The San Francisco Giants of the 2010s conjure up images of Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Hunter Pence. These three have formed the public face of the Giants to much of the nation as the teams’ superstars during their run. As the Giants enter their first even-yeared Winter Meetings without being champs since 2008, a new face is emerging. Brandon Belt quietly had one of the most productive 2016 campaigns in baseball, and he did it flying mostly under the radar. The reason? Brandon Belt does a lot of things well, but nothing that gets any highlights.[Jeff]
Up until about halfway through the year (specifically game 90), Brandon Belt was alongside Joey Votto, David Ortiz and Mike Trout as members of the vaunted .300/.400/.500 Club. That’s a .300 batting average, .400 on base percentage and .500 slugging percentage all in the same season. As you can see by the list of players in that group, it is a very exclusive group of players to be among.
Since 2010, there have been only 16 players that obtained that goal in a given season (including Brandon Belt’s good friend Buster Posey), and only Miguel Cabrera, Trout and Votto have been able to average that since 2010. It’s a very exclusive club, and one that Belt was set to join until he cratered late in the year. After getting to the mark and hovering near it until game 90, he ended up at .275/.394/.474. While that was still very good, and All-Star worthy, he still doesn’t get recognition as one of the better hitters in the game.
The reason for Belt’s sudden jump in productivity has to do with his improvement at judging balls and strikes and improving his contact and batting average on inside pitches. Belt’s K/BB rate of 0.7 walks per strikeouts was 20th in baseball, ahead of stars like Anthony Rizzo, Nolan Arenado and Miguel Cabrera (of note, Belt’s teammate, Joe Panik is one of only two players with a K/BB over 1, meaning he walks more than he strikes out).
He took a big leap forward with this aspect, and it is one of the most boring aspects to vastly improve in, despite taking free passes instead of giving away outs being one of the easiest ways to increase productivity.
Then there’s the issue of Belt not being a home run hitter. A lot of that is because of Belt’s home ballpark. AT&T Park suppresses home runs to a ridiculous degree. However, if you take a look at his ISO (isolated power), he is around guys like George Springer and Corey Seager.
However, his home run total is unimpressive (just 17 in 2016), so he doesn’t get any attention there. He hits mostly doubles and triples thanks to AT&T Park. Of the players near him in ISO, nobody has fewer than 20 home runs until you get to #77 in ISO, Travis Shaw. The average of the five players on either side of him in the ISO rankings is over 26 home runs. AT&T is keeping him a secret.
There’s also the little matter that he is the best hitter on the Giants. That’s right. Since 2012, Brandon Belt has a higher slugging percentage (.474) than both Buster Posey (.463) and Hunter Pence (.463). He doesn’t get the accolades because he takes a back seat to those two regarding pedigree and marketability (and let’s be clear, gifability).
Brandon Belt is quietly one of the most important parts of the San Francisco Giants. While he made the All-Star Game last year, it was in the final vote, which was mostly fan-driven. He deserved to make it on his merit because he is one of the most productive players in baseball.
The only problem with his production is that he does it in ways that nobody seems to notice. He’ll continue to take a backseat to Hunter Pence and Buster Posey. He deserves more respect than that, but he will remain in the shadows until we embrace obscure stats like ISO and K-BB, which are important and where Belt shines.