(Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire)
With April coming to a close we are right in between the stages when we are calling out “small sample size” to every hot start and actually giving them credence. Maybe it has something to do with having a solid 100 at bats to go off of but every day that goes by we can trust the numbers more and more. Well so far in this short season we have seen Brandon Belt do something he has never done before, hit for a ton of power. Over his last five seasons he has averaged 16.4 home runs a season, never hitting more than 18 in any individual season. Now sure, in 2014 he only played 61 games and hit 12 home runs and last year he only played 104 games and hit 18 home runs, so in those seasons he was on pace for over 20 home runs. Well I am throwing out 2014 because it was long enough in the past that it is not relevant to our analysis today. 2017 was interesting as he was pacing for a home run total in the upper 20s and my thought is that was likely an effect of the “juiced ball.” I know there is some speculation that the ball has changed again this year but until we have more data we won’t know for certain.
Even if we say that Brandon Belt is now a 25-30 home run hitter (again, he’s never done that over a full season) then we should still be shocked to see him pacing for 40 home runs this year. He has BELTED 6 home runs this year, with 5 of those coming in the past week and a half. A career 129 wRC+ hitter, Belt has been good for a 182 wRC+ in 2018. His batting average is up, his ISO is up, everything is up. I want to take a look at this to see if there is anything we can hope for in the future or if this is simply an unusually lucky hot streak that will ultimately regress back to the norm.
The two most important factors when looking at home run totals would be exit velocity and launch angle. You can hit 40 home runs without both of those factors, that’s for sure. Let’s take a look at these numbers, provided by Baseball Savant.
Belt’s average exit velocity is certainly nothing to write home about. The average league-wide is 88.5 mph. Not only does Belt not hit for a high exit velocity but these numbers have hardly budged since last year. Alternatively, at an average launch angle of 25.3 degrees this is a substantial increase from past seasons. Currently Brandon Belt has the highest average launch angle in the entire MLB (min. 40 at bats). The next closest is Yoenis Cespedes at 23.7 degrees. This is the tangible change we were looking for in his batted ball profile. When xStats says Belt has been expected 6.3 home runs (right in line with the actual number of 6) this would be exactly the type of factor that causes it. In fact Belt has the 8th highest xHR number this year. And also if you look at the Statcast Leaderboard you will find Belt has the 2nd highest xSLG in the league among full-time players.
Well I don’t like to get too caught up in the numbers without corroborating them with a real life change so I went searching for any story on Belt’s swing. I could not find anything detailing Belt making a major change in his swing except a quote from earlier this season of Bruce Bochy saying “his swing is shorter and more direct to the ball.” I don’t know what to make of that but at least we do know there has been SOME sort of adjustment to his swing. This could potentially be linked to the increase in launch angle.
AT&T Park has always been a brutal place to hit, but it is especially hard on left handed power hitters. The right field wall is both deep and tall. The park factor for a left handed batter is the lowest for any park at around 65. If you’d like a more detailed look into this I would refer you to RotoGraphs where Mike Podhorzer did a closer look at park factors. In theory, if Belt were in a neutral ballpark he would have been consistently a 25-30 home run hitter. His home/road splits support this as over his last 3 years he has averaged 16 home runs at home and 28 home runs away over 162 games. Add the boost he received last year for the “juiced ball” and he may even be a 30-35 home run hitter in a neutral park. As exciting as that is, I gave up on hoping Belt to hit for top end power numbers as he is signed with the Giants through 2021.
Well thus far Belt has played 8 games at home and 12 games away. Four of his home runs have come when on the road. So if you factor in a little more time spent at AT&T Park then perhaps perhaps you can say the power comes back down a tad. So maybe if he played an even home/road split he would’ve only hit 5 home runs? I don’t know, it’s impossible to know with sample sizes of only a few games. But regardless of being at home or on the road, the higher launch angle will lead to more home runs for Brandon Belt. I will certainly not tell you he will hit 40 home runs this year. 30? Yeah, I could get behind that. If Belt keeps up the higher launch angle then he is not the same hitter that has maxed out at