If you follow @LOLKNBRCallers on Twitter — and if you don’t, you should fix that — then you are familiar with the #BeltBash hashtag. It describes the near-reflexive complaints by some Giants fans, particularly after a a loss, that Belt is horrible-no-good-can’t-hit-above-the-minors-has-slumpy-shoulders-and-is-blocking-our-savior-Brett-Pill. Or, put another way, Belt is holding the Giants back and if the team had a real first baseman, it wouldn’t be eight games under .500 and in fourth place in the National League West.
Entertaining, perhaps. An emotional release for some. But entirely untrue.
Belt produces better than average offense, even for a first baseman, and plays exceptional defense. Brandon Belt is not the problem.
Let’s start with the offense. Belt was never projected to be Joey Votto, so we shouldn’t be surprised it hasn’t turned out that way. Based on what he did in the minors — .343/.457/.596 in 825 plate appearances — fans were probably expecting something closer to what Paul Goldschmidt has done for the Diamondbacks. And it wasn’t just fans. From Baseball American to Keith Law at ESPN, smart prospect writers predicted big things from Belt at the plate. Compared to those expectations, he’s been a bit of a disappointment. Belt does strike out a lot — his 23.5% strikeout rate is higher than the National League average of 19.8% — but his walk rate beats the league average, too — 9.6% to 7.6%.
Belt has flashed very good power this season. His isolated slugging or ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) is .188, the same as Votto’s and higher than Freddie Freeman’s, Allen Craig’s and Adrian Gonzalez’s — three of the premier first baseman in the league. Only Goldschmidt’s is higher — much higher — at .244. ISO measures how good a player is at hitting for extra bases. Fangraphs rates a .188 ISO as falling between above-average and great on the power scale. The average ISO in the National League so far this season is .144.
But Belt’s high ISO can be deceiving, as compared to his peers, because his batting average is much lower. Votto, Goldschmidt, Craig and Freeman all hit above .300 and Gonzalez is at .297 at the break. Belt’s hitting only .260 so far this season, down from .275 in 2012. On the other hand, if you remove his April stats — when he was battling the stomach flu, weight loss and tinkering with his stance — his numbers get closer to what he did last year: .266/.358/.492 (for May, June & July) compared to .275/.360/.421 in 2012.
My favorite overall statistic for measuring a player’s offensive value is wRC+, which stands for weighted runs created-plus. The first part of the stat — weighted runs created or wRC — quantifies the runs created by that player for his team. After all, the goal of a position players when at the plate is to help is team score runs.
The plus part tethers the stat to a league average of 100 (in the National League, you exclude pitchers). wRC+ is also park-adjusted, so it normalizes numbers to enable us to compare players who play home games in a hitter’s park — like Chase Field in Phoenix — to players who play their home games in pitcher’s parks — like AT&T Park. A player with a 125 wRC+ produces 25% more runs than the average player in his league.
Belt’s wRC+ is 122. The wRC+ for all first baseman in the National League is 105. When you add in the American League, wRC+ for all major-league first baseman jumps to 110. So even with Chris Davis, Edwin Encarnacion, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, and Justin Morneau added in, Brandon Belt is out-producing the average first baseman in the majors.
For so many fans, and even for many analysts and commentators, Belt just doesn’t do what we expect a first baseman to do, no matter what the numbers say. It turns out, however, that our expectations for first basemen are out dated. First basemen just aren’t the offensive force they used to be. In an article I wrote recently for the Wall Street Journal, I examined the increased offensive production by catchers since 2010, and how it coincided with a decline by first basemen, third basemen and center fielders, in particular.
Indeed, the only regular Giants player with a higher wRC+ at the break is Buster Posey. His is 162. After Posey, the catcher, it’s Belt, the first baseman. Then Marco Scutaro, at a 121 wRC+, and Hunter Pence, at 113. Not only is Brandon Belt out-producing the average first baseman, he’s outproducing all of his teammates, other than the reigning National League Most Valuable Player.
Now let’s talk about defense, which is much, much more difficult to quantify. All of the defensive metrics — from UZR (ultimate zone rating) to DRS (defensive runs saved) — are subjective in some way. A team of analysts watches every play in every game and then rates the defenders on balls put in play. We are and should continue to be skeptical of defensive metrics, particularly in small sample sizes, like half a season. Even so, Belt ranks in the top 10 in almost every conceivable defensive metric among major-league first basemen over the last season and a half, combined.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Tim McCarver and Joe Buck talking about Belt becoming a Gold Glover someday after Belt made a diving stop in Game 7 of the 2012 NLCS. Okay, maybe not the best support for my position.
As the second half unfolds, watch Belt control the defense on the right side of the infield. Watch how many 3-6-3 double plays he pulls off with his strong, accurate arm. Watch him gun down runners at home on a bunt or soft grounder up the first base line. Watch him dig throws from Pablo and Crawford out of the dirt. Every game.
So go easy #BeltBash-ers. The Giants first baseman is better — and more productive in the Giants lineup — than you think.