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Brandon Belt didn’t have to hit the ball hard to be effective

Just seven players had a larger decline in exit velocity. So why was Belt still so good?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

How exit velocity correlates to performance is pretty intuitive, even in these nascent stages of precise miles-per-out readouts. The harder a guy hits a ball, the more likely that ball is, generally speaking, to fall in for a hit. That’s Baseball 101, really — we didn’t need Statcast to tell us that.

Exit velocity is just one part of the equation, however, as we’re about to see. Take someone like Ryan Zimmerman, for example. He had the 12th best average exit velocity in the league, but was still a complete trainwreck at the plate because he didn’t walk, struck out a lot, and simply got unlucky in 2016.

You probably didn’t need me to explain that to you, but it’s important to remember nonetheless.

Anyway, let’s start with a table. Here is a list of the 18 players who had at least a two-mile-per-hour decline in exit velocity from 2015 to 2016:

Average EV declines ≥ 2 MPH

Player 2015 EV 2016 EV EV Diff.
Player 2015 EV 2016 EV EV Diff.
John Jaso 91.3 86.4 -4.9
Miguel Rojas 87.9 83.9 -4.0
Juan Lagares 91.7 88.0 -3.7
Giancarlo Stanton 98.6 95.1 -3.5
Jason Heyward 90.7 87.4 -3.3
Jed Lowrie 89.4 86.2 -3.2
Jonathan Schoop 90.8 87.8 -3.0
Brandon Belt 90.2 87.4 -2.8
Lucas Duda 93.0 90.2 -2.8
Ivan De Jesus Jr. 86.7 84.2 -2.5
David Peralta 92.6 90.2 -2.4
Michael Conforto 93.2 90.9 -2.3
Aaron Hill 89.2 87.0 -2.2
Miguel Montero 89.0 86.8 -2.2
Gregor Blanco 87.6 85.5 -2.1
Prince Fielder 91.5 89.4 -2.1
Derek Dietrich 87.8 85.8 -2.0
Dioner Navarro 87.2 85.2 -2.0
Average 90.5 87.6 -2.8
Baseball Savant

Any list that includes the 2016 version of Jason Heyward is probably not a good one to be on, and we can easily identify not just him, but other 2016 disappointments such as Giancarlo Stanton and Michael Conforto as guys who took big steps back last season. Let’s provide some more context for these players, though, and try to see what those big declines in exit velocity meant for their performance as a hitter. In addition to measuring their exit velocity decline, let’s also see how much their wRC+ dropped from 2015 to 2016:

wRC+ declines for ≥ 2 MPH average EV declines

Player 2015 EV 2016 EV EV Diff. 2015 wRC+ 2016 wRC+ wRC+ Diff.
Player 2015 EV 2016 EV EV Diff. 2015 wRC+ 2016 wRC+ wRC+ Diff.
John Jaso 91.3 86.4 -4.9 134 111 -23
Miguel Rojas 87.9 83.9 -4.0 91 62 -29
Juan Lagares 91.7 88.0 -3.7 79 84 5
Giancarlo Stanton 98.6 95.1 -3.5 154 114 -40
Jason Heyward 90.7 87.4 -3.3 120 72 -48
Jed Lowrie 89.4 86.2 -3.2 94 77 -17
Jonathan Schoop 90.8 87.8 -3.0 112 97 -15
Brandon Belt 90.2 87.4 -2.8 133 138 5
Lucas Duda 93.0 90.2 -2.8 132 91 -41
Ivan De Jesus Jr. 86.7 84.2 -2.5 87 67 -20
David Peralta 92.6 90.2 -2.4 137 84 -53
Michael Conforto 93.2 90.9 -2.3 133 96 -37
Aaron Hill 89.2 87.0 -2.2 70 89 19
Miguel Montero 89.0 86.8 -2.2 107 83 -24
Gregor Blanco 87.6 85.5 -2.1 118 70 -48
Prince Fielder 91.5 89.4 -2.1 126 65 -61
Derek Dietrich 87.8 85.8 -2.0 121 117 -4
Dioner Navarro 87.2 85.2 -2.0 84 56 -28
Average 90.5 87.6 -2.8 113 87 -26

As you can see, a decline of at least two miles per hour in exit velocity was worth 26 points of wRC+ among this group, which is obviously a huge figure. There are, however, a few players — Juan Lagares, Brandon Belt, and Aaron Hill — who not only failed to see a decline in their performance, but actually got better in 2016 despite the lower exit velocity. Lagares and Hill were still bad hitters, however, and as impressive as it is that they actually got better, it’s still not very interesting to talk about guys who aren’t that good.

