Stats Triage: The Giants' Brandon Belt Issue
The Giants may have the depth of Paris Hilton, but at least the starting lineup is doing things right at the plate.
In a lineup where seven of the eight starters hold a .319 OBP or higher, Brandon Belt sticks out like a festering, inflamed thumb. His .282 OBP through 32 games looks pitiful, and his Mendoza-line straddling .212 batting average looks worse. He has exactly two hits since the start of May, and he's struck out more times than he's reached base over that span.
So what's the issue? For Belt, it comes down to swinging at the wrong time and no longer having the luck on balls in play that he had last season.
What's With The Patience?
Belt made himself useful to the Giants last season through an exceptional hitting eye. He may have only finished with a .275 batting average, but walking on 11.5 percent of his total plate appearances helped his OBP rise to a more-than-acceptable .360. Given the league-average OBP for a replacement player came in around .312, Belt was solid in the first base spot.
To be fair, his walk rate hasn't dropped below average. It's just that, with a walk rate of 8.6 percent of total plate appearances this season, Belt is about exactly average. Considering the league average is 8.1 percent of plate appearances, Belt hasn't used his free pass potential as a strength like he did in 2012.
The problem seems to lie later in counts for Belt. This season, Belt has only swung at the first pitch 36 percent of the time, down from his previous 41 percent average. That has helped him get to a 2-0 count on 19 percent of his total plate appearances have seen Belt; in 2011 and 2012, that figure only sat at the MLB-average 14 percent. Belt isn't getting behind with regularity, and the truth is actually just the opposite.
Once he gets to that point, though, he might be getting too patient for his own good. Out of his 94 2-0 counts seen in 2011 and 2012, Belt swung away on 53, or 56 percent, of those 2-0 opportunities. That makes sense - with a 2-0 count, the pitcher is much more likely to throw something hittable to avoid the dreaded 3-0 count. In 2013, though, Belt has only swung away on 10 of 22 (or 45 percent) of those 2-0 counts.
As a result, he hasn't been able to take advantage of the higher amount of hittable pitches he's seen. And considering he's swinging at slightly more pitches in total (53 percent, compared to 50 percent career average), it stands to reason that the pitches he's swinging at are in worse situations. Belt isn't swinging away when he should be (2-0 counts) and is when he should be more careful (two-strike counts).
Indeed, 86 percent of Belt's strikeouts have been swinging away this season. That's way above his 71 percent 2012 average and also above the 76 percent MLB average over the course of his career.
Oh Thanks, Defense
Some people just have good luck finding holes in the defense. That would be Brandon Belt circa 2012. Had he finished with enough plate appearances to qualify, Belt's .351 batting average on balls in play (BAbip) would have finished 15th in the entire majors and second on the Giants behind Buster Posey's .368. The MLB average BAbip last season was .297.
Sometimes, a high BAbip means a player is exceptional at finding holes in the defense or simply has extraordinarily high line drive or extra-base hit rate. Other times, especially in cases where there is no historical basis for believing he'd have a higher BAbip, it simply means a player has gotten more lucky than average finding holes.
Belt seemed to be a mix of both. His line drive rate of 23 percent of all balls in play was solid, sure. But only having 35 percent of all hits go for extra-bases means he hit a whole ton of singles. And with a BAbip that high, it's very likely that a good number of those singles will find gloves once his BAbip regresses to the mean.
That's why it has only surprised me a little to see his BAbip dip in 2013, all the way to .257 through 117 plate appearances. Sure, it's early, and I expect that number to climb closer to the league average as the season wears on, but it also shows that people expecting the same average from Belt as last season were horribly misguided. Sometimes, those line drives find holes. And other times, they find gloves. But the more you're introducing variability by not walking or hitting balls into the gap or hitting homeruns, the more your stats will fluctuate.
Brandon Belt will get better. Given his lower walk rate and unlucky BAbip, I'll be surprised if he's below .300 OBP at the rest of the season. In fact, our projections see him with a .343 OBP the rest of the way, not his 2012 numbers but way up from his current production.
It may be painful, Giants fans, but I'd sit and wait with Belt. But in the mean time, a few tears over that horrendous OBP won't hurt anybody.