The consensus No.1 prospect in the Giants system in almost every publication last year, Brandon Belt not only unexpectedly made the Opening Day active roster, but he also started at first base against the Dodgers in the Giants initial game of the 2011 season. Of course, the starting spot was more out of necessity (Cody Ross was on the Disabled List to begin the year) rather than want (he was expected to begin the year in Triple-A), but nonetheless, Belt's big league debut was received with about as much fervor as previous top prospects Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner.
Belt's first season in the majors was a mixed bag of sorts. In his second game of the year, Belt blasted a deep center field home run at Dodger Stadium, and he showed glimpses of power (he hit nine home runs) and a patient eye at the plate (he posted a walk percentage of 9.6 percent) in 209 plate appearances. However, it was obvious that Belt's plate approach proved to be his own worst enemy at times, as he whiffed 57 times, good for a 23.7 strikeout percentage. Furthermore, he struggled to make hard contact consistently, as his line drive percentage was only 13.8 percent.
When Belt was demoted back to Fresno on April 20th, Belt regained the form that made him such a top prospect after his 2010 season. He posted a .309 average, .975 OPS, and .422 wOBA with the Grizzlies in 212 plate appearances, and he also added eight home runs and sported a BB/K ratio of 0.89 (highlighted by a 19.8 walk percentage). It was obvious that Belt was simply too good of a hitter for Pacific Coast League pitching, but in multiple callups, Belt struggled to find consistent playing time and he just could never get it together. Hence, due to lack of playing time and at-bats, Belt finished his big-league year with a .314 wOBA and a 98 wRC+ (runs created above average, with 100 being the average).
2012 will be an interesting year, because Belt has graduated as a prospect and it's most likely that he will start the year on the Big League roster and could vie for a playing spot in the outfield along with Melky Cabrera and Nate Schierholtz. Though Belt is probably a better defensive player than Huff at first base, Huff's veteran status, manager Bruce Bochy's affinity for such players, and Huff's contract (he's got one more year worth 10 million dollars; slam your head against the desk Giants fans) probably will regulate Belt to backup status at the position.
Still, despite the obstacles Belt will face in terms of playing time in 2012, his chances should be much better, especially with Ross and Pat Burrell no longer Giants. Furthermore, I think Giants fans can expect a much better performance at the plate in Belt's second year. I'll point to a few reasons:
1.) He suffered from a very low BABIP in 2011.
--I would be surprised if Belt sported a BABIP similar to the .273 mark he had a year ago (the league average is .295). He hit a lot of groundballs in 2011 (42.3 percent GB rate), which was probably due to his anxiousness at the plate as a rookie with a lot of expectations. He had a 49.2 percent swing percentage and swung out of the strike zone 30.1 percent of the time. Belt's MO in the minors has always been his patience (.457 minor league OBP), so I think he'll probably hover more toward league average in swing percentage (46.2 percent), especially now that he is more familiar with Major League pitching and is more aware of his limitations (his contact rate was 77.7 percent and his swinging strike percentage was 10.5 percent). With a more selective approach, it isn't hard to think that Belt will get his BABIP back to above league average and perhaps in the .330-.360 mark (his minor league BABIP average was .405), which undoubtedly will result in a better slash line in 2012.
2.) More playing time.
--As noted earlier in the post, Belt will have a lot less competition (though I do wish he would play at first base over Huff). It's probably for certain that Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera will have regular spots in the outfield, but Schierholtz is by no means cemented in his position (though defensively he is by far the Giants best outfielder). Belt may not start on Opening Day, but if Schierholtz struggles offensively, and if Belt can get off to a hot start, then it simply isn't out of the question that he could play himself into a permanent outfield position by mid-late May or early June. With consistent at-bats, it is likely Belt will play better at the Major League level, since on a talent-level alone he is probably the second or third best outfielder on the Giants roster offensively.
3.) Less pressure to perform.
--After Belt hit that homer against the Dodgers, an insurmountable amount of pressure and expectation was heaped on him. With Posey winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2010, many Giants fans and baseball analysts probably expected Belt to follow in the same footsteps as Posey and compete for the award in 2011. However, Posey had a lot more time in the minors before his callup in comparison to Belt, and additionally, Belt was rushed to the majors due to injury. I don't think the Giants brass really expected to callup Belt in 2011 until May or June, and the callup most likely stalled his development a little. Of course, the slight stall wasn't a bad thing by any measure since Belt still has youth on his side (he was 23 last year and he will be 24 come April). However, now that all the ROY hoopla is done with and Belt is a little more under the radar than a year ago, it is likely that Belt will be more comfortable at the Big League level, especially at the plate.
Overall, there is still a lot of hope that Belt can live up to his Top Prospect status, and there is strong consensus among the baseball blog and analyst circles that Belt will undoubtedly top the numbers he posted a year ago barring injury. Bill James projects Belt to sport a .363 wOBA and a .266/.358/.840 slash line, and though RotoChamp is a little more conservative their .348 wOBA and .251/.335/.800 slash line projection is still a vast improvement from last year and certainly will be welcomed by a Giants team that is desperate need of offense after they clunked a year ago, and lost Carlos Beltran due to Free Agency.
As for my projection? I think Belt will hover in that .250-.270 average line with an OBP around .340-.360 and an OPS of .810-.840. I think the power he has is legit (as evidenced by his 15.8 percent HR/FB ratio) and he will have a better idea at the plate, which probably means more line drives and walks and less groundballs and strikeouts. Of course, he is most likely always going to be a guy that is going to have strikeout percentages in the 20-25 percent range and probably be a sub-.300 average hitter, but if he continues to be an 8-12 percent walk rate guy and sport a .350 plus OBP, then Giants fans and management will be more than happy.
Undoubtedly, it will be interesting to see how the outfield competition pans out, which we will only know come and after Spring Training. That being said, the opportunity to succeed is a lot brighter for Belt than a year ago. While he may not make a total breakthrough, I think he'll have an impact at the plate in 2012, which will mean good things for Belt and the Giants in the following years, especially after Huff comes off the books (and thus, Belt can move back to his natural position at first base).