It was against the Reds at AT&T Park last September when Belt finally found a stance and a feeling at the plate that allowed him to see the ball deeper, allowing him to react to the pitch rather than keep falling back on guesswork. It was the comfort zone he had spent his entire big league life searching to find.
“Basically, yeah, I found an approach that I liked and then got concussed,” Belt said. “But fortunately, I still remembered it.”
He is putting it into practice this season, and even in a small sample, the difference is striking.
“I thought about it a lot in the offseason, and honestly, it came down to the last series I played against the Reds,” Belt said.
“I thought about that often, about how I can put the ball in play more.
“It was more approach than anything, and it was something I had to contemplate a lot in the offseason. I beat it into my head over and over. It’s something I held onto, and it’ll make me be more consistent in the long run.”
What is it, exactly? “It’s getting back to seeing the ball and not guessing, which I still do at times,” said Belt, who signed a five-year, $79 million extension in April. "The results aren’t good when I do that. I tried to find a place where I felt more square with the plate. I stuck with that feeling.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy sees a hitter who continues to emerge. “He’s being a little more selective and he’s looking for his pitch,” Bochy said.
“Honestly, that’s what excites me, that my strikeouts are down,” Belt said. “I wanted to put the ball in play more, because stuff can happen. I think that’s what makes us so tough as a lineup. There’s not an easy out.”
“For a few years, I was searching for something and, yeah, I had some good years,” Belt said. “But I was still looking for something I could hold onto. And I think I found it.”
This has been a huge struggle for Belt all his career: combining his ability to hit for power along with his ability to hit for contact. I followed his contact rate in his early seasons, covering the rate over 10, 20, and 30 games, and he was able to keep it up for around that long, but then he would lose it and then strike out a lot. This has prevented him from reaching the potential that many saw for him, being a Votto-like player: power hitter, with good contact and eye, enough speed to steal in the teens, while providing gold glove defense at 1B.
His OPS of .945 (as of May 3, 2016; all data from the great site, Baseball-Reference.com, I should be noting this more often, but been slacking, apologies to them) is much higher than his career .803 OPS prior to this season, or .823 OPS for the prior three seasons or his best of .841 in 2013. So he is roughly about 140 points higher than what he had produced in his career before. League OPS of .744 is 201 points less, so he went from being better than average to an elite level hitter.
Some of his improvement is from the change in league offensive environment, though. League OPS of .744 is higher than in recent years, .721 OPS in 2015, and roughly .700 OPS in the years prior for Belt's career, showing that part of his rise is due to the league standard going up (and with reports that overall offense has been up the past two seasons). Thus, 43 points of that rise over the past two years is related to the league environment change.
Where Has He Improved?
Looking at components of his hitting gives more clarity as to where this is happening. His significant improvement was in his batting average, which has roughly been around .280 the past four seasons, with 2014 being the outlier due to the various injuries he had that season, but is .311 as of May 3rd. But his improved BA is not from BABIP. His BABIP has been basically the same this season, as of May 3rd, at .342 vs. career .340 BABIP, so the boost is not from abnormal BABIP. So the improvement is from some other improvement in his hitting.
And where it is, is because of his sharp drop in strikeouts. Career prior 24.4% SO%, average of 26.7% the prior two seasons, he currently is at 14.2%, which translates to a contact rate of 82.2%. His contact rate for his career prior is 72.5%, 72.3% for the three prior years, and so this is a huge improvement, and over 113 PA. With less strikeouts, there are more balls in play. More balls in play, at a .340 BABIP adds up to a lot more hits, and the bump in BA.
His other big improvement is in his walk rate. A career 9.8% walk rate prior to this season, he is currently at 18.6%. So he has roughly dropped his strikeouts in half, while at the same time roughly doubling his walks! And that results in a BB/K ratio of 1.3, which is great, anything over 1.0 is considered good, generally. And that adds to his OBP.
Per Fangraphs, both his K% and BB% should be relatively stabilized at this point in the season:
With respect to sample size, it’s important to know that K% and BB% tend to “stabilize” in a relatively low number of PA. You don’t need more than about 60 PA for K% or 120 PA for BB% before the numbers start to become meaningful, which means that it’s very unlikely that even a half season of K% or BB% are simply functions of random variation. More directly, a player’s K% and BB% are skills that you can estimate from a reasonably small amount of data. This means that if you have a good sample of PA, you can feel good about the validity of the information you’re using.Belt is at 113 PA as of May 3rd (and added 4 PA with one BB and no K on May 4th, so he is pretty much at 120 PA), and thus this is looking like Belt is doing what he says he's doing in the above interview: he's found the right adjustment to allow him to utilize his skills in making hard contact, while avoiding the pitches that he can't make hard contact with, leading to less strikeouts and many more walks.
Now he's walking more than he strikes out, which is a sign of a very good hitter, which was something he did in the minors in his meteoric rise, and that gives us four hitters who are roughly in the 1 K:BB ratio range: Posey, Span, Panik, and now Belt. And I studied Crawford's contact rate as well, and he also had periods of good contact rates, and so he could add a fifth hitter at some point in his career.
In addition, there is a table in the Fangraph link on how good each rate is. His K% went from a below average to poor 24.4-26.7% to an above average 14.2% and closing in on great (which is at 12.5%). Meanwhile, his BB% went from an above average 9.8% to a excellent 18.6% (where above 15% is excellent). With his reduced K%, the Giants now only has two hitters in the lineup who are not above average or better in K%: Pence and Crawford. And both are slightly above average, so the Giants lineup no longer has any hitter below average, all make good enough contact.
Lastly, oddly enough, his ISO of .200 (so far) is basically the same as it has been the past three seasons for Belt (and really, seems to be his talent level, he had a .187 ISO in his first MLB season). So the improvement in OPS is not coming from increased power, just from improved BA (due to reduced K%) and improved BB% (adding to OBP).
Adding It All Up
Overall, his OPS has gone up 140-150 points. A 30 point jump in BA translates into both OBP and SLG, so that covers around 60-90 points (rise in BA results in boost of SLG, still haven't figured out right way of accounting for this boost) of the jump in OPS, still leaving a big jump to be accounted for, which came from his greatly improved walk rate. The near doubling of his walk rate has added a lot to OBP: for his career prior, walks added 76 points to his BA, but in 2016, the walks are adding 123 points, adding another 47 points. This is on top of the 60-90 being added by his improved batting average. And those are the components that make up his improved OPS.
Will he continue this improved rate of hitting? As pizzacutter (Russell Carleton's handle), notes frequently, just because a hitter has shown a stabilized skill over a long enough period of PA does not mean that he will continue to do that, just that he was capable of doing it long enough to show that this is a skill for him. The issue, as I quote frequently from Baseball Forecaster, is for the player to repeat and exhibit that skill again. According to the interview, this change is permanent for him, so I think it's reasonable to believe that he will be able to continue this level of hitting going forward. But we shall see, does anyone see any reason he won't be able to do this?
The Giants made the right move to sign him to this long-term $79M extension before the season. That works out to $16M per season for his free agent years, or roughly 2 WAR production. And covers his age 28 to 33 YO seasons, when a hitter's production is at his steadiest. True, he has been injury prone throughout his career, and that probably was priced in as well. But he's been a good hitter previously and now appears to be a great hitter, and that's a player any team would want to keep in their lineup for the long-term.