Brandon Belt and selective aggression

After he underperformed for most of the 2011 season and yo-yoed between the majors and Triple-A, it appeared that the Giants were losing faith in Brandon Belt. Despite posting a respectable 98 wRC+, Belt was treated as damaged goods.

This was before he was afforded enough consistent playing time to build a big enough sample to make semi-educated judgments. It is not my job to play psychologist, but the lack of belief that the Giants showed in Belt, who performed passably at worst last season, could act only as an accelerant to his struggles.

The 2012 season began with much of the same from Belt; entering June, he had been allotted only 100 at bats as a semi-regular player and was hitting just .230, with zero home runs. Since the beginning of June, however, Belt has begun to turn it on, hitting .306/.421/.581—good for a wRC+ of 177—and finally showing flashes of the promise he showed in the minors.

Bad players are not incapable of staying hot for an entire month, but Belt’s June is, perhaps, the product of an adjustment that he has made.

2011: O-Swing (outside the zone) 27.2 percent; Z-Swing (in the zone) 72.5 percent
April: O-Swing 34.2 percent; Z-Swing 74.6 percent
May: O-Swing 20.3 percent; Z-Swing 74.8 percent
Last 30 days: O-Swing 26.7 percent; Z-Swing 80.0 percent

Belt has always had a unique approach, in that he swings at a very high number of pitches inside the strike zone, while refraining from swinging at pitches outside the zone at a high rate. Over the last 30 days, however, Belt has taken this to another level, swinging at nearly every pitch inside the strike zone, all the while maintaining a very low chase rate.

I mentioned above that Belt’s swing selection was unique. In 2012, just three players, Josh Hamilton, Freddie Freeman and Pablo Sandoval, have swung at a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone than Brandon Belt. Of these three hitters, only Freeman has a chase rate of lower than 40 percent—at 35.6 percent—while Hamilton and Sandoval rank second and third in baseball in terms of pitches chased.

Going back a bit further, since 2007, the earliest year that FanGraphs has logged the PITCHf/x data for hitters, no qualified hitter has finished a season with a zone swing percentage of 75 percent or higher and with a chase rate lower than 30 percent, so Belt’s zone recognition is unprecedented in recent times.

Belt has just 197 plate appearances this season, so there is plenty of time to regress toward the mean in either area, but if he finishes the season with the 50 percent disparity between zone swing and chase percentages, it would be the largest such disparity in the PITCHf/x era—Carlos Pena’s 48.7 percent is the current record.

Fifteen players since 2007 have posted a net swing percentage of 45 percent or higher. This group includes impressive names like Joey Votto, Lance Berkman, Chipper Jones, Magglio Ordonez, Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez and Jeff Kent. The average wRC+ of all of these seasons is 133, with 103 being the lowest. This isn’t to say that Brandon Belt will magically turn into Joey Votto or Manny Ramirez, but this type of approach seems to be a recipe for success.

Since Belt has always maintained good judgment in his swing distribution, it is difficult to say whether his recent heightened aggression on strikes was an adjustment he made that is contributing to his success, or if it is an accompaniment of pitch recognition gains or a more comfortable disposition at the plate. What we do know, however, is that swinging at strikes and laying off balls is a good way to make solid contact.

Just one month ago, Belt was all but written off as a bust of a prospect, but his overall performance in 2012 has actually been solid. His improved judgment of the strike zone has allowed him to increase his walk rate from 9.6 percent in 2011 to 15.7 percent, and decrease his strikeout rate from a high 27.3 percent to a much better 22.8 percent. He is hitting .259/.376/.432, with a wRC+ of 123 and if June is a symbol of improvement, then he should have no trouble out-producing this line going forward. Join all of this with good defense and Belt could produce a well above average season this year.

Belt’s hot streak has earned him much more regular at-bats, which is vital for a young player trying to work through his struggles. I hope the Giants realize that Belt is still capable of being one of the team’s main offensive producers and won’t demote him or bench him if he goes a game or two without a hit. Belt is not damaged goods; his adjustment period has been a bit longer than most, but the Giants’ mishandling of him has likely played a prominent role.

Belt’s approach at the plate has always portended success, and with the further development of his ability to recognize and swing at only strikes, the foreshadowed success is finally coming to fruition. He probably won’t continue to produce at the heights that June has provided, but Belt’s contemporaries who have shown similar zone recognition have been very successful. It seems likely that we will see Belt develop into an above-average major leaguer at some point.

References & Resources
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs, PITCHf/x data courtesy of TexasLeaguers

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Comments

  1. Steve Treder said...

    “I hope the Giants realize that Belt is still capable of being one of the team’s main offensive producers and won’t demote him or bench him if he goes a game or two without a hit. Belt is not damaged goods; his adjustment period has been a bit longer than most, but the Giants’ mishandling of him has likely played a prominent role.”

    I cannot possibly agree more.

  2. dcs said...

    2011, OSwing = .272, ZSwing = .725
    2012, OSwing = .270, ZSwing = .764

    I’m not sure there’s any trend there.

    SSS

  3. csf said...

    Very good analysis, but ignores the issue that bugged the Giants management—driving the ball. Until recently, his hits were doinks, he was blooping to left field. Now, the contact is much harder. That’s what the frustration was about.

  4. trantor said...

    I can only imagine Bond’s swing rates in 2000-2004. No player in recent times had the eyes Bonds had.

  5. Vinay Bhat said...

    Looking at Fangraphs, Bonds’ O-Swing % was 13.3%. His Z-Swing % was 67.1%. In terms of in-zone contact rates, Bonds was better: Z-Contact % of 90.5% to 84.9%. Swinging strike % of only 5.7% compared to a league average of 8.6% too.

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