Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Promise of Brandon Belt's MLB Debut Stint

Before today's 10-2 shellacking at the hands of the Rockies, the Giants activated Cody Ross of the disabled list and predictably sent down Brandon Belt to Fresno. The decision was expected after Belt's much-anticipated, but somewhat disappointing Major League debut. Despite hitting .282 with three home runs in Spring Training, Belt looked overmatched at times at the plate during the regular season and only hit .192 in 17 games.

While most people would look at Belt's callup as a bit of a failure, Giants fans have to be somewhat relieved with Belt's cup of coffee stint this year. While the average wasn't pretty (sub-.200 averages never are), a lot of his numbers were actually very promising. In 60 plate appearances, he scored seven runs, drew eight walks, hit a home run and had four RBI. His walk rate calculated to 13.3 percent, and despite striking out 13 times (a 25 percent strikeout percentage), his BB/K ratio was still solid at 0.62.

Additionally, Belt's plate discipline numbers were comforting as well. His O-swing percentage (swings outside the strike zone percentage) was 21.5 percent, which is below league average. Of course, his contact percentage was a bit below league average at 77.5 percent (league average is about 80 percent) and his swinging strike percentage was above league average at 9.5 percent (league average is around 8 percent). However, you have to remember Belt had only 61 plate appearances above Double-A going into this year. To break into the Major Leagues despite having only 61 plate appearances in Fresno, and show pretty above-average plate discipline is a testament to him as a hitter.

And yet, much like I anticipated, Belt simply hasn't developed enough yet to have an immediate impact at the next level with the Giants. His power numbers (.077 ISO) were extremely down in comparison to what we saw last year in the minors (his ISO was .286 and .333 in Richmond and Fresno, respectively), and his BABIP was low to boot (.237). While some of this could be blamed on him just being unlucky, his low line drive rate (15.7 percent) and GB/FB ratio (2.00) probably show that he was overmatched a bit and needs to regain and retool a little bit before his next Major League callup. Thankfully for Giants fans, it's early in the season and it's not farfetched to think that if Belt can regain his form and power in Fresno (which is highly possible because the PCL is notoriously known as a hitter's league), he'll be back on the Giants 25-man roster sometime in July or August.

Overall, it would have been nice to see Belt break onto the scene like Buster Posey did last year and be a favorite for the Rookie of the Year award (like some people thought). But unfortunately, those expectations were probably a little too high and unfair on Belt. Belt had less professional experience than last year's Rookie of the Year (Posey had 208 plate appearances with the Grizzlies in 2010 before he was called up), and he really never was a prospect of Posey's caliber. Posey was the fifth overall pick in the draft, had signed the highest signing bonus for a draft pick in team history, and in 2010 was the seventh-best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America. Belt was a fifth-round pick and was the 23rd-best prospect going into the 2011 season (he was unranked going into last season). So the Posey-Belt comparison was probably a case of overreaching by Giants fans.

That being said, Belt still has the chance to be good, and I think he still should be the Giants' first baseman of the future as expected. The skill set is there, and the good foundation with his plate discipline is going to bode good things when he gets back to the Major League level. Furthermore, unlike Posey's situation when he was called up, there really isn't a dire need for a first baseman. Aubrey Huff is best-suited for the first base position, and our defense is a lot better with Ross and Nate Scheirholtz in right rather than Huff.

Thus, there needs to be no need to panic for Giants fans or Giants management. Belt is going to be a solid, productive player for this Giants organization down the line. He just needs a little more development (as expected), and he's still young enough and early enough in his career to go through some more development in the minors. I expect him to do well in Fresno this year, where a lot of position prospects have been fostered nicely in the last few years (Posey, Nate Schierholtz and John Bowker being prime examples...they all had very good offensive campaigns with the Grizzlies).

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