Misjudging Brandon Belt is par for the course for many Giants fans and analysts. That’s why it was surprising when Ray Ratto’s comments struck a nerve.
Just after Larry Baer, Bobby Evans, Brian Sabean, and Bruce Bochy concluded their 2016 season postmortem press conference, Ray Ratto, a commentator for CSN Bay Area, analyzed what the group had just said and addressed what he feels are the team’s biggest needs heading into 2017.
Ratto said, “[The Giants] need a real No. 2 hitter … Let’s face it: Brandon Belt is not a middle-of-the-order guy. He’s a six or seven hitter.” He went on to say that Belt “really hurts” the Giants by not providing power at the first base position.
There are two major problems with Ratto’s argument. Number one, he’s indefensibly wrong. Belt is one of the best offensive players in baseball and the numbers bear that out. Number two, it’s shocking that someone who’s literally paid to think and write and talk about the Giants would say something so preposterous.
First, let’s delve into why Ratto is wrong. There’s no shortage of evidence.
In 2016, Brandon Belt hit a robust .275/.394/.474 (AVG/OBP/SLG), compared to the average National League position player’s line of .260/.330/.425 and the average N.L. first baseman’s line of .259/.342/.454.
Notice that, right off the bat, Belt had a much better season in all three categories than the average N.L. first baseman. This alone should be enough to discredit Ratto, but this is fun, so let’s keep going.
What’s more, Belt’s 15.9% walk rate was the third best in the N.L., behind only Bryce Harper (17.2%) and Joey Votto (16.0%).
As a result, Belt’s .394 OBP was the fifth best in the league. The top 10 looks like this: Votto (.434), DJ LeMahieu (.416), Paul Goldschmidt (.411), Freddie Freeman (.400), Belt (.394), Dexter Fowler (.393), Daniel Murphy (.390), Ben Zobrist (.386), Kris Bryant (.385), and Anthony Rizzo (.385).
Anyone who knows baseball knows that that is list of stars. It’s no coincidence that Belt is on that list.
One of the big knocks on Belt is that he strikes out too much. Belt struck out in 22.6% of his plate appearances in 2016, which is 2.1 percentage points more than the league average position player (20.5%), but exactly the same strikeout rate as the league average first baseman.
Freddie Freeman struck out 2.1 percentage points more often than Belt. Kris Bryant struck out just 0.6 percentage points less. George Springer and Nelson Cruz struck out at a higher rate than Belt. Along with Bryant, other superstars who struck out at a similar rate to Belt (22.6%) were Goldschmidt (21.3%), Andrew McCutchen (21.2%), Carlos Correa (21.1%), Evan Longoria (21.0%), and Mike Trout (20.1%).
So the strikeout argument doesn’t hold any weight. Moving right along.
Another criticism of Belt, one that Ratto actually made, is that Belt doesn’t provide enough power for a first baseman. Ratto (correctly) thinks that first basemen ought to provide significant offensive punch, since defensive value at first base is much less important than it is at other positions like shortstop and centerfield.
However, looking back to Belt’s 2016 batting line (.275/.394/.474), we see that his .474 slugging percentage was 20 points higher than the league average first baseman (.259/.342/.454).
That said, it’s true that slugging percentage isn’t the greatest number to evaluate a hitter’s power, because it incorrectly assumes that a double is twice as valuable as a single, a triple three times as valuable, and a home run four times as valuable. While these assignments of value make some intuitive sense, they’re not mathematically accurate.
The other flaw with slugging percentage is that it can be easier (or harder) for a player to hit for power depending on his home ballpark.
AT&T Park, where Belt plays half of his games, happens to be the worst ballpark in all of baseball for hitting home runs, and it’s worse for left-handed hitters than it is for right-handed ones. This means Belt’s home run totals and slugging percentage are going to be suppressed as long as he plays for the Giants.
Even so, Belt managed to put up the 25th-best slugging percentage in the league this year, ahead of power threats like Curtis Granderson (30 home runs), Wil Myers (28 home runs), Harper (24 home runs), and McCutchen (24 home runs). Belt (.474) led the Giants in slugging percentage by 40 points over Buster Posey (.434), the next closest Giant.
But this was a flukish year for the Giants, I can hear you thinking. They hit for abnormally low power and Belt leading the charge says more about the Giants’ struggles than it says about Belt.
Not so fast. From 2013-2016, spanning 2,017 plate appearances over four seasons, Belt’s .474 slugging percentage (the same figure he put up in 2016) was 19th-best in the N.L., ahead of guys Ray Ratto definitely thinks are (or were) middle-of-the-order bats, like Yasiel Puig (.472), Matt Kemp (.471), Justin Upton (.470), A.J. Pollock (.465), Adrian Gonzalez (.465), Matt Carpenter (.464), Hunter Pence (.463), Buster Posey (.461), Daniel Murphy (.461), Matt Adams (.460), Matt Holliday (.456), and Jay Bruce (.450). The list goes on and on, but a point can only be driven home so aggressively.
