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San Francisco Giants bat Brandon Belt third-numbers tell the story

By Mark ONeill
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Much goes into the formation of the San Francisco Giants’ lineup besides wishful thinking. Wanting Brandon Belt to nail thirty home runs, and placing him third in the lineup to take advantage of all that power, sounds like wishful thinking gone amok. Is it possible Bruce Bochy knows something about Belt’s past performance that has a bearing on his placement of the lanky first baseman, in the spot usually designated as that of the best pure hitter on the club?

Bochy presented what could be the lineup for the upcoming 2015 season, should matters remain the way they are now, and placed Brandon Belt just before cleanup hitter, Buster Posey. Whereas many fans accept Belt in this spot without question, when one examines how he has fared in his career as the number-three hitter, looking at some key statistics reveals why Bochy reached his decision. Let’s begin with Belt’s past performance batting third:

2014: 4 HRs in 55 PAs,  .176/.218/.471/.689

2013: 5 HRs in 198 PAs,  .320/.371/.508/.879

career: 9 HRs in 256 PAs,  .285/.333/.494./.827

Aug 3, 2014; New York, NY, USA; San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt (9) is greeted by third base coach Tim Flannery (1) after hitting a home run during the fourth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

In the just-completed season, Belt produced uninspiring offensive numbers, while trying to recover from injuries which impacted his ability to hit.

Research indicates that having a pulverized thumb will affect a player’s offensive stats.

Having his left thumb tenderized between a pitched ball and his bat, is not conducive to putting up impressive stats anytime in the foreseeable future.

Neither is suffering a concussion, the resulting symptoms obviously taking their toll on his hitting stats. On the other hand, if one goes back to 2013, a season in which he had approximately four times as many plate appearances in the three-spot, his numbers mirror Bochy’s confidence. What about Belt’s numbers while batting in other spots in the lineup?

He has 1,314 PAs in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh positions in the lineup combined, which is 89% of his career PAs. I left out the stats for the remaining 11% of his major league plate appearances, because they represented too small of a sampling size. His fifteen plate appearances as a cleanup hitter reveal a .615 slugging percentage, but the Giants already have a cleanup hitter in Buster Posey. Let’s look at Belt’s offense while batting in places in the order other than third:

career batting fifth: 4 HRs in 188 PAs,  .177/.277/.293/.569

career batting sixth:18 HRs in 620 PAs,  .301/.374/.479/..853

career batting seventh: 7 HRs in 250 PAs,  .257/.336/.428/.764

Belt’s 620 PAs (42% of his 1,487 MLB PAs) in the number six position, represent his biggest sampling size and no wonder: An on-base percentage of .374 is pretty solid. But his best power numbers are reflected in that number three slot, where he has a .494 slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats).

Now with the need for power being more crucial than in 2013, with Pablo Sandoval no longer with the Giants, Belt’s .494 slugging percentage is enough to overcome the difference in his OBP (.374-.333, a 41 point difference). What he lacks in ability to get on base, he more than compensates for, by being able to use his power.

Statistics have been in the spotlight here at Around the Foghorn recently, primarily from the standpoint of being cautious: Sometimes it’s challenging to know when to nail them and when to back off. In this case, it’s hammer time.

Reader carmot was more than just curious as to whether or not Bochy based his decision about Belt on the numbers in place, or just a whim. Carmot is not like me, who has only limited interest in numbers, and decidedly little experience in being able to decipher the higher level information. In this instance he graciously offered them to me for consideration. All stats were delivered to me on a silver platter and speak for themselves.

With Belt and Posey’s lineup positions established, Pence will bat fifth, Casey McGehee sixth, and then there remains what has emerged as the surprise placement of Nori Aoki in the number seven hole. Those who want Aoki batting behind Angel Pagan in the second spot, insist that the speed needs to be at the top of the lineup, with the power coming up in the middle.

Aug 2, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford (35) high fives first baseman Brandon Belt (9) after he hit a 2-run home run during the seventh inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. San Francisco Giants defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Bochy evidently likes to spread out the wealth, so that he can better utilize Brandon Crawford down at the very bottom of the order. Otherwise, the same problem that the Giants had last year will plague them again-an inconsistent offense.

Batting Aoki number seven offers a better chance that the Giants will be able to keep the offense more even. Having Aoki bat right behind Pagan is great when it works, but not so great when the rally dies in midstream, and there’s not enough current to keep it going. With fewer balls leaving the park, some of those would-be homers are going to be doubles.

It’s going to be a different team than that of previous seasons, but that pattern is nothing new. The Giants have always relied on the reinforcements brought in by Sabean to get the job done.  With James Shields finally deciding on San Diego, the price of poker just went up in the National League West, and it’s going to take an incredible draw from the deck to even the starting hands. That draw must involve Belt.

Belt does not have to carry the team by himself, but he does have to step up his game. He was well on the way last season when he encountered technical difficulties, and ended up not coming back until the playoffs had almost begun. This year, if he’s not in the lineup full-time, there is unlikely to be any playoffs.

Deal the cards, dealer, and make sure you have removed the joker. Belt saw enough of him in 2014 to last a lifetime.

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