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Not a Rookie: Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants

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Brandon Belt
Brandon Belt
Justin K. Aller

San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt is currently on the disabled list with a broken left thumb. A reader recently asked me how Belt ranked as an amateur player and minor league prospect. With the 2014 MLB draft approaching on Thursday, I felt Belt would be a good guy to profile since he wasn't a top round pick but has developed into a strong regular.

Belt hit .323/.416/.523 in 235 at-bats for the University of Texas in 2009, with 40 walks and 37 strikeouts in 235 at-bats. I wrote this about him in my 2010 book:

Belt was selected by the Giants in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, from the University of Texas. He signed too late to play professionally, but will probably make his 2010 debut at the low-A level. Belt is a big guy with a big wingspan, and considerable power potential. Scouts say his swing doesn’t fully translate his strength into power, and indeed he never completely dominated college pitching, though his performance was pretty solid overall. He works counts and controls the strike zone well, which helps, but he’s vulnerable to pitches inside. Belt has a good bit of athleticism and looks like a fine defender to me. I’m not sure how the bat is going to develop, and we need to see what he does against pro pitching before going higher than a Grade C, but I think he has some breakout potential once he gets comfortable.

Making his pro debut in 2010, Belt tore the cover off the ball, hitting .383/.492/.628 with 10 homers and 58 walks in 269 at-bats for High-A San Jose, followed by a .337/.413/.623 line in 175 at-bats for Double-A Richmond. This led to the following comment entering 2011:

Where the hell did this come from? I want to say I predicted it, and I did, sort- of, when I wrote that he had breakout potential. OK, so I saw the potential, but damn, I didn’t expect .352/.455/.620 with 23 homers, 43 doubles, 93 walks, and 22 steals. So, what happened? The Giants retooled his swing last year, shortening it up, improving his bat speed, and making him much less vulnerable to the inside pitches that troubled him in college. He always had good strike zone judgment and some feel for hitting, and his mental approach combined with the new swing resulted in a stunning campaign. Physically, he’s a big guy but is reasonably athletic, runs well, and is intelligently-aggressive on the bases. He won’t steal 22 bases in the majors, but I bet he could steal 10 at a good percentage if given the green light often enough. He plays hard and is also a decent defender at first base. Overall, I think the breakout is completely legitimate, and while some consolidation time in Triple-A might be a good idea, I don’t see anything not to like about Belt. Grade A-.

As you know, Belt did need consolidation time in Triple-A: he split '11 between the Pacific Coast League and the majors, doing fine at Fresno (.309/.448/.527 in 49 games) but struggling to bring the adjustments forward to the majors (.225/.306/.412 in 187 at-bats). He improved in 2012 (.275/.360/.421), hitting just seven homers but coming out with a decent 118 wRC+ and a 123 OPS+, then broke out with more power in 2013 (.289/.368/.481, 17 homers, 39 doubles, 139 wRC+, 141 OPS+). 2014 was similar (wRC+ 132) before he went down with the thumb injury. We'll have to see if that inhibits his power when he returns.

It is very early in his career to be making sabermetric comps, but the names that do come up are interesting. His top comps via Sim Score through age 25 are Conor Jackson, Lee May, Bill White, Mo Vaughn, David Ortiz, Ed Bouchee, Greg Colbrunn, Willie Aikens, Babe Young, and Earl Torgeson.

Now, that's a diverse group. Conor Jackson fizzled. Lee May was a very productive slugger with 354 career homers. Bill White was also very good, hitting 202 homers in a low-offense context, although he faded at 33. Mo Vaughn was a beast in his late 20s but faded quickly; David Ortiz has remained a beast through age 38. Bouchee was a slugger in the late 50s who was solid through age 26 but fell apart after that, similar to Jackson. Colbrunn lasted through age 34 but was a role player after 27. Aikens was excellent through age 28 but then crashed on the rocks of personal problems. Young was solid through 26 but then had to go fight World War Two and wasn't the same when he came back. Torgeson had great years at age 26 and 27 but faded into role player status, though he was in the majors through age 37 and hit 149 homers in his career.

Belt's wRC+ and OPS+ marks are considerably better than Jackson's and Colbrunn's; Sim Score doesn't account for extremes in offensive context, and Belt's numbers in context are closer to the success stories than the failures. Assuming that Belt doesn't start doing crack and avoids getting drafted to fight in a world war, I have to be optimistic about his chances for a long and productive career, at least through his late 20s.