Brandon Belt is perplexing. At one moment, he shows flashes of brilliance, flashes of a bright future ahead. Other times, his performances aren’t as flowery.
Flowery certainly doesn’t describe Belt’s 2013 campaign thus far. He’s slashing .261/.337/.449 with a .787 OPS and 10 home runs. The home run total surpasses his original career-high of nine, but that gets overshadowed by his inconsistency and struggles to adjust.
While we’re here, let me do the honors of pointing out one particular pitch in one particular zone that’s been Belt’s biggest for a couple years: the elevated inside fastball. Brooks Baseball has his zone profile, and the mass portions of blue on the inside half of the plate reveals a big flaw.
But that’s hardly the entire problem. It’s more of the result of a bunch of problems where opposing pitchers can set him up and then pound his weak spot.
Let me start throwing some numbers at you.
Belt has had one dominant stretch in 2013, and it only takes a quick glance over his game logs to spot it. It wasn’t some two-week thing where the infamous “small sample size” excuse can be used. It was a solid month-plus of productivity. Or more specifically, May 7 to June 25.
Belt hit most things that came his way during this stretch, and with power. He slashed 299/.373/.500 with a .873 OPS and .201 ISO (Isolated Power), which measures a hitter’s sheer power. He was aggressive (18 K%) percent, and he hardly ever walked (9.9 BB%), but he was scratching the surface on excellence. You know, whatever works, right?
Now time for some darker times: Before Belt went on that May to late June hitting barrage, he had a slash line of .214/.275/.347. Just for laughs, throw in a .622 OPS, 24.8 K% and .257 BABIP (batting average on balls in play).
So to briefly recap: Belt was a) not hitting the ball much to begin with and b) not getting much luck, indicated by his .257 BABIP.
To put his BABIP into perspective, he had a .345 BABIP during his hot streak. There was some luck involved, but he was hitting the ball with power and for consistency. Everyone needs a bit of luck, after all.
On the contrary, Belt’s slow start can’t entirely be chalked up to bad luck. There were some bad tendencies that plagued him too.
The key takeaways: He wasn’t chasing sliders and curveballs as frequently, so he was getting better pitches to hit in hitters’ counts. That sounds like a good formula for success. And if Belt’s numbers during that stretch are proof, that’s indeed the case.
So what happened?
One word: fastballs. Belt saw more of them, and that’s pitching to his strength. Per FanGraphs, his fastball runs above average (wFB) in 2012 was 13.5. He’s not on track to finish that many runs above average this year, and that’s not a coincidence.
Note: Four-seam fastball percentage first, slider percentage second
April 1-May 6: 28.3%/18.4%
May 7-June 25: 37.8%/13.1%
June 26-July 13: 30.2%/20.8%
So Belt did indeed see a few more fastballs during his hot streak. Since, he’s seeing more sliders and less fastballs, which is pitching opposite to his strength.
That third span is an additional facet of our investigation, in case you hadn’t noticed. It simply underscores the point that pitchers have caught on to his biggest flaw–hitting the slider. The scouts clearly learned something from the youngster’s hot streak, and now the word is getting around.
However, Belt wasn’t as bad during that span as he was in the first range of dates. Since June 26, he’s hitting .244/.358/.511 with a .870 OPS and .375 BABIP. That’s hardly anything worth writing home about, but he’s hitting for power (.267 ISO).
In all, “meh” is a good way to describe Belt’s current stretch. It’s intriguing that he’s hitting with some pop, but that slash line doesn’t scream “consistency.”
You might be asking: what does all of this mean?
It’s a complicated answer. But in a nutshell: the decreased amount of fastballs and increased amount of sliders has Belt in a position where he’s most likely expanding his zone out of frustration and anxiousness to get the pitch he wants, when he’s generally not getting it.
Texas Leaguers has the data for all the pitches he’s swung at since June 26, next to his swing chart from May 7 to June 25:
The sample sizes are a bit different–one’s less than a month and one is well more than a month. But the point is that Belt is chasing pitches out of the strike zone (mainly soft stuff lower in the zone). The graphic on the right, meanwhile, confirms that he did a pretty good job of staying in the zone during his hot streak, which is not a coincidence.
Belt could be one adjustment away from solving his problem with sliders and the ensuing inside fastball. He’s been working with the coaching staff to solve that issue for quite a while.
Regardless, there’s a reason why Belt was previously one of the Giants’ top prospects. He has talent, and now he has to make adjustments. It’s the common cycle that all hitters go through.
All stats courtesy of Texas Leaguers, Brooks Baseball, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference