The San Francisco Giants are not having what would classically be referred to as a good season. As of Tuesday their record stands at 16–24, with last week’s three-game sweep of the Reds finally lifting them out of last place in the NL West. They have scored the second-fewest runs and own the second-worst run differential in the National League, and in April achieved the ignominious distinction of matching the worst record in franchise history through 19 games. The problems are myriad: Denard Span and Brandon Crawford both missed time with injuries; Buster Posey’s bat got off to a slow start; Mark Melancon — the team’s closer and marquee acquisition of the offseason — hasn’t been quite the salve the franchise was hoping for; Eduardo Núñez was great and then wasn’t; Johnny Cueto has a 4.15 ERA; Matt Cain is hard to see on the mound past the flickering maw of Satan; and Madison Bumgarner rode a dirtbike.
But we haven’t come to talk about the bad Giants, who at least are waltzing into late-dynasty disrepair with pleasant Roman cavalierness. We have gathered instead to discuss 29-year-old San Francisco first baseman Brandon Belt, who is both (a) great and (b) criminally underrated. Not just underrated: cruelly and maddeningly controversial too, even — especially — in some corners of Giants fandom. Belt’s detractors are wrong. Very wrong.
For starters: Belt leads the 2017 team in RBIs (17) and is tied for the lead in home runs (seven). Sure, as you might have gleaned from the state of affairs described above, he’s not exactly facing the stiffest in-house competition; he’s hit those marks while batting just .221 in 140 at-bats. (A further indicator of the Giants’ plight: Poor, shoulder-separated Bumgarner is still tied for fifth on San Francisco’s roster in home runs, a fact that with each passing day moves further from the April of BEHOLD THE PITCHER OF DOOM and deeper into the May of uh, have you guys been getting enough protein? Sleep? Salt water? Love?) But advanced stats abet Belt’s impact, too: Through 39 games, he has a WAR of 1.0. That puts him on pace for his second straight season with 4.0-plus WAR; Belt’s 4.5 WAR in 2016 was higher than that of Reds first baseman Joey Votto (4.0), a four-time All-Star who finished seventh in NL MVP voting.
Yet measures of Belt’s success have routinely been overshadowed by signifiers of his shortcomings. He is a miserable 3-for-51 with 27 strikeouts in his career against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, against whom manager Bruce Bochy benched him outright earlier this month. He’s never hit more than 20 home runs in a single season. And while he leads the team in runs (20) and walks (28), he also has significantly more strikeouts (45) than any other batter. His swing-and-miss tendencies have set off another round of criticism from the internet commentariat: Belt needs to figure it out. Belt is so overrated. Belt is an embarrassment to first basemen everywhere. The controversy is such that SB Nation’s Giants blog, McCovey Chronicles, has taken to calling the years of Belt-naysayer-versus-Belt-defender debates “the Belt Wars.”
In March, an anonymous scout spoke out on behalf of the naysayer camp, talking to Sports Illustrated about the six-year contract the first baseman signed at the beginning of the 2016 season. “Brandon Belt is going to have to step up his game,” the scout said. “This is a guy they gave $79 million based on what they expected him to do in the future — well, the future is now.” Belt is so divisive that when it came time for the team to negotiate that extension, he merited this headline in the San Jose Mercury News: “With so many varied opinions on his value, Brandon Belt and Giants are set to open contract talks.”
Belt is a player who is appreciated by the stats but seemingly by few around the game. And if the Giants hope to pull out of their tailspin for good — or at least stay ahead of the Padres in the division — they’ll likely have to rely on the efforts of their Rorschach test of a first baseman.
Since making his MLB debut in 2011, Belt has spent his entire career in San Francisco. In handing him a six-year deal in April 2016, the Giants front office clearly paid little attention to his detractors. But it’s hard not to look at the team-friendly terms of his deal — Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, for example, was guaranteed more than twice the money that Belt was — and wonder if those were settled upon in part because of the asterisk that his doubters have affixed to his every accomplishment. “What if you gathered a dozen of the Giants’ top decision-makers in one room and asked them to peg a value on someone like Belt?” Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly asked in that Mercury News column last year. “Would they even hit the same dartboard? Which side of the rope would they grab?”
Part of Belt’s problem may stem from his penchant for playing his best during San Francisco’s cursed odd-numbered years. He posted slash lines of .289/.360/.481 and .280/.356/.478 in 2013 and 2015, respectively, both seasons in which the Giants missed the playoffs. In 2014, though, a year in which the team went on a MadBum-and-Budweiser-fueled run to win the title, Belt had a line of .243/.306/.449 while missing more than 90 games with a broken thumb.
Belt also has the misfortune of playing his home games in AT&T Park, which in future decades will be converted into a retirement home for pitchers, who will walker their way across the grass and remember all the things perfectly nice batters like Belt were robbed of in the stadium’s absurdly pitcher-friendly confines. In 2016, the park ranked dead last in taters mashed and home run rate, explaining breakdowns like this:
And yet, despite this, Belt last year finished fifth — fifth! — in the National League in on-base percentage, finally earning his first All-Star berth along the way. He’s occasionally shown a flair for the dramatic; he blasted his first career grand slam in April, and last July he clubbed AT&T Park’s splash hit no. 69, which not a few Bay Area denizens had been waiting for. (In typical Beltian fashion, even this honor was fleeting: Splash hit no. 70 came just five days later, courtesy of a Span shot.) There was also Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS, in which Belt broke up the Giants’ 1–1 stalemate with the Nationals with a solo home run in the 18th inning. Babies were born, came of age, and gave birth to their own babies during the course of that game, neon-orange progenies whose first glimpse of Earth was Belt’s ball flying into the right-field stands of Nationals Park.
Beyond WAR, other advanced stats hint at what more direct achievements — things like the Gold Glove award, which he has never won, or even just the satisfying plunk of all the home runs denied by AT&T Park — don’t tell about Belt. As of Monday, he was one of only two Giants in the top 75 of wRC+ (weighted runs created) this season; in 2016 his defensive production was such that he was listed fifth among NL first basemen in the SABR Defensive Index, directly behind more widely lauded stars like Anthony Rizzo, Wil Myers, Freddie Freeman, and Paul Goldschmidt. FanGraphs ranked the Giants’ first-base situation as sixth in the majors at the start of this season, up from seventh last year.
Still, where Brandon Belt goes, doubt has a way of following. Here’s a representative passage from last month: “Belt has drawn 16 walks this season and his on-base percentage is .365. ‘That’s outstanding … but he has to start beating that fastball,’ [Giants broadcaster Mike] Krukow added.” That’s outstanding … but. One of these days Belt’s jersey is going to snag on something as he dives for a ground ball, and we’ll all see that he has THAT’S OUTSTANDING … BUT tattooed in giant letters across his back.
With his extension intact, it’s possible that Belt will spend his entire career in San Francisco: a professional lifetime of AT&T Park’s unforgiving right-field wall and a fan base not always willing to favor nerd math over balls plopped into the San Francisco Bay. But Belt is too good for the reputation that follows him, and in a year when we’ve all spent a lot of time waiting around to see the splendor of a baby giraffe — well, you could do a lot worse than embracing this one.