Last year, home runs surged league-wide – up 14%, to be exact. The MLB totals rivaled the very peak of the Steroid Era. Players like Brad Miller, Jedd Gyorko and Jake Lamb had huge power seasons that were unforeseen by even the most optimistic prognosticator. Believe me, I am Brad Miller’s #1 fan.
However, despite baseballs leaving the yard at a ridiculous clip, Brandon Belt’s power remained dormant as he once again failed to breakthrough the 20 homer plateau, hitting just 17 bombs on the year.
This is not meant to undersell what Belt accomplished last year by looking at an area where he failed to deliver. Belt continued his progression as a hitter. For the third consecutive season, Belt’s walk rate grew from 7.7% in 2014 to 10.1% in 2015 to 15.9% last year. He also shrunk his strikeout rate down to 22.6% from 26.4% in 2015. Belt was able to do these things by showing greater patience and discipline at the plate.
Belt was also able to keep most of his quality contact gains from 2015, as his hard contact percentage came in at a strong 36.4% and his line drive percentage 27.8% supported his plus .346 BABIP. So despite a strikeout rate north of 20%, Belt is probably somewhere between a .270 to .290 hitter, which in this day and age is above average.
So you are asking – “If he’s hitting the ball hard and swinging at better pitches, why is he not hitting more home runs?”
Despite a rebound in his flyball rate (46% last year, 37.9% in 2015), Belt saw his homer-to-fly ball rate sink down to 9.3% from 13.6 in 2015 and 18.2% in 2014. Belt’s average distance on balls in play was 244 feet and he is statistically sandwiched by fellow corner infield sluggers Freddie Freeman (245) and Evan Longoria (242).
Freeman leaps out as a particularly interesting comparison point. Freeman is a fellow left-handed first baseman, who was long considered a mediocre power, high average source for fantasy players. Of course, last year, Freeman destroyed expectations for his power by hitting 34 bombs. So why did Freeman’s power surge and Belt’s did not? And more importantly, will Belt’s power surge in the future – specifically, next year?
When comparing the two, you can immediately see that Belt trails Freeman in a number of categories measuring batted ball velocity. Freeman defeats Belt in the following categories: Max Exit Velocity (114.6 to 106.1); Average Exit Velocity (91.7 to 87.4); Average Flyball/Line Drive Exit Velocity (95.6 to 91.7). There is part of the answer to question one – Belt made good, power-inducing contact, but Freeman was better. Now, it was not necessarily 17 home runs better.
Another contributing factor is the Park Factors that each player deals with from their home parks. For those unfamiliar with Park Factors, an average score is 100 with 101 being above average and 99 being below average. According to FanGraphs Park Factors for 2015, Belt’s home park has an 81 Park Factor for Left-Handed Home Runs, the lowest in the league. It reduces home runs from lefties by about 20%. Freeman’s home park is slightly below average with a park factor of 97. Okay, but did the home parks actually make a difference?
In 2016, Belt hit just 6 of his 17 homers at home and had just a 6.6% HR/FB rate. Freeman hit almost triple that amount with 15 of his 34 homers coming in Atlanta and sported a 16.7% HR/FB rate at home. Now, of course, Freeman also obviously beat Belt in homers on the road so the whole story is not told by Park Factors, but that is why we looked at the StatCast Exit Velocity data.
Another issue that may have stifled Belt’s power is where he is hitting the ball in (or out) of the field of play. In 2014, when Belt sported a robust 18.2% HR/FB rate, he was pulling the ball at 48.3% clip. Last year, his pull rate was 36.2%. In fact, Belt sprayed the ball to center and the opposite field at an above 30% clip. His all-fields approach could be part of the reason why he’s failing to breakthrough power-wise even though the league as a whole saw a surge.
So as is the case with most things in baseball, there are multiple reasons why Belt did not go home run crazy in 2016 – the home park, non-elite exit velocity data, an all-fields approach. But could the power breakout come next year?
Belt is a player that is capable of a 25-30 home run season, but the fantasy community needs to stop paying for it before it happens. At the time of this writing, we do not have ADP data so Belt could come at a reasonable rate this year, where you pay for what he has done – not what you think he could do. Even with that sort of upside, I am a major believer Park Factors and so I would reduce that 25-30 upside to 20-25.
The comparison to Freeman is apt and in many ways, Belt is a middle class man’s Freeman. Belt is too close to Freeman to be called a poor man’s version. Class analogies aside, Belt is capable enough to have a really good year, the sort of year that Freeman had albeit slightly reduced because of the home park. Baseball has a certain level of inherent randomness. Belt could see the ball a little better during the season, avoid a nagging injury, run into the right pitchers at the right time and take his batted ball numbers from good to great.
I will not bet on that though. My bet is that Belt becomes a little more aggressive at the plate and starts pulling the ball a little bit more. He gets a little bit better luck on balls leaving yard. Basically, Belt is last year’s version, but just a little bit more.
My projection for Belt – 151 Games, 21 HR, 78 R, 81 RBI, 3 SB .275/.370/485.