Instead, let’s focus on that third name: Brandon Belt.

Belt not only improved his overall performance at the plate despite a nearly three mile per hour drop in exit velocity, he just had arguably the best season of his career. That improvement from a 133 wRC+ to 138 looks all the more impressive in the context of the table included above. FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference’s respective WAR models all valued him as at least a four-win player, by any measure one of the best first basemen in the major leagues.

Over his now six-year career, Belt has made a name for himself not just for his stellar play, but for the constant tinkering and adjustments he’s made seemingly every year. In 2012, he finally earned a full-time role with the Giants thanks to mechanical adjustments he’d made with the team’s coaching staff early that season. In 2014, he changed how he gripped the bat, swung more, and hit for more power than ever before. Most recently, he dropped the starting position of his hands to give himself more time to adjust.

Despite the decline in exit velocity, it appears that particular adjustment has paid off. To give you a visual of what that adjustment looked like, here is Belt’s setup in each of the last two season (2015 on the left, 2016 on the right):

brandon-belt-san-francisco-giants-hands-drop

The purpose of Belt lowering his hands, ostensibly, is that it creates a shorter path to the baseball. As we’ll discuss shortly, this has many positive effects, but it could also explain, at least partially, why Belt hit the ball softer in 2016.

Of course, a short swing is the platonic ideal for any hitter. From little league to the pros that’s always the goal, because the less time you need to get the bat to the ball, the more time you have to make a decision on whether to swing or not. We’re talking about milliseconds, but when a batter has less than half a second to decide whether to take a hack, those milliseconds can be crucially important.

However, a shorter swing also sometimes means a player is less able to put all of his strength into his swing. This is a common double-edged sword for young power hitters. Open up any Baseball America Prospect Handbook and you’ll find some low-A slugger who scouts believe needs to shorten his swing to succeed in the majors. And yet, if he shortens his swing too much he could end up depriving himself of the tool that makes him noteworthy in the first place: the ability to drive the ball when he makes contact.

Finding that balance can be tricky, but appears Belt has found the best way to make it work for him. He has never been your prototypical first base hitter, as it is. His career high home run total was 18, in 2015, and he never hit more than 20 as a minor leaguer. Instead, he’s been so good at the plate by being patient (11.3% career walk rate) and hitting a ton of doubles. You could make the argument that a decline in exit velocity means less for him than it does for a power hitter who’s more reliant on putting balls in the seats to be effective.

So if a drop in exit velocity was the cost of Belt’s adjustment of dropping his hands, here is where we should talk about the benefits.

A few paragraphs ago, we talked about the extra milliseconds Belt gained by shortening his swing. That effect appears to have had a massive positive effect on his plate discipline numbers, while also altering where he put the ball in play when he did swing and make contact:

Belt 2015-16 plate disciplines & batted ball splits

Season PA BB% K% OBP Pull% Cent% Oppo%
Season PA BB% K% OBP Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2015 556 10.1% 26.4% 0.356 38.4% 35.8% 25.8%
2016 655 15.9% 22.6% 0.394 36.2% 33.4% 30.4%

All of those numbers are a reflection of Belt’s maximizing those extra split seconds he’s gained by dropping his hands.

The question now becomes whether he can continue to strike a balance between maintaining his lower average exit velocity and his improved plate discipline. That 87.4 MPH average exit velocity tied him with Jason Heyward on the leaderboard. It was 0.1 MPH slower than Yan Gomes’, he of the 33 wRC+ in 2016. It’s not as if there should be zero concern about Belt’s batted-ball speed going forward.

Teams surely noticed he wasn’t hitting the ball nearly as hard last year. Will they try to challenge him with more strikes as a result?

That’s something we won’t have the answer to for a few months. Even if they do, Belt has shown so many times that he has the ability to adjust and adapt to whatever challenge is in front of him. And while this latest adjustment did not come free of any negatives, it still did more good than harm.

. . .

Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.