Actually, let’s keep going. The list above only mentions N.L. players. Some American League guys with a worse slugging percentage than Belt (.474) over the last four years include Mark Trumbo (.470), Adam Jones (.468), Evan Longoria (.465), Rougned Odor (.464), Victor Martinez (.464), and Albert Pujols (.462). Pujols hit 116 home runs to Belt’s 64 over that span, and Belt still managed to have the higher slugging percentage. Doubles and triples count too, folks.
Home runs are certainly not the only way to judge a player’s power. In fact, looking just at home runs is a horrible, inaccurate, and even irresponsible way to judge a player’s power, especially when one finds him- or herself being paid a lot of money to analyze baseball. But I digress.
Using advanced metrics can be a far better way to evaluate a player’s talent and power than slugging percentage, which we have already shown to be a strength for Belt even though the cards are stacked against him.
Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is, first of all, a metric that is probably over Ray Ratto’s head. We don’t mean that as an insult, really, we just mean that if Ratto thinks Belt is bad, he probably can’t be bothered to consider, much less learn and apply, an advanced metric. To the uninformed, advanced metrics are Hocus Pocus fairy dust.
Nonetheless, wRC+ is a useful and accurate way to evaluate a hitter’s overall contributions, because it applies the proper weights to each offensive outcome and adjusts accurately for park factors (which, as we have discussed, is especially paramount when analyzing Giants players).
According to wRC+, Belt was the sixth-best-hitting position player in the N.L. this season. His 138 wRC+ indicates that he was 38% better than the average N.L. position player, because league average wRC+ is 100 each season.
Belt was fourth-best out of nine qualified N.L. first basemen this year in wRC+, only because Votto (158), Freeman (152), and Rizzo (145) had superhuman years.
For the record, Belt finished ahead of N.L. first basemen whom Ray Ratto definitely thinks are middle-of-the-order guys, like Matt Carpenter (135), Goldschmidt (134), and Adrian Gonzalez (112).
Belt (138) also finished ahead of Corey Seager (137), Yoenis Cespedes (134), Ryan Braun (133), Nolan Arenado (124), Justin Turner (124), and roughly 60 other qualified National League hitters.
On the American League side, Belt’s wRC+ was better than that of Mookie Betts (135), Edwin Encarnacion (134), Brian Dozier (132 … with 42 home runs), Adrian Beltre (130), and Manny Machado (129).
If those guys don’t belong in the middle of a lineup, no one does.
Again, looking back at four seasons of data, Belt’s wRC+ from 2013-2016 was 135, good for 18th-best in baseball, 11th-best in the N.L., and ahead of guys like Posey (132), Holliday (130), Pence (126), and Adrian Gonzalez (126), and just behind Rizzo (137) and Giancarlo Stanton (142).
We have shown now that Belt gets on base at an elite clip. We have shown that, despite playing at the worst park for lefty power in all of baseball, Belt puts up well-above-average slugging percentages.
As if that wasn’t enough, we have shown that, using advanced metrics, which more accurately reflect a player’s talent because they weigh his achievements properly and take his home ballpark into account, Belt is one of the very best hitters in all of baseball, not just this season, but over the last four, spanning over 2,000 trips at the plate. (By the way, none of this even takes into consideration the fact that Belt is one of the best defensive first basemen in the game.)
So, Ray Ratto, we’re sorry if this has turned into something personal. It really wasn’t meant to be that way. You just represent the reason many educated Giants fans feel frustrated by our less informed brethren who bash Belt without just cause.
A friend of mine recently suggested that Belt should be traded to the Yankees for two minor league relief pitchers. Which pitchers? He didn’t even care. It was the typical “anyone but Belt” mentality that makes no sense and drives thinking fans crazy.
Someone on Twitter argued with me (!!!) that the 5-year, $72.8M extension the Giants gave Belt this year was a monumental overpay, because “Belt would have gone all winter un-signed if he was a free agent,” meaning our friend on Twitter thought that literally no team in baseball would want Belt even for the league minimum salary. Imagine that, no team wanting one of the best hitters in the game.
Indeed, the ignorance surrounding the evaluation of Belt’s talents as a baseball player runs astonishingly deep.
Ray Ratto’s whole point was that Belt should definitely not bat second, and that the Giants need to find someone capable of replacing him in the middle of the lineup (we’d be curious to hear his suggestions).
We guess that Belt’s ridiculous .370/.500/.667 line when batting second this season wasn’t good enough for Ray Ratto.
We guess that Belt’s .293/.392/.484 line with runners in scoring position this year wasn’t good enough for those who like to say that Belt struggles in the clutch.
We’re forced to guess a lot of things when it comes to people’s jaw dropping misinterpretations of Belt as a baseball player.
Most of all, we guess we are glad that Ray Ratto and/or the fans who would like to see Belt traded for two faceless minor league relief pitchers aren’t the ones calling the shots for the Giants.
We live in a strange sports reality when people like Ray Ratto, who are paid (hundreds of?) thousands of dollars to write and talk about the Giants, so flagrantly misrepresent a player as talented as Belt. If analysts like Ratto are so wrong about Belt, what other misinformation are they spreading on television, in newspapers, and online?
That’s exactly why CoveCast exists. We want to deliver opinionated yet data-driven Giants baseball analysis, at a time when, clearly, it can be hard to find.