We’re here every year, it feels like. May rolls around, we notice that Brandon Belt has been doing new things in the early part of the season, and then we forget about it until the next season rolls around when we start all over again. Maybe it’s because he’s been the victim of a few impact injuries that have caused him to miss time in the second half of the past two seasons. Maybe it’s because he plays in the hardest park at which to hit home runs as a left-handed hitter for 81 games a year. Either way, it seems like Belt doesn’t really get his due. By all accounts, he should: by WAR, he was a top-five first baseman in 2013, and he was top-seven in 2015. Last season, he produced more offense by wRC+ than Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Abreu, or Eric Hosmer. What’s most impressive about Belt, however, is that he has always been evolving, and once again he’s showing some pretty significant adjustments so far this season.
We can trace a long line of Belt’s many evolutions. There was his breakout toward the end of 2012 and into 2013. There were his aggressive swing%/pull% adjustments in 2014. And finally, there was his plate coverage/opposite field power increase in 2015. Belt has obviously always been looking to improve on the craft of hitting, even if the overall results haven’t followed the perfect trajectory: removing an injury-marred 2014 that saw him play only 61 games, Belt has recorded wRC+ marks of 119, 140, and 135 in 2012, 2013, and 2015, respectively. Early adjustments brought him to a very high level, but subsequent ones haven’t quite vaulted him into the elite.
There’s not much that can compare to his wholesale improvements this year, however. I considered holding off on this article until the point at which we could get stabilization on a few more of his stats — ISO, in particular — but the changes are simply too glaring to ignore for another month or so. They’re exciting. We couldn’t wait. Let’s start with these few key offensive statistics:
Astonishing might be the right word for 2016. We’re just about at stabilization for walk rate (if we want to use Russell Carlton’s methodology), so we can starting putting some stock in that. And since stabilization comes sooner for strikeout rate, we really need to look into that decimated K%. It’s just over half of what it was for 2014/2015! Considering the lack of corresponding decline in ISO with this new approach (so far) this is light-bulb-going-on type stuff here.
Given those types of changes, plate discipline is the first place to look for substantive improvements. Let’s take a look at Belt’s swing/contact rates from 2012 on:
And there it is. Wildly better pitch recognition in-zone versus out of zone so far in 2016, with a seven or eight percentage-point improvement in O-Swing%. That’ll help boost the walks while cutting down on the Ks. Further, look at the in-zone (Z-Contact%) and overall contact rate this season, the latter of which is a career high. Even though ISO is still pretty volatile right now (it stabilizes around 160 ABs — Belt has just 98 so far this season), career-high contact rates and career-high power numbers are a nice thing to have going at the same time.
There’s something that caught my eye in a recent piece on SFGate related to Belt’s plate discipline, while we’re at it. Here’s the relevant snippet:
Belt said he made a mechanical adjustment that allows him to see the pitch longer before he has to commit. The result has been a much better eye at the plate.
From the strikeout and walk rate impacts, that sounds like a pretty life-changing mechanical adjustment. Let’s try to see if we can pinpoint what it is. In that same piece, Belt mentions that he found that approach last September right before he got concussed to end his season, but he managed to bring it into spring training and have it stick. So let’s go back before that point to see if we can notice the difference. I’ve taken video of his swing from July of last season (top), and from this past week (bottom). Take a look. (Note: I’ve paused the GIF at various points throughout his swing — including right at the beginning for a few seconds.)
If you’d like to see the swings without any delays, click here. The standard caveats apply: it’s hard to capture everything in just two swings, and I’ve done my best to look for similar pitches/pitch locations. I’m also not a swing-mechanics expert. Obviously, there are more similarities than differences here. But there is one big thing that jumps right out: Belt holds his hands significantly lower during the first stage of his swing this season, before the ball is thrown. He’s also a little less upright, getting into his hitting position sooner. Focus only on the hands for a few loops of the video; you’ll notice they simply don’t move as much before and during his swing this season. He doesn’t have to go down nearly as much with his hands before going back to load — they’re already down.
I’m reminded of the adjustments J.D. Martinez made during winter ball in 2013 with his hand positioning about which Dan Farnsworth wrote so expertly: cleaning up the path of the hands allows a hitter to take a more direct approach to the ball. That change was one of the reasons why Martinez was able to so effectively unlock his opposite-field power. Fittingly, that leads right into our next topic.
If the mechanical adjustment is allowing him to see the ball longer, we might infer that it also allows him to let the ball travel deeper in the zone before he makes contact. That’s obviously just a theory, but it makes logical sense, and the narrative fits the current state of the top-five qualified hitters with the largest increase of batted balls to the opposite field compared to last season:
|Player||2015 Oppo%||2016 Oppo%||Change|
There’s Belt with an almost 11-point in rate of batted balls to the opposite field, good for fourth-highest in baseball. Whether Belt is trying to go the other way because he’s often being shifted (exactly half of his plate appearances this season have seen some type of defensive shift, a top-15 number), or simply because his mechanical adjustment is allowing him to take the ball the other way with authority more often, the results are pretty clear: a .172 ISO and 203 wRC+ when hitting to left field. That’s not close to the highest opposite-field ISO of his career (.289 last season), but what it does is make Belt harder to defend. If this adjustment continues, teams will have to start deciding whether a shift is worth it.
From this early evidence, it appears as if Belt is morphing into a version of Joey Votto: an incredibly patient, contact-driven, powerful, all-fields hitter. The thing is, Mike Podhorzer already made that connection last season, and that was before this season’s ridiculous strikeout and walk rate jumps. Belt’s already hit an infield fly ball this season, so some of the more inhuman abilities aren’t there yet (that’d be asking a lot), but the similarities are apparent. It’s still early, of course, and we could look back on this April later in the season and draw comparisons to some of Belt’s other adjustments that didn’t necessarily stick. But this seems like it has the makings of a different kind of leap forward — this isn’t just a power surge, or a month’s worth of good batted ball outcomes. This is Belt altering the DNA of himself as a hitter in important ways, becoming vastly improved at pitch recognition. It’s May 6th. We can’t scream ridiculous breakout yet — even if a lot of the indicators are pointing that way.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.