As everyone milled around the clubhouse on an early April morning, still a few hours away from the last game of the Bay Bridge Series, Brandon Belt might has well have been Brad Pitt. Or Ed Norton. Or Sir Anthony Hopkins. Reporters slowly gathered around Belt as he sat in front of his locker. Then he stood, and many more quickly followed.
Have you heard anything, Brandon?
Belt didn’t smile. He didn’t look happy at all, just nervous. No, I haven’t heard anything.
Because Belt spoke in the way he always does to the media — that “aw shucks, I’m just really trying and hopin’ for the best” style — everyone believed him. Poor kid, he doesn’t even know he’s going to get cut. He even got swapped out of the starting lineup for Brett Pill. Bad sign, indeed. Don’t forget to fill up your tank on the way to Fresno, Brandon. Wouldn’t want you running out of gas and making this week even worse.
Thing is, Belt was hiding the most valued information of the day, deflecting questions like a Stanley Cup goalie. Bruce Bochy told us as much in the dugout less than an hour later. Bochy told Belt the night before in Oakland that he’d not only be on the team, he’d be the team’s starting first baseman on Opening Day.
While many fans would groan a few hours later, after Bochy said Belt and Pill would actually comprise a lefty/righty platoon at first base, Belt did start on Opening Day. And Belt started the next two games of a series that left Bochy about as angry as we’ve seen him.
The next day, an ominous Monday in Denver with Barry Zito poised to lead the Giants to an 0-4 record, Bochy dropped the news: Belt’s getting a mental health day. From Alex Pavlovic’s blog:
“We’re probably overstating this a little,” Bochy said of all the Benched Belt talk. “He’s getting a day. We wanted more speed in the outfield. It’s not like there’s any panic there.”
Bochy is well aware of the #FreeBelt movement and the fact that it would kick into high gear when the young first baseman was out of the lineup on the season’s fourth day. But Bochy and Belt (1 for 10 with 5 strikeouts in Arizona) talked before the skipper made the lineup, and Belt admitted that he was pressing.
“He was fighting it a little so we’ll give him a couple of days here, with the off day tomorrow,” Bochy said. “He was pressing a little bit but he wants to do what he can to help the club.
“When a hitter tells me he’s pressing, it’s time to probably give him a day. That’s natural for a young player early. They want to get off to a good start.”
See? What’d you get so worked up about? Just a day.
But Bochy reiterated that he will not yo-yo Belt in and out of the lineup. The talented first baseman will get every opportunity to settle in, the manager said. And he’ll be in the lineup Wednesday, after the entire team takes Tuesday off.
Belt wouldn’t start a single game in Colorado, collecting just two plate appearances (a groundout to first and a walk) in the middle of the middle game of the series — a 17-8 blowout win for the Rockies.
Fast-forward to this morning. Home Opener Friday, with sun overhead and clouds lurking perilously close to Mays Field. Belt, once again starting the game on the bench. Fans have gone from whining to yelling to mocking to shrugging. Bochy’s reached his limit:
“Guys sometimes dictate where they play,” Bochy said. “I’ll get him in there as much as I can.”
Bochy, grilled on Belt: “We’re trying to win ballgames. That’s our only priority. It’s not to get anybody ready.”
Anyone else think there’s more to this than the current narrative? For those who aren’t familiar with the #FreeBelt history most have agreed upon, here’s a brief recap:
#BeltProblems (what we think Belt’s thinking): the team jerks him around, in an out of the lineup, on and off the roster; too many people with too many adjustments for his swing and approach; his confidence has been crushed on several occasions, with the tragedy being that many players with similarly great minor league pedigrees are often given weeks and weeks to get right — but poor Belt usually gets about 10-15 plate appearances, max.
#BochyProblems (what we think Bochy’s thinking): it doesn’t show up in the minors or during the spring, but Belt’s got a hole in his swing that Major League pitchers attack ruthlessly during the games that matter, leading to an extremely high strikeout rate; the fans are way too interested in a kid who doesn’t know what it takes to be a Major Leaguer; the guy has no track record, and if he lets him struggle for weeks on end he’ll lose some of the veterans forever — and veterans control a clubhouse.
Based on the way Bochy seems to treat Belt differently than any other player, perhaps something else is going on in regards to their working relationship. Something beyond a 1-for-10 stretch with 5 strikeouts. Something happened during that conversation before Monday’s game, something that goes deeper the Giants scoring 5.8 runs per game so far despite Belt’s inability to put the ball in play.
Another thing most assume is that conversations between Bochy and Belt are one-sided. That Belt’s such a respectful young man, he just nods and does what he’s told. But Belt pushed back when Bochy wanted him to play Winter League ball in the Dominican Republic (Bochy won that battle).
The 23-year-old is savvy enough to handle the press extremely well, as well as produce an Oscar-worthy performance on the morning before the roster was officially announced. After the A’s put the Giants away to end Spring Training, Belt came back to the clubhouse. When confronted (in a congratulatory way) by the same reporters Belt in effect lied to hours earlier, Belt replied that he’s a pretty good actor, because he’s done it a lot before.
I wonder if Belt’s personality behind the scenes is a bit more assertive than what the fans see (then again, when the fans look at Belt they see a mixture of Will Clark and Bambi), if Belt’s frustration with how he was handled last season has boiled over during meetings with Bochy or certain coaches. As Belt starts his fourth straight game on the bench, his daily “is he or isn’t he in the lineup” questions are driving everyone crazy. Belt seems to irk Bochy in general, and not just because he’d rather play Aubrey Huff.