It's a good time to be San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt. The 30-year-old has posted a respectable line of .288/.386/.576 with five home runs and 10 RBI. To give a better idea, Belt didn't get his fifth homer of 2017 until May 11, and ESPN currently has him on pace to slug a career-best 39 this year.
Belt made the headlines again yesterday when he set a new record with a 21 pitch at-bat against Los Angeles Angels rookie right-hander Jaime Barria. Belt ultimately lined out to right field, but his resilience at the plate did not go unnoticed.
However, Belt's hot start to 2018 is coming at a cost. Disciplined as he has been throughout his career, Belt could be headed for a major downturn in his stats if he falls into an extended slump this year.
The numbers now
Belt has definitely shown more power this year, and the numbers reflect as such. His BABIP is at .333, which suggests good luck on his end, but that doesn't necessarily take away from how much he has helped his team. Belt's isolated power (ISO) stands at .288, but that should level out as the season goes on, depending on how Belt performs in the doubles/extra base hits department.
Belt's fly ball rate (FB%) is also at an impressive 55%, well up from last year's mark of 46.9%. His home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) is up to 22.7% from 14.1% in 2017, so it is clear Belt is trying hard to improve his home run power and, on top of that, his launch angle and exit velocity on his fly balls.
However, in an era where who can hit the ball the hardest, farthest, and fastest is gaining importance, Belt could be in for a rude awakening when an inevitable slump makes an appearance.
Numbers of concern
What nobody has said considering Belt's hot start is that despite his strong slash line, his walks are down and his strikeouts are up. His walk rate (BB%) is currently at 11.4% and while that is just a tick below his career mark of 11.7%, it is down from 14.6% in 2017. Belt has always been a line drive hitter known for getting on base well, so the fact that he is taking less walks this year could come back to bite him down the line.
Even more concerning is Belt's increase in strikeouts. He has 19 in 70 plate appearances already, putting his strikeout rate (K%) at 27.1% for the year. That is up not only from last year's K% of 23.1 but also Belt's career K% of 23.9. Home run hitters will strike out more as New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge knows well after leading the majors with 208 strikeouts last year, but Judge also led the AL in walks with 127. Belt's walks are down and his strikeouts are up, so he has plenty of room for improvement in terms of patience.
Also working against Belt is his decrease in medium contact (Med%). His Med% is currently 31.7%, well below last year's mark of 47.7% as well as his career Med% of 50.4%. His line drive rate (LD%), oddly enough, is only down to 22.5% from 23.4% in 2017. Either way, the man is prioritizing hitting fly balls and while it's great he's adjusting to the game accordingly, it's coming at a cost in the form of increased strikeouts and decreased walks.
In the long run, fans shouldn't spend too much time worrying about Belt's deeper hitting metrics. This is his eighth major league season, and he's been around long enough to know how to adjust accordingly if things aren't going his way.
The reality of the matter, however, is that Belt cannot live on fly balls alone. He needs to find a way to mix in some doubles to go with singles and home runs. It's entirely situational. Rather than go up to bat looking to drive the ball each time, perhaps he should also look to line it to the gap at times, or maybe sneak a single on the ground the opposite way.
Belt is more than capable of tinkering his swing and can avoid major slumps so long as he takes the above approaches, but it all starts with him.