Jim Bowden has an ESPN Insider piece up today on 10 players scouts are raving about so far in spring training. Look, I'm sure you could go back and check similar pieces from previous years and find a host of players who looked great in March and returned to their usual level of production once the season began, so these things aren't meant as gospel. But they're fun reading and I was especially interested to see one guy Jim included on his list: Giants first baseman Brandon Belt.
Around the trade deadline last July, Belt made some significant changes at the plate. He moved back from the front of the batter's box to the back and more important tweaked his grip on the bat. The results in the second half were incredible, as he put up a .326/.390/.525 line. With a year of maturity and the club's confidence that he's their long-term solution at first base, he should finally have a full breakout season.
I heard an interview with Belt a few weeks ago about this change in hitting mechanics and he said it helped him to go more to the opposite field. Here's his hit chart from 2013, broken into two segments, through July 31 and then over the final two months, when he raked:
Remember, the hit chart on the left is two months' worth of hits; the one on the right is four months of hits. He hit 22 doubles in those first four months but 17 in the final two, including several down the left-field line.
Another way to look at how Belt's adjustments worked is his production on pitches on the outside part of the plate. Through July 31 he hit .191/.321/.267 on outside pitches; from Aug. 1 on he hit .373/.424/.542.
The numbers confirm what the scouts see: This is an improved hitter. Belt is 26 years old, entering his third full season in the majors, a prime time for a peak season. He's appeared to have made the adjustments that make him a better hitter. I believe the production in those final two months wasn't a fluke, that he did improve and that he's going to have a big 2014. We can pay too much attention to late-season numbers, when September pitching in particular is often watered down, but in Belt's case his numbers are backed up with other evidence.
He may not be 30-homer guy, but I can foresee a .300 season with 20 to 25 home runs, making him one of the game's best first basemen and a key cog in the middle of the San Francisco lineup.
What do you think? The projection systems aren't big on Belt. Of course, they're looking at his overall numbers (.289/.360/.481) and not that two-month surge. ZiPS is especially pessimistic at .264/.349/.441 while Steamer has him at .272. I'm not exactly sure why they don't like him, but they probably see a first baseman with middling power who hasn't yet hit .300 and those types of players don't usually improve a whole lot.
I think he'll easily hit higher than .272 and would rank him as a good dark horse candidate for the batting title (you heard it hear first!). Let's give him an over/under of .295.