Brandon Belt has shown this before: a 10- or 15-game stretch in which he looks to be the real slugging threat everyone talked about during his prospect days. He did it in August of 2013, and then he did it again to open the season in 2014; the latter seemed like it might be the one that would stick, but Belt broke his thumb on a hit by pitch in early May, suffered a concussion in July, and his season was effectively derailed.
In truth, we haven’t seen this sort of thing too often from San Francisco’s giraffe-like first baseman:
Sometimes a hitter just runs into one, and sometimes balls go very far at Coors Field. Regardless, his homer from last week was quite a punctuation mark — a mic drop, if you will — and it should at the very least force us to ask that familiar question concerning Belt: what can we really expect from him?
Belt has been an above-average offensive player since his debut in 2011, fueling a career 127 wRC+ with a high line-drive rate, an average eye for walks, and enough power to make up for his elevated strikeout rates. While the .396 BABIP he currently sports this season is due for regression, his .338 career mark shows that there is some batted-ball talent there.
An injury-shortened 2014 was a departure from his great 2013, as his line-drive and walk rates fell alongside increased strikeouts. Much of that can probably be chalked up to the various maladies, however, as his rate stats at the beginning and end of the season (when he was healthy) were more in line with expectations. Now that he’s fully healthy and entering his prime at 27, we would hope to start seeing his full potential realized.
The first thing of note so far this season: his line-drive rate. We’re not really close to the stabilization point for line drives — that comes around 600 balls in play — but Belt has been squaring up balls to the tune of a league-leading 35% liner percentage. We can’t say that will certainly continue, but we can say that’s been a very good thing, and it’s one of the drivers of his elevated BABIP.
What’s also interesting is where those line drives are going. Let’s start with this chart, courtesy of Baseball Heat Maps, that shows the angles of Belt’s line drives, fly balls, and home runs over each individual year of his career:
Negative values mean he’s hitting the ball to left field, while positive ones mean he’s going to right field. It’s not hard to see what’s happened over the past few years: while he spent 2013 and 2014 pulling the ball more, he’s now going to the opposite field at a higher rate than ever before. There’s usually a trade off that happens when players make this change: they might find more hits in the opposite field, but there also tends to be less power. Has that happened to Belt?
To find out, let’s take a look at his ISO to each of the pull, center, and opposite fields since 2012:
Belt started in the majors with a pretty good opposite-field approach, and 2013 was probably the best culmination of a productive all-fields mindset without sacrificing too much pull power. We can see what happened in 2014: Belt was yanking everything, which boosted his power to the pull side at the expense of the opposite field. So far in 2015, he’s putting all of those together, mashing to the pull side at a 2014 clip while adding extra base power to the opposite field. That’s what we want to see out of him (it’s what we want to see out of most hitters, to be fair), and it should give us confidence when he does things like this:
Belt had only five career opposite-field home runs before he hit this one on May 17th. If he keeps putting up those type of opposite-field ISO numbers, that count will rise.
What is driving this increased power to all fields? Better plate coverage. Let’s look at a GIF of Belt’s ISO per pitch in each part of the zone between 2013, 2014, and this season:
In 2013, Belt showed a very good general ability to hit for power throughout the strike zone. In 2014, that power contracted, with focus moving to the inside part of the plate, where Belt was trying to pull pitches for home runs. This season, his plate approach is the best yet: his coverage of the outside part of the plate is back to 2013 levels, but his power has actually extended on the inside part of the plate past where it was in 2014.
He’s now hitting pitches off the plate inside (especially high) for power while not sacrificing his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. If this approach sticks for Belt, it’s the culmination of a lot of plate approach tinkering, and it should limit his previous vulnerabilities to pitchers adjusting to him by cycling through going inside and outside.
The big question, just like previous years, is whether this will stick. We know the BABIP numbers are going to decrease, and he’s probably not going to hit line drives 35% of the time for the rest of the season. Hot streaks always make players look great, and maybe he’s just been mashing the ball for a few weeks.
He does seem like he’s showing us something new this year, however: a blend of two approaches, each successful in their own way, that together might finally make Belt into the player that everyone has expected for the past few years. Perhaps that player isn’t a 25-30 home run guy; maybe he’s more of a gap to gap hitter with 20-ish home-run power. I think a lot of people would be very happy with that, the Giants included. Who knows — with the prospect of an entire healthy season during his prime, Belt just might surprise us.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.