Brandon Belt

The Grizzling of Brandon Belt: A lesson learned from Ryan Howard

“I’m always makin’ little minor changes in my swing even throughout the year,” Brandon Belt told Adam Foster of Project Prospect. “It just depends on where the pitchers are throwin’ me, honestly.”

Last season, Belt had difficulty hitting inside fastballs, prompting hitting coach Hensley Meulens to move him off the plate. “We believe that backing off a little more, especially against lefties, will give him a little more time,” Meulens stated.

This worked — sort of. Belt started making contact with inside pitches (except low and inside), but he suddenly had difficulty hitting those on the outside. This has certainly carried over into this season. Thus far, the opposition has been “throwin’” the outside edge, and Belt isn’t connecting.

Of course, three games are only three games, and certainly not enough of a sampling from which we should base any conclusions. Still, the “hole” in Belt’s swing — or “flaw,” as Dave Flemming prefers to call it — is apparent and disconcerting, if only because of the Giants’ recent history of mismanagement.

If we can glean anything from the annals of Ryan Howard’s history, it is that the amount of meat is the most decisive factor in selecting a Subway sandwich. If we can glean a second thing, it would be how to deal with the hole in Belt’s swing.

Sure, Belt and Howard’s swings are about as identical as Becky Conner 1 and 2 (anyone?), but they do share some similarities. They are both 6’4″+ and left-handed, but more importantly, they both have a similar Achilles heel: fastballs in, under the hands.

Howard overcame his problem by, well, doing very little. As Buster Olney points out, Howard and his swing are “high school sweethearts” that go through “temporary breakups.” Early in his career, the hole in Howard’s swing was so problematic that it drove the Phillies to commit $85 million to Jim Thome. But, after five long seasons in the minors, Howard ironed out his swing by making minor changes: bending his knees and lowering his back elbow. Two things Belt already does.

The biggest hurdle for Howard has been mental: maintaining his philosophy despite hardship. Howard’s plate approach is founded on timing. Howard waits “on the ball until the last possible millisecond and [trusts his] hands to react,” according to Olney.  Such an approach calls for precision, which explains Howard’s propensity for striking out, as well as his tendency to get into extended slumps.

“I have no clue,” Howard said in 2007 while in the midst of such a slump. “I’m in a whirlwind.”

The cure for Howard was to maintain his swing and to wait for his timing to return. It was not to make a myriad of adjustments, either mental or physical. To Howard’s benefit, he had a long minor league career, allowing him time to learn this lesson. During this time he gained not just maturity, but also insight into his swing. Two things Belt desperately needs.

Given what we know of Belt, Meulens and Co. should spend less time toggling with Belt’s position in the batter’s box and more time amending Belt’s mindset.  This won’t happen though, according to Brian Sabean.

If we are to believe Sabean, then Belt’s problems are centered on game speed. “The only way you’re going to make adjustments at the major league speed of the game is to play at this level,” Sabean told Andrew Baggarly. Citing Belt’s spring training as proof, Sabean continued by noting that Belt “has (adjusted) to a certain extent.”

There is no denying Belt’s prolific spring, but Belt has always had a big league plate approach, as illustrated by Chris Quick of Bay City Ball. He has always had a big league work ethic. And, now, as Sabean pointed out, he’s no longer “as wide-eyed” as last year. But there is still something that is holding him back.

Early in spring training, Alex Pavlovic made note of what he called Belt 2.0, a more aggressive Brandon. Belt 2.0 worked well enough in the Arizona, but his recent failures suggest that Belt 2.0 suffers from the same flaws as Belt 1.0: mentality. He hasn’t had the benefit of time that allowed Ryan Howard to flourish. Instead, he’s pressed into to big league play, while management hopes his physical skill will mask his inexperience. It didn’t work last year, and I doubt it will work this year.

“Even when stuff was going bad,” Belt said of his first season in the majors. “I just kept faith.”

This season, Belt is going to do more of the same: continue to make minor adjustments while keeping the faith. But it shouldn’t be faith that gets Belt through the bad times; it should be his experience — experience that should be gained in minor leagues.

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