“I know we were playing Philadelphia, and I want to say we played the Dodgers after that. End of July some time. I kind of realized that, hey, you gotta help the team out somehow. … Sometimes you get lost out there, and you try to start playing to prove yourself, playing for yourself, however you want to say it, but if you go up there and remember that this is a team game, and you’re there for them, you’re going to play better personally in return.” — Brandon Belt
No matter how many player interviews you’ve read, this quote from Brandon Belt fits right in. There’s little to separate it from the post-game interviews that laud camaraderie and perseverance above strategy and nuance. That’s fine — admit too much and you’ve given your competition information. There is one aspect of this quote that might be a little different than most quotes, though. Belt basically provides the exact date on which his 2012 season turned for the better.
Arbitrary endpoints get no love around here. Someone even called seasons arbitrary once. So when you pull out Belt’s first- and second-half splits (He hit .293 in the second half!) you might get some howling. But, as you can see in the quote above, players have moments. They make an adjustment with the hitting coach that sticks and makes a difference. They spot something in their approach at the plate. A nagging injury heals. A personal conflict resolves itself.
Sometimes, the player just needs an epiphany to clear his mind. And there was no doubt among the Giants’ beat writers that Brandon Belt was having a hard time in Philadelphia. Carl Steward, writing for Giants Extra, the Giants blog for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote on July 24th that Belt’s “lack of confidence” was “appalling” and his body language was “pitiful to the point of pathetic.” Belt, in his own blog that was ostensibly responding to those critiques, also mentioned games that he personally lost for the team that week.
The Giants’ first baseman was having a tough time before an off day on July 23rd. Then he got back in the lineup and the “rest is history,” as he put it.
But the how is a little nebulous, maybe. When I pushed Belt about his power numbers, though, he gave us a testable assertion about his second-half changes.
I think I learned how to hit in this park in the second half of last season. You gotta hit your line drives. You have to hit line drive doubles, triples, whatever, because if you hit the ball in the air, it’s going to get knocked down. You don’t worry about trying to hit the ball out, you worry about trying to get your base hits. Try to hit the ball on a line. … Those home runs come when you get comfortable in there. Home runs come in cycles for most ballplayers.
So it’s fairly easy to check the numbers now. The player has given us what is hopefully a non-arbitrary endpoint (July 23rd), and he’s outlined a change in approach (more line drives). His batted ball numbers before and after that date are eye-opening:
Before June 23
After June 23
It looks like Brandon Belt knows what he’s talking about. He certainly found a line drive swing in the second half — 30.6% is an elite number. He hit fewer fly balls, the ball didn’t go as far, and he didn’t hit as many home runs as he might have with a more fly-ball heavy approach, but he certainly found the frozen ropes.
Now the difficult part, at least for Giants fans: A 30.6% line drive rate is not sustainable, most likely. For batters with more than 1500 plate appearances over the last three years, Joey Votto leads baseball in that statistic with a 25.5% number. And Votto himself defies the findings that suggest that line drive rate is one of the flakiest stats — its year-to-year correlation was the worst among the most common hitting metrics. Even though it was great that Belt found a line drive stroke that worked for him in the second half, he probably also was doing something that he’ll find difficult to replicate exactly the same way again.
But maybe he doesn’t have to. His line drive rate for the year (25.6%) is not as much of an outlier. And all of Belt’s seven home runs came in June and September. Perhaps a year full of this newfound approach will lead to more power outbursts as he gets comfortable in his role as the starting first baseman of the Giants. It’s certainly preferable to the funk he found himself in on July 22nd, 2012.