If the Giants named an official team captain, there’s not a single San Francisco fan that would argue with Buster Posey being given the designation. First alternate? Also nearly unanimous: Brandon Crawford. And should something Designated Survivor-ish befall those two titans of the orange and black, few would bat an eye at Joe Panik becoming the leader of the position players.
Of the established core of homegrown starters in the Giants line up, only one has failed to receive majority approval from the fan base, and has been the subject of such continued debate over the years it’s easy to overlook he’s now in his seventh season at the big league level. Brandon Belt has appeared in 739 games for San Francisco, owns two championship rings, and as of last July earned the prefix “All-Star first baseman”. Yet on a daily basis it seems, many in Giants nation debate whether he should be with the ball club at all.
There are a few reasons one might surmise as to why Giants fans have never been completely sold when it comes to Belt. We can begin with the fact the Giants haven’t had a true, major impact power hitter manning first base since Thrilling William (something like that, right?) burst on to the scene in the late 1980s. In fact, you have to go back 30 years to Clark’s sophomore season of 1987 to find the last Giant first baseman to hit 30+ home runs.
J.T. Snow posted a 28 homer season in 1997 and added a 24 home run output in 1999, but aside from that, no San Francisco first baseman besides Clark (who did it four times) has even broken the 20 homer barrier since Mike Ivie blasted 27 home runs in 1979. So to break it down further, the Giants have seen their primary first baseman top 20 home runs just six times in the last 36 seasons.
Fans were teased with the likes of Damon Minor, Lance Niekro and John Bowker; who each at one point looked like they may be the future at first base, only to never quite pan out. So when word came from the farm that a 6’5 Texan with a name seemingly destined for a slugger was rapidly rising through the Giants minor league system, fans starved for a power hitting first baseman thought that finally, the big bopper would soon arrive.
Belt reached the major leagues in 2011 and was immediately implanted as the team’s starting first baseman after just one full minor league season. However, lack of performance and injuries led to him being optioned back to the minor leagues, and he would not be back in the major leagues to stay until mid-July. Then came August, and the power the organization had seen in 2010 began to emerge. Belt hit seven home runs in the last two months of the season, and positioned himself as the presumptive first baseman of the future.
2012 saw Belt get the lion’s share of starts at first, but in spite of a respectable .275/.360/.421 line Belt hit just seven home runs to go along with a rather pedestrian 56 RBIs. Then came 2013, when it appeared he had come in to his own as a franchise player. Belt’s average jumped to .289, and he more than doubled his home run total to 17. He added 39 doubles, sixth most in the NL, and finished the year with an impressive 139 OPS+.
2014 represented a step back for Belt however, as a broken thumb early in the season forced him to miss nearly two months. Then upon being reactivated he was infamously struck in the head with a throw during warm-ups, and concussion symptoms plagued him into September. In all he was able to appear in just 61 games, finishing the regular season with 12 home runs, just 27 RBI, and a .243 average.
The criticism most often cited in regards to Belt is inconsistency, or “streakiness”. He’s prone to long slumps in between scalding hot streaks, and the hot streaks don’t come often enough. But when one examines the numbers, Belt has actually been about as consistent as they come over the last two plus seasons. His lines in 2015-2016 were strikingly similar:
2015: .280/.356/.478/.834, OPS+ 127, 138 H, 33 2B, 18 HR, 68 RBI
2016: .275/.394/.474/.868, OPS+ 134, 149 H, 41 2B, 17 HR, 82 RBI
Through 28 games in 2017, Belt’s line sits a .260/.393/.470/.863, with an OPS+ of 131. In spite of a dip in batting average (which can be attributed to a jump in K%) Belt’s OPS sits right where it usually does, which is well above average. If we project his current number of hits, doubles, home runs and RBI for a full season, they are all right on pace with his usual production:
2017 (projected): 150 H, 42 2B, 24 HR, 78 RBI
The rub lies in the expectations surrounding Belt’s ability as an offensive player. There are those still waiting on that 30 homer, 100 RBI season, the “real first baseman numbers”. Unfortunately for Giants fans, that’s a train that will likely never pull in to the station when it comes to Brandon Belt. What you’ve seen is what you’re going to get from Belt, and that’s 15-20 homers, 70-85 RBIs, plenty of walks, and plenty of strikeouts. While that may not sound very exciting, when you couple it with his perennially above average ratings as a defender what you get is a steady, every day first baseman.
For some, Belt will never be enough. He will always strike out too much, not hit enough homers, and slump his shoulders too often. I’m here to say that Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, or Wil Myers are not walking through the door, and with the remaining years left on Belt’s recently signed deal, trade suitors will be hard to come by.
Like it or not, Brandon Belt is in San Francisco to stay.