The New Context for Offense-The Case of Brandon Belt

San Francisco Giant first baseman Brandon Belt has been the subject of some controversy as many Giants fans feel he has not been given a fair chance over the last season and a half while others believe he has been a disappointment. Belt, who began the 2011 season as the Giants’ top hitting prospect, spent most of 2011 moving back and forth from first base to the outfield, the starting lineup to the bench, and the big leagues and AAA. This year, Belt spent the first month or two of the season being moved in and out of the lineup before settling, at least for now, into the starting first baseman’s role.

Belt’s .261/.380/.433 with four home runs and 44 strikeouts in 192 plate appearances seem mixed at first glance. His OBP is impressive, but he still strikes out too much and does not hit with enough power. In context, however, Belt’s numbers look a lot better. His OPS+ of 132 is fifth among the 21 players who have played 50 or more games at first base this season, trailing only Paul Goldschmidt, Prince Fielder, Bryan LaHair and Joey Votto.

Belt’s numbers reflect the offensive context in which he is playing, but our perceptions of what constitutes a good season may lag behind changes in context. We are only a few years removed from a historic offensive era, but the current era is increasingly dominated by pitching. For example, between 1995-2007, an average of ten players per year had more than 450 plate appearances and an OPS over 1.000. From 2008-2010, three or four players a year reached that milestone, while last season only two players had an OPS over 1.000. Jose Bautista’s big league leading 1.056 OPS in 2011 would have been good enough for 11th in the majors in 2001. This year, four players are on track to reach the 1.000 OPS mark.

Belt not only is beginning his career in an era where pitching is in the ascendancy, but he plays most of his games in a pitcher’s park, thus further depressing his numbers. Moreover, although he is tall and throws left-handed, both traits which are generally associated with first basemen, Belt’s offensive skill set is not that of a classic slugging first baseman. He will probably never put up power numbers comparable to Joey Votto, Albert Pujols or even players like Mark Teixeira, who at this point is not as good a player as Belt. Instead, Belt has the offensive profile — high OBP and doubles power — of a center fielder. The Giants would like to see Belt become a player who can hit 30 home runs a year, but that seems unlikely. To use a bar like that as the measure of Belt’s success is almost assuring that he will be perceived as a failure.

Belt’s recent hitting, and the paucity of other plausible first base candidates on the Giants suggests that he has locked down the first base spot for at least the rest of the season. If his numbers at the end of the year are as good or better than they are now, he should go into 2012 as the starting first baseman and not have to defend his position, as he had to do last year and part of this season, against career minor leaguers like Brett Pill or players long past their prime like Aubrey Huff.

Belt is already a valuable major league player, although still not close to being an elite level talent. Players like him are likely to be unappreciated by many as his numbers are dwarfed by those of less talented players who played in the recently concluded high offense era from roughly 1995-2007. Unfortunately, the Giants themselves, to a degree, fell victim to that kind of thinking as they did not seem to understand that even last year Belt was their best option at first base.

Appreciating the new context and judging talent accordingly will be critical for all teams. The Giants almost gave up on Belt because he did not hit like a circa 2004-7 first baseman, but have now ended up with, for now, a clearly better than league average first baseman. Belt is only one example of the impact that quick changes in the offensive context can have on baseball and how players are evaluated. There will be others, particularly as it will soon become clear that a pitcher who throws 200 innings with a 3.50 ERA, who might have finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting a decade ago, is now little more than a back end of the rotation pitcher.