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Stealing Brandon Belt

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Advanced metrics suggest that Brandon Belt is better than people think. Could a team steal him from the Giants at the deadline?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

At 34-54, the San Francisco Giants are 24 games back in the NL West and 16.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot. Combined with their miserable second half last year, they're 66-96 over their previous 162 games.

Among other issues, the team has an aging offensive core. Hunter Pence (34), Buster Posey (30), and Brandon Crawford (30) are all on the wrong side of 30, and Brandon Belt (29) is close behind. Pence will be a free agent after the 2018 season, and Posey, Crawford, and Belt are locked up through 2021.

For a team like the Giants with virtually no chance of making the playoffs this year, selling at the trading deadline is a distinct possibility. Unfortunately for San Francisco, their only impactful impending free agent is Johnny Cueto, and he has a 4.26 ERA and peripherals that back that up, plus a four-year, $84M opt-in clause that makes him an extremely risky “rental” for contending teams.

If the Giants can’t get a big return for Cueto, they may need to consider trading from their core of position players in order to improve their bleak long-term outlook. San Francisco’s minor league system regularly ranks in the bottom third among baseball, and Baseball America’s just-released midseason top 100 prospects list features only one Giant — first baseman/outfielder Chris Shaw — at no. 86.

MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi analyzed San Francisco’s status as a seller in a recent article, in which he wrote, “Industry sources believe...[the team] has three true untouchables: ace Madison Bumgarner, catcher Buster Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford. Most of the remaining players likely will be available...”

Joe Panik and Belt are the obvious candidates. Panik, 26, certainly has some trade value as a cheap, controllable second baseman who provides decent offense and plus defense, but it seems unlikely that the Giants would trade their only remaining young position player.

That leaves Brandon Belt. Morosi noted that Belt could be a fit for the Angels, Yankees, and Mariners. The Astros could also be a fit (Belt was born in Texas and grew up an Astros fan).

There’s little doubt he’s underrated. Even among Giants fans, there’s an ongoing debate about his worth. Some fans focus on the fact that he's a first baseman who’s never hit .300, never had more than 18 home runs, and never amassed more than 82 RBIs. They deplore his relatively high strikeout rate and claim that he doesn’t hit well in high leverage situations.

On the other hand, saber-savvy fans point to his sterling defense, top-tier walk rate, strong on-base percentage, and excellent overall park-adjusted numbers.

The second group is onto something.

FanGraphs' park-adjusted wRC+ suggests that Belt has been 28 percent better than league average offensively in his career, spanning more than 3,000 plate appearances. To put that into context, his 128 wRC+ is just shy of Anthony Rizzo’s career mark of 132.

Baseball Savant's expected wOBA, which uses Statcast data to predict how a hitter “should” do, backs up the Rizzo comparison. Since exit velocities and launch angles were first tracked in 2015, Belt (.379) and Rizzo (.378) have almost identical expected wOBAs.

Belt's actual wOBA since 2015 is .362, significantly lower than his expected wOBA, and Rizzo's actual wOBA is .386, a little higher than his expected wOBA. Why has Belt fallen short of his expected wOBA? Look no further than his home ballpark, AT&T Park, which is an absolute power suck for left-handed hitters. If Belt played elsewhere, his power numbers would likely spike significantly.

As an example, here's how Belt's 2016 balls in play look when overlaid at Yankee Stadium:

2016 Spray Chart Overlaied at Yankee Stadium
Courtesy of Baseball Savant

There are at least six non-home runs that would have been homers at Yankee Stadium. A couple of those would-be home runs were actually outs for Belt. Obviously, the difference between an out and a home run couldn’t be bigger.

As far as wOBA is concerned, hitting a ball 415 feet into an out is the same as a strikeout, a pop up, or a weak dribbler. That’s why expected wOBA, which uses launch angles and exit velocities to predict wOBA, is an important new metric, especially for players in ballparks as extreme as AT&T. It rewards hitting the ball 415 feet, regardless of whether it’s caught or not. But a simple look at Belt’s home and road splits also sums things up: he has 33 home runs in 377 career games at AT&T Park, and 63 home runs in 405 career games elsewhere.

Belt is in the first year of a five-year, $72.8M contract he signed in 2016. While his batting average is down to just .236 this season, he owns a solid .268/.357/.460 career slash line that, again, compares favorably to Anthony Rizzo’s career line of .267/.366/.486. With just a little more power from Belt, which would certainly come if he played in a more hitter-friendly park, he and Rizzo would start to look very similar.

Belt’s walk rate is also among the very best in baseball. Over the last two seasons, only Joey Votto (16.0%) and Paul Goldschmidt (15.5%) have walked more frequently than Belt (15.2%). He also rates among the best first basemen in baseball defensively.

Add it all up, and Belt is one of the more underrated players in baseball. If Anthony Rizzo was available at Belt's modest salary (and two years older), anticipation of a mega-deal would permeate throughout the sport. As it is, Belt may be available this summer, but the rumors aren’t capturing much attention.

Belt could provide unexpected impact for a contender, and it would be very interesting to see what he would cost. Could a team like the Yankees, Astros, Mariners, or Angels steal him from the Giants by paying for his suppressed counting stats? Or would the Giants demand the type of return we’d expect for someone like Anthony Rizzo? We may find out shortly.

All stats current through July 7, 2017


Ben Kaspick is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score and RotoGraphs, and the owner-operator of CoveCast, a saber-slanted San Francisco Giants podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @benkaspick or @Cove_Cast.