Jim Harbaugh is fond of saying that comparing players tends to diminish the accomplishments of both. While Harbaugh effectively rules the Bay Area sports landscape at the moment, his comparisons lament falls flat. Comparisons will always exist, and each franchise tends to fixate on specific comparisons more than others. Yes, even if the mighty Harbaugh wishes that weren’t the case.
49ers fans generally fixate on quarterbacks, even more than fans of other franchises (just ask Steve Young, Jeff Garcia and Alex Smith). For the Raiders, Charles Woodson brought back memories of Willie Brown and Mike Haynes (although any future Raiders punter will have to contend with Ray Guy and Shane Lechler, as well). The A’s have been known for Hall of Fame outfielders (Rickey Henderson and Reggie Jackson) and closers (Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley). The Warriors aren’t known for dominating the NBA at any one position, so people compare their uniforms across different eras.
The Giants have been blessed with greatness in fields center and left. Some excellent starting pitchers, too. However, first base is the position Giants fans feel should always be a revolving door of awesomeness. Willie McCovey and Will Clark weren’t exactly similar in many ways besides handedness, but both occupy similar pedestals in Giants lore (with the HOFer McCovey quite a bit higher, of course).
After Clark, the Giants utilized Todd Benzinger and Mark Carreon, two first base options who were much more serviceable than many remember (Carreon was kind of a beast in 1995, with an OPS+ of 122 — unfortunately for Carreon, back then everyone was waiting around for J.R. Phillips to become the next McCovey). Then came J.T. Snow, one of the most beloved players in franchise history. Since Snow, the Giants mixed it up with some options who were better than Phillips but not good enough to stick (Lance Niekro, John Bowker, Travis Ishikawa), brand name vets on the downside (Ryan Klesko, Shea Hillenbrand) and a World Championship year hero (Aubrey Huff).*
* We’re just going to pretend the Ryan Garko trade didn’t happen. Hope that’s OK.
Cue Brandon … the taller, awkwarder one
Watching Brandon Belt hit in August and September has been a relief, simply because it makes one believe he’s the guy we saw crushing the ball in June — not the utterly lost guy with the hangdog expression who spent the better part of July guessing and whiffing. Belt’s hitting lasers up the middle, smacking line drives to all fields and even knocking the occasional home run into McCovey Cove. As Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles points out, Belt’s relatively low HR total (5) is somewhat park-related:
My first caveat about this season is that the power is weird for everyone at home this year. Pablo Sandoval as three homers at home this year. Buster Posey has five. The whole team has 21. It’s September 5, and the Giants have hit 21 home runs at home this entire season. That’s just … odd. It’s what’s behind the crazy single-season park factors and the low OPS+ totals, and it probably means it’s not a good idea to read too much into the power numbers of any Giant this year. Whether it’s weather-related or random variance, something’s off this season, and I doubt it’ll show up again next year.
Belt actually has 4 home runs at home and only 1 on the road in roughly the same number of plate appearances, but I’m expecting Belt’s skills at the plate (great eye, quick bat) to lead to bunches of home runs in all parks. Yep, any day now…
I’m getting a little off track here. My point is that when you do what comes natural and compare Belt to past Giants first basemen, I see an awful lot of Snow in our forecast.
The similarities as a hitter lie in two things — one good (plate discipline), the other not so good (below average power numbers for the position, and Belt still has a way to go to get to Snow’s power production). But with Belt clearly becoming one of the Giants’ most dependable hitters and Bruce Bochy coming to that conclusion as well — Belt’s supporters should be happy that the biggest problem these days is that Belt might play more in LF, not that he won’t get to play at all — it’s hard to know what his offensive ceiling can be. Will he ever hit 30+ homers? Maybe not, as his body and approach aren’t necessarily built for that milestone. But I think it stands to reason that he can approximate an average Snow season (18 HR, .268/.357/.427 over 162 games) over the next several years.
While offense is harder to pin down, Belt’s defense looks more like Snow’s every game (which could very well be due to Snow’s role as an instructor in the Giants’ organization). Defensive metrics are incredibly flawed at this point, with first basemen especially hindered by advanced stats.* For example, unless I’m wrong (and I very well could be), there is no way to gauge a first baseman’s arm strength or accuracy, which was/is a massive strength of Snow’s and Belt’s games. So I’m going to commit a baseball blogger’s second-worst worst crime (behind using — dun, dun, dunnnnn — narrative to form a conclusion) and go with what we see.
* UZR has Belt as a slightly above average first baseman over the past two seasons; Snow’s UZR was pretty high as a Giant from 2003-05, but wasn’t good at all in the stat’s first year, 2002.
With Belt, as with Snow before, his increased confidence is readily visible on the field. His instincts are nearly perfect. Belt acts quickly and decisively, and rarely makes the wrong decision — for instance, that throw Belt made to third base to nail John McDonald on Sept. 6 (the one that led to that silly non-fight between McDonald and Pablo Sandoval). Belt isn’t the only first baseman in the game who can make that play, but his footwork, arm and glove (Sandoval recently called Belt “The Pick Machine”) at first base reminds me of Snow. As he gets more confident this season, he (along with Brandon Crawford, as Wendy Thurm pointed out in her post about how the Giants have made up for Melky Cabrera’s absence) is one of the leaders of the infield defense — and a reason why many fans cringe whenever Posey starts at first.
It seemed like it would never happen, with Belt getting yanked between Triple-A and the Majors last year and in and out of the lineup early on in 2012, but now it appears he has locked down a role with the Giants for the foreseeable future. And perhaps years down the line, Belt will make the list of tenured San Francisco first basemen with McCovey, Clark and Snow — as long as Bochy doesn’t make him a full-time left fielder next season.