Brandon Belt will enter another season as the starting first baseman for the San Francisco Giants. The time is now to end the Belt Wars.
Baseball is a game which revolves around of traditionalism, the idea that an institution should stick to the status quo and reject drastic change. As an institution which has survived since the 19th century, baseball retaining every finite detail regarding how the founders meant for the game to operate is an impossibility, evidenced by the introduction of the Pace of Game Clock and Instant Replay to list a few of the many examples.
Despite minor additions and subtractions here and there, the core of baseball’s traditionalist ideology remains unhampered. The game still involves a white spheroid lined with stitching, a bat made from the finest wood, gloves stitched from leather, and teams composed of nine ballplayers on each side (let’s ignore the DH for the sake of the argument). As Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck put so perfectly, “baseball is the only thing beside the paper clip that hasn’t changed.”
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Mired in this traditionalism is the centuries of conditioning regarding the expected tool-kit of a player based on position, or simply positional generalizations. Under the blanket of this ideology, players are evaluated not based on their productivity at face value, but their productivity in comparison to the expectations of the position they play.
There is no denying traditionalists still abide by these standards to this day in all realms. Unless they put up undisputedly superstar numbers, when players fail to abide by these standards they are cast off as unproductive and a detriment to their team’s successes.
Now is the traditionalist mold for positional expectations warranted? Yes and no. Each player brings a particular set of talents to the table, and while said talents may not comply with a player’s intended position, they are valuable nonetheless.
Thus, we arrive at the case of Brandon Belt. Belt is a first baseman, a position reserved for ballplayers who, for the most part, have power. Considering that the positional responsibilities of first basemen require less mobility and less skill than that of a shortstop or catcher, they’re expected to compensate with eye-popping offensive numbers, specifically in the home run department.
If Belt is a first baseman and first basemen typically hit a lot of home runs, then there is an expectation that Belt should hit a lot of home runs, but before arriving at that conclusion, one must consider two other facts: Belt plays for the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco Giants play at AT&T Park, which notoriously favors pitchers, not hitters.
With those additional parameters in mind, the aforementioned conclusion changes to something along these lines: If Belt is a first baseman and first basemen typically hit a lot of home runs, then there is an expectation that Belt should hit a lot of home runs, but Belt also plays for the San Francisco Giants, who play at AT&T Park, a place where no one hits a lot of home runs, meaning one should not evaluate Belt through the lens of a traditional first baseman and the parameters for success should change accordingly.
Despite this knowledge in hand, some skeptics still decide to judge Belt in the same light as Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, and other power-hitting first basemen in the prime of their careers. When the traditional statistics of Belt fail to match that of peers, his critics arrive at the conclusion that Belt, even with an All-Star appearance in hand, is overrated.
This upcoming season with the San Francisco Giants may be the seventh installment of the Belt Wars, which is arguably symbolic of the standard versus sabermetrics debate which has gained steam in recent years. For all intents and purpose, the goal of this piece is to finally end this pseudo-battle and officially prove Brandon Belt’s all-around excellence and worthiness of the All-Star title.
The Influence of AT&T Park
Before moving onto this segment, please refer to this video, specifically from 0:54 to 1:06. If the San Francisco Giants played at any other stadium, Bonds would have provided every fan in attendance with the single greatest final at-bat in team history. Alas, he missed home run No. 763 by a few feet.
As mentioned above, the San Francisco Giants play at AT&T Park, and home runs are hard to come by at their home grounds. Mixing the strong winds provided by McCovey Cove with laughably spacious dimensions and a 25-foot wall stretch from right-field to right-center doesn’t make for a consistent showing of the long ball.
An effective way to paint a clear and concise picture of the degree to which AT&T Park favors pitchers is to examine Park Factors, and while this is an imperfect science, it provides a general idea of which way a ballpark swings on the hitter/pitcher favoritism spectrum.
According to parkfactors.com, AT&T Park has a Park Factor of 76 based on offensive production from 2010 to 2016, meaning that in that time span, “AT&T Park produced 84 runs for every 100 runs produced in the average MLB park, and 67 HRs for every 100 homers…This is an extreme pitcher’s park.”
Based on this website’s rating system, ballparks with a Park Factor ranging from 96 to 104 are neutral, meaning that AT&T Park is a hitter’s nightmare. To juxtapose AT&T’s 76 figure, Coors Field has a Park Factor of 138, producing 142 runs for every 100 runs and 135 home runs for every 100 home runs.
To further supplement AT&T Park’s scarcity of home runs, look no further than ESPN’s Park Factors, which compares the home and road splits to illustrate whether a park favors the hitter or the pitcher. According to ESPN, since Belt’s rookie season, AT&T Park has ranked last in home run rate in five out of six seasons with an average rating of 0.644, well-below the neutral score of 1.000.
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Again, park factors are not perfect and have the sole purpose of providing a general idea of how a specific ballpark functions rather than providing an absolute truth. That being said, the raw numbers can further prove the extent to which AT&T Park robs batters of home runs.
Dating back to Belt’s rookie season, the San Francisco Giants have hit 729 home runs, placing them dead last in total long balls during that time span. The significance of that total comes not from the total amount, but the home/road split. ~62% of San Francisco’s home runs were on the road, the rest, of course, coming at home. There is a similar home/road split in Belt’s home run totals as well, as of his 80 career home runs, 54 of them were hit on the road.
This information all leads to one undeniable conclusion which anyone who has watched the San Francisco Giants already knows: home runs at AT&T Park are few and far between. Thus, anyone who wishes to evaluate Belt fairly must consider the effects of playing 81 games at the home run cemetery that is AT&T Park.
If skeptics shouldn’t judge Belt’s standard statistics, how should they evaluate him as a player? The answer, of course, is by looking at his sabermetrics, the stats which won’t show up on the back of his baseball card. To do so, we’ll examine a couple key figures and compare Belt’s numbers to that of the average first baseman.
Here is a chart comparing Belt’s production to that of the average first baseman. Note that 2011 and 2014 were left off this chart. The reason for this exclusion is that Belt only played 63 and 61 games, respectively, in both of those seasons, meaning the sample size is too small for comparison. In 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016, Belt played an average of 147 games, meaning there’s enough information to properly compare and contrast.
Lots of information condensed into this chart so let’s break it down. In 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016, Belt’s batting average, on-base percentage, weighted on-base average, wRC+, and BABIP were all better than the average first baseman, meaning that at minimum, Belt has consistently hit better than average.
Belt noticeably struggled in 2012 compared to the other three seasons. In 2013, 2015, and 2016, Belt was one statistical category away from putting up numbers that were better than the average first baseman. Belt’s finished with a below-average BB% in 2013, and a below-average K% in the past two seasons.
Regarding 2012, in addition to a below-average K%, Belt finished with a below-average slugging percentage and isolated power, two figures indicative of a player’s power. Belt finished that season with seven home runs and 173 total bases, both career-lows for a full season, although he did steal a career-high twelve bases for what it’s worth.
This season may have been the start of the Belt Wars, especially when considering Belt hit nine home runs the previous season with less than half the plate appearances, but power numbers aside, 2012 was a fine offensive season and the San Francisco Giants were the last team standing for the second time in three years.
The chart above comparing Belt to the average first baseman speaks volumes of Belt’s worth, but to really drive the point home, let’s compare Belt to baseball’s elite. Where does Brandon Belt stack up compared to the competition?
Unsurprisingly, very well. Belt’s two seasons with injuries muddy up the results, so the chart below will examine where he finished every fully healthy season in the same statistical categories.
Of all the columns, the two most important are wOBA and wRC+ (remember the discussion about AT&T?) the two best catch-alls for of individual offensive performance, and in his last three seasons, he has ended his season in the top ten of both categories, a sample size is large enough to conclude that Belt has been one of the best first basemen in the business.
Before arriving at the conclusion, there is one aspect of Belt’s game which this article has yet to examine: fielding. Of the four homegrown infielders for the San Francisco Giants, Belt is the only one who has not earned a Gold Glove Award. Considering Eric Hosmer has racked up three despite being a below-average first-baseman at best, hardware isn’t the best measure of ability. For that, we use DRS, or defensive runs saved.
A defensive statistic created by John Dewan of The Fielding Bible, DRS measures how many runs above or below average a fielder is worth; in theory, the higher the number, the better the fielder.
Since 2011, Belt ranks fourth in total DRS among first basemen. The three players above him? Adrian Gonzalez, Anthony Rizzo, and Paul Goldschmidt, three players who have won both the media’s Gold Glove Award and The Fielding Bible’s Gold Glove Award. Last season, despite not finishing in the top three in the media vote, Belt tied for the second-most runs saved and was The Fielding Bible’s runner-up for best defensive first baseman.
In summation, Brandon Belt is a fine first baseman deserving of every cent the San Francisco Giants offered him last season. He’s not the perfect first baseman and realistically won’t lead the league in any major statistical categories anytime soon, but he’s partly the reason San Francisco has two of their three World Series title and why they continue to be a contender every season. He’s an All-Star caliber player, and now is the time to treat him as such.