Looking back at the 2019 Giants, with an eye toward the future. Previously: Sam Coonrod, Trevor Gott, Evan Longoria, Joey Rickard, Donovan Solano, Kevin Pillar, Alex Dickerson, Fernando Abad, Stephen Vogt, Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith, Pablo Sandoval.
Gabe Kapler sounded like the world’s biggest Brandon Belt fan. Which either means the new Giants manager is already at work at massaging minds that have turned against Oracle Park, or the Giants already are at work pumping up the potential trade candidate’s value.
Asked at his introductory news conference about bringing in free agents to home confines that have become nightmare fuel for the Giants’ core, Kapler said: “I think it makes some sense to play to your environment to some degree. I thought a lot about about Brandon Belt, and specifically what he brings, how impressive it is to watch him take an at-bat. Independent of the outcome of the at-bat, he tends to look over pitches and make really good swings or adult swing decisions.
“I know the power has dropped off a little bit, but taking the things that he does very well and highlighting some of those things might lead to some more of that power production.”
The power, indisputably, has dropped off, as has the production. To what degree is this regression due to age, due to defensive shifts, due to poor luck? It’s a question both the Giants and teams interested in trading for him will be exploring.
Giants fans haven’t been able to collectively decide whether Belt is an above-average player for his nine-year career, so this isn’t an easy case to pin down. As shifts have become prevalent all over baseball, Belt’s numbers have plunged. And in a park that, while changing, has been death on lefties especially, Belt has become the face of Giants frustration.
Last season he bottomed out, slashing .234/.339/.403, his worst batting average since his rookie season and his 17 home runs not enough for a first baseman who was charged with helping to carry an offense that fell flat. Oracle Park, and defenses moving against a predictable hitter, played a significant part in this. Through Baseball Savant data that includes exit velocity, launch angle and sprint speed, his slugging percentage, which was .403, was expected to be .457. That differential was the ninth worst in baseball. (Evan Longoria was fourth worst and Brandon Crawford 10th: the Oracle Park effect.)
In an era when getting under the ball with power is king and ground balls belong in the trash, Belt should translate. Last season, his 28.3 percent ground-ball rate was the second best in baseball — behind only Mike Trout. The problem is that so many of his fly balls died in an outfield that will shrink, but not by too much. And plenty died on the road, too.
His splits are not the most encouraging to the he-just-needs-an-environment-change believers: He was better on the road, but his .239/.335/.436 away from San Francisco is not overly impressive. The 31-year-old has probably already seen the best seasons of his career.
Still, there’s value in his bat, more value in his disciplined eye — which actually had him leading off some of last season — and plenty of value in his solid first-base glove, which can also play an adequate left field. He’s due $32 million over the next two seasons, which is not an easy contract to move, and his 10-team no-trade list only makes it more difficult.
There have been Rangers rumblings forever, a team trotting out Ronald Guzman at first base, and it makes some sense for the Nacogdoches, Texas, native. There are teams that will be interested in a player whose bat has adjusted to an era of home runs, but whose bat is not built for Oracle Park.
He’s the most sensible of the core to go under a new leadership group that already cut short Joe Panik’s time as a Giant; Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria aren’t tradeable. Belt appears to have at least one believer in Kapler, but he should have believers in other, more win-now organizations, too — and the only price they would have to pay may be his contract. Farhan Zaidi made Mark Melancon’s $14 million 2020 salary disappear; will he pull the same trick with another still-useful player?