseman in the National League since he came up to the Big Leagues in 2012.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about covering the Giants in my 1st full season, it’s that fans aren’t easily convinced of anything they don’t already believe or suspect. So many fans are frustrated by Belt’s performance, but let’s take a look at reality…
Belt’s 2017 season, when projected over 162 games, would have equated to a .241 batting average with 28 homeruns and 80 RBIs (and that’s assuming he didn’t catch onto one of his typical late-season hot-streaks). Using the 2016 season as a reference-point (to provide a full-season comparison), how many players in the entire National League had 28+ homeruns and 80+RBIs? That would be 15. Justin Turner didn’t do it, Giancarlo Stanton didn’t do it, Daniel Murphy didn’t do it, Bryce Harper didn’t do it, Andrew McCutcheon didn’t do it, and Paul Goldschmidt didn’t do it. Some had more RBI’s and some had more homeruns, but the fact remains that these 6 players who are widely accepted to be among baseball’s elite hitters didn’t accomplish last season, what Belt was on track for this season.
Furthermore, since AT&T Park opened in 2000, no Giants aside from Barry Bonds, Rich Aurelia, and Jeff Kent have put together a season with 28 homeruns and 80 RBIs.
Don’t get me wrong – I fully understand that Belt didn’t reach (nor has he ever reached) his projection due to injury, but considering the amount of scrutiny Belt was under all season despite performing at a high-level, was perhaps unwarranted.
Contrary to popular belief, Belt’s career track record is even more impressive. Since he became a full-time 1st baseman back in 2012, Belt ranks not only amongst top offensive 1st baseman in the National League, he ranks amongst the best hitters in all of baseball, period.
FanGraphs, who does an excellent job measuring baseball performance using advanced statistical data, recently expanded on Bill James’ concept of “runs created” to formulate a comprehensive performance metric which they refer to as weighted runs created plus, or wRC+. wRC+ is defined by FanGraphs as “a rate statistic which attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each outcome (single, double, etc) rather than treating all hits or times on base equally, while also controlling for park effects and the current run environment. wRC+ is scaled so that league average is 100 each year and every point above or below 100 is equal to one percentage point better or worse than league average. This makes wRC+ a better representation of offensive value than batting average, RBI, OPS, or wOBA.” While wRC+ is far from exact, it provides us with a better idea as to how players perform relative to the rest of the league, while also accounting for AT&T Park (which Giants fans know plays an enormous role on offensive performance).
In 2017, Belt’s wRC+ of 119 puts him 29th best in the entire National League. That mark is one spot below Jay Bruce (29 homeruns), and ahead of Andrew McCutcheon (23 HR, 75 RBI), Christian Yelich (.287 BA, 16 HR, 72 RBI), Jake Lamb (27 HR, 97 RBI), Wil Myers (25 HR), and you guessed it – Adam Duvall (31 HR, 94 RBI).
Since 2012, Belt’s wRC+ of 129 is 29th best of all Major League hitters, ahead of players like Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, and Hanley Ramirez.
I know what many of you are saying – there’s no way Belt is as good as the players he’s listed ahead of. But therein lies my point – that Belt’s performance is undervalued and underappreciated based on what he does well for the Giants and in AT&T Park. The fact remains that Belt, despite missing the last 31 games, still leads the team in homeruns by 6, and the 28 that he was on pace for, would have been the most hit by a Giant in a single season since Barry Bonds hit 45 in 2004.
Baseball-Reference, another excellent resource for data, has a statistic called “neutralized batting” in which a players’ performance is converted from their park (AT&T) and league (NL), into a neutral setting. By this conversion alone, Belt’s 2017 numbers would be a .251 batting average, 19 homeruns, and 56 RBIs. For his career, Belt’s neutralized stat line would sport a .290 batting average, .383 on-base percentage, and .497 slugging percentage.
If these numbers tell us anything, it’s that Brandon Belt is a very good Major League hitter who has proven to be effective despite playing at AT&T Park. Fans can complain all they want about Belt’s production, but that goes both ways. To assume that Adam Duvall would be the same hitter at AT&T Park now as he is in Cincinnati, is crazy. AT&T Park by itself, is an equalizer. Outside of bringing in a Giancarlo Stanton (who I’ve discussed in depth as the only option for the Giants outside of a rebuild), nobody brings the same level of production into AT&T Park, regardless as to where they were before (see Hunter Pence, Denard Span).
I’m not saying that Brandon Belt is a flawless player. But what I am suggesting, is that he’s proven to be a very successful player when evaluated fairly and accurately. I understand that by nature, fans have a “grass is always greener” mentality, but given the Giants’ horrific offensive production over the last two seasons, it may be about time to appreciate Belt for what he is and what he can become versus an apples-to-oranges comparison of what fans want him to be.