When the Giants announced Brandon Belt’s contract extension last month, general manager Bobby Evans noted the first baseman’s “very valuable” ability to compile an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .800 or better.
By that measure, the first month of Belt’s new six-year, $79 million deal generated some impressive returns. Belt entered the Giants’ four-game series at Arizona on Thursday night with an OPS of .976, the third-highest on-base percentage in the majors (.445), more walks (28) than strikeouts (21), and a .313 average – all reflecting apparently a more selective and effective hitter this season.
.445 On-base percentage for Brandon Belt, third in the majors entering Thursday
Earlier this week, Belt said he thought extensively over the offseason about “what I really wanted to accomplish at the plate” and emphasized seeing pitches for as long as possible before deciding whether to swing.
“I wanted to make sure I got a pitch I could hit,” Belt said, “not resort to guessing or even over-anticipating. I was just going to see the ball as much as I could – which is something I’ve done with two strikes over my career.
“I got into a lot of 0-2 counts last year and battled back and got some walks and got to a lot of 3-2 counts. I kind of figured that if I could just take that approach from the get-go, I might give myself a better opportunity to be successful.”
Belt was swinging at just 44.3 percent of pitches he’d seen and 22 percent of those outside the strike zone as of Thursday, per the website FanGraphs, both career lows. He had walked in 19.2 percent of his plate appearances this season and struck out in 14.4 percent, a reversal of his career rates of 10.4 and 23.8, respectively.
Belt said a mid-September series against the Reds in 2015 – just before he suffered a season-ending concussion – was pivotal.
“I found certain mechanics that I liked, a set-up at the plate that I liked, and it allowed me to see the ball longer and put the bat on the ball more often,” Belt said. “I think that’s the main thing – although I’m laying off a lot of pitches, on pitches that are in the strike zone I’m making contact.”
Indeed, Belt’s contact rate (percentage of at-bats in which a hitter makes contact) entering Thursday was a career-high 80.2, and he had swung and missed on just 8.7 percent of pitches he’d seen, reinforcing the idea that he’s going up to hit with an improved eye. Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said Belt also made a slight mechanical adjustment by lowering his hands, which allows him to be shorter to the ball and creates less of a downward angle on his swings.
“He’s hitting balls harder because he’s figuring out a way to keep his swings flat in the zone,” Meulens said. “He used to have a really steep angle, fouling a lot of pitches off. At times he still does; it’s not a finished product yet. But that’s a big improvement that I see.”
Belt also is hitting balls the opposite way to left field about 10 percent more often than last season, according to FanGraphs, which he attributes partly to his new approach.
“I think that’s always been a strength of mine, (but) being able to see (pitches) longer has helped me get back to going the other way a lot more,” Belt said. “I’m not pulling off of balls as much as I was in the past. I’m staying on balls longer, and I think that’s resulted in me going the other way a lot more.”
Belt was a discerning hitter during his one full minor-league season in 2010, drawing 93 walks, but that hadn’t translated much to the majors before this year. Through 2015, Belt had 200 career walks and 499 strikeouts in the majors, and he acknowledged that being more patient has required some effort.
“If they don’t give you something, you’ve got to just take a walk,” Belt said. “And that’s hard sometimes because you get a little antsy up there. I think it just takes some coaching yourself and making that adjustment. Experience, learning my body and what approach works well for me play into it as well.”
If they don’t give you something, you’ve got to just take a walk. And that’s hard sometimes because you get a little antsy up there. I think it just takes some coaching yourself and making that adjustment. Experience, learning my body and what approach works well for me play into it as well.
So far, Belt appears committed to the change. Entering Thursday, he had reached base safely in 19 consecutive games – the second-longest such streak of his career – and was already halfway to his career-high total of 56 walks in a season.
“He got (to the majors) regarded as one of the best strike-zone awareness guys in our organization,” said Meulens, who pointed out that Belt played only one season in the minors. “We were still waiting for that at this level. And he’s finally getting to that.”