Belt has long been lauded as a big breakout candidate by a number of analysts -- you count ESPN Insider’s Keith Law among the big believers . A lot of that is because of his patient approach at the plate and his power. After the 2013 season it looked as if Belt had arrived to stay after he hit .289/.360/.481 with 60 extra-base hits (17 of them homers). And now he’s headed into his age-27 season, smack dab in the middle of the range for a player’s peak long since described by sabermetricians like Gary Huckabay and Nate Silver. So you might already be asking, where Belt’s stardom is concerned: Are we there yet?
The answer is unfortunately no, not yet. On his way to achieving everything that he can and might yet at bat, last year’s spate of injuries put a big dent in Belt’s future. It was a year that teetered on the brink of ruin across different appearances on the disabled list from two different, significant injuries: A broken thumb suffered in May that cost him 50 games, and two separate stints on the DL trying to come back from a concussion suffered after getting hit in the face by a thrown ball during batting practice. Either injury could derail any single season; Belt had to come back from both to be able to contribute to another Giants World Series win. And did, not that it was easy.
“It was tough,” Belt said. “You stay on the field as much as you can, and then you the other guys stay on the field and battle without you, it’s tough. For me, I just tried to stay positive, just think about getting back out there when I could and helping the team when I could come back.”
But even as he worked and tried to play through his injuries, Belt simply wasn’t able to deliver as he had, and how he’d come to expect from himself. As Baseball Prospectus notes in the 20th edition of its annual book, Belt’s contact rate on pitches inside the zone dropped from 88 to 79 percent, encouraging them to throw more strikes to the reliably selective Belt because he wasn’t crushing pitches he was used to hammering. His strikeout rate crested to 27.2 percent, while his walk rate tumbled towards 7 percent and he struggled to get balls in play. After starting the season swinging a hot bat, his game was going to pieces.
“Honestly, it was a problem,” Belt said. “It kind of felt like the first couple games of spring training: I knew what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t able to do it at first. That was tough, but you don’t give up on it. You just keep battling and battling and battling, and you figure it out. That’s what happened to me last year.”
Belt finished the 2014 season at .243/.306/.449, a step down from where he had been, but not where he thinks he can get in 2015. Now that he’s healthy, he isn’t just looking to get back to the success he enjoyed in his breakout 2013 season: He expects to top it.
“I think 2013 would be a good start,” Belt said, “but I know I can do even better than that. I honestly don’t feel I need to put more pressure on myself to do that, I just have the confidence now that it’s going to happen.”
As Belt gets his bat back in gear, he isn’t getting fancy, relying instead of time in the cage to get back to where he needs to be to produce for the Giants.
“I’m not a huge video guy,” Belt said. “I like to check out maybe how I did on certain pitches, if I swung at a strike or something like that, but overall I don’t really care too much about video. I think it makes me over-analyze and think too much. If I have something I’m worried about, I might just get back in the cage and work on it a few times.”
Despite the past enthusiasm for Belt’s upside among analysts, this year’s projections aren’t unanimously rosy. While the new edition of the “Bill James Handbook” forecasts a .282/.360/.494 season with 24 home runs, ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS puts him at a .780 OPS with 14 home runs, while Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has him at .782 with 18 bombs.
Belt could care less about that newfound skepticism from some of the modes, any more than he’s going to sweat over what to do to compensate for Hunter Pence’s absence.
“I’m not changing my game at all,” Belt said. “I still have an approach in mind, I’m just going to go out there and do it.”
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.