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Let’s watch Brandon Belt decide to stop stealing bases, forever

Brandon Belt can steal bases, okay? He just hasn’t wanted to recently. He had some bad experiences. He doesn’t want to talk about it.

New York Mets v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

This article wasn’t originally going to be about this. It was going to be serious and well-thought, an investigation into baserunning trends and abilities that you probably would’ve enjoyed yet also found enlightening. But before it could be that, I decided to sort a leaderboard by a little made-up stat: “net stolen bases,” successful steals minus caught stealings. It went like this, basically:

Billy Hamilton leads with 50, because of course he does; Jonathar Villar is in second by a huge margin, since his one extra stolen base over Hamilton has come at the cost of getting caught more than twice as often. Kinda interesting. Gotta check out the other end though, and wow, John Jaso and Brandon Belt are both at -4, with no successes and four failures. That’s bad! Jaso looks like he tries to slip a stolen base by about once a month, and this season he got caught for each one. And Belt... Belt tried to steal four times in the first month of the season, was caught every time, and hasn’t stolen a base since then. Geez. Poor Brandon Belt :(

It’s true! Brandon Belt and John Jaso are both 0-for-4, but while Jaso looks like an unlucky opportunist, Belt looks like someone who had to come to a painful and abrupt understanding with his own body on the subject of its physical limitations. Now, this isn’t unprecedented by any stretch; thanks to the Baseball Reference Play Index, I can tell you that 190 players, including Belt and Jaso, have had zero steals and been caught at least four times since 1901. No, this isn’t about history; it’s about Brandon Belt.

ATTEMPT #1: April 5

April baseball is wonderful. We’re all just so happy that it exists, and all the implications of the wins and losses feel so far away. This was the Giants’ second game of the year, but it’s never too early to set a tone and show the rest of the league what’s up. Belt got off to a good start in that respect; the Brewers had shifted on him, so he laid down a bunt toward third base and got aboard easily.

Maybe Belt was feeling a bit small-ball, and looking to manufacture an insurance run with his bunting and baserunning. In any case, he picked a pretty bad pitch to run on, a fastball that missed its target but was nonetheless very easily received by Lucroy. This wasn’t a great throw — Gennett has to lunge forward and toward first just to catch it — but Belt is far enough from the bag that it still gets him easily. Not a great start.

Duane Kuiper on the Giants TV broadcast tried to throw Belt a lifeline, suggesting that it was a botched hit-and-run, but Mike Krukow thought (probably correctly) that this was just Belt trying to grab second. After all, said Krukow, “Belt can steal a base.” If only he knew then what we know now.

ATTEMPT #2: April 6

It’s the very next day. Belt knows the CS yesterday wasn’t a big deal, but it’s the kind of thing that feels like it matters a lot more in April than it would in August. Oh well, he says. He’ll get number one today.

He again picks a pretty mediocre pitch to go on, rather than anticipating a curveball or changeup, and Lucroy makes a better throw, though still not perfect. Gennett has to snag it on the bounce, then get his glove to Belt’s foot, though he does so. The call on the field was safe, but:

Kuiper and Krukow again comment mildly on Belt just trying for a straight steal, but they don’t mention that he was caught literally yesterday. Three games into 2016, and Brandon Belt is already 0-for-2 trying to steal second.

ATTEMPT 3: April 28

It’s been three weeks since the last caught stealing, enough time for Belt to get his feet under himself, go into his first mini-slump and work his way out of it, and now he’s ready to give stealing another shot. Clean slate. Today’s a good day to try, too; Steven Matz is pitching for the Mets, and he’s notably slow to the plate. (He ended up allowing 20 stolen bases in about 130 innings this year, which is a lot, especially for a southpaw.) As with the first attempt, Belt had just tried to bunt his way on, and while that failed, he ended up reaching thanks to a broken-bat squib past third base, so effectively the same thing. Brandon Belt wants to do small ball.

There’s not much sadder to me than seeing someone make a replay signal to the dugout and get rejected. Belt seems to know, too; it’s pretty half-hearted, which just makes it worse. This attempt comes with a side view:

Matz really is slow, and Belt does seem to get a good jump. This was the first very excellent throw, though, and Belt goes in feet-first rather than diving for second. I am not sure where the scientific consensus is right now on which one gets you there faster and whether it’s worth the occasional broken finger you’ll sustain, but it sure looks like Belt would’ve gotten under the tag and into the base if he had gone head-first. Kuiper and Krukow still make no mention of his growing 2016 track record.

ATTEMPT #4: May 8

Finally, a comment from Krukow! “Fourth time this year Belt’s been caught, he’s 0-for-4.” That’s it; they don’t know exactly what they’ve seen this afternoon, though they would’ve if they had looked closely. You can really tell this is a desperation move on Belt’s part, not least because he does go in headfirst this time. It doesn’t do him any good, though. All it means is, when he makes the long trudge back to the dugout, he’s all dirty.

Belt is 0-for-4. He will remain 0-for-4, with no more attempts or failures, through the present.

Belt thought he could steal. And who can blame him; prior to 2016, he was 32-for-42 on his career, and 9-for-12 in 2015, a perfectly respectable success rate and total for a player at a position not often known for speed. He was wrong, though; he couldn’t steal, or at least not for a month and half. Rather than continuing to strive for second base, stubbornly getting thrown out over and over again until he got his groove back, Belt elected not to try at all.

Is it so surprising, then, that the entire second half has been a free fall for the Giants, a tumble from the top of the NL West to their current hotly contested wild card spot? Their bullpen has blown an improbably large number of leads, but their offense has been lacking as well, giving the bullpen a lot of slim leads to blow. San Francisco needs a spark. They need a jolt of energy, something to get them out of this rut, out of their own heads and back into the win column. Could that jolt come from a certain first baseman facing down their demons and successfully stealing their first base of the year?? I don’t know. I’m just asking questions.

Brandon Belt has gone through something extremely humanizing. He’s a superstar athlete with three World Series titles and a lot of money, and yet, in 2016, we were able to watch him utterly lose all self-confidence, at least in one respect. Sports are crazy, because we develop an immense amount of empathy for people we’ve never met, never will meet, and who have lives almost totally different from ours. I think part of the reason that bond develops, despite all those barriers, is because sports are friggin’ hard, which means we get to watch these people struggle, often in very serious fashion. It’s hard not to watch this and feel something for Mr. Belt, and for that, we should thank him.

Also, it’s really funny that he went 0-for-4 in the span of a month and then decided to completely stop stealing bases. We should thank him for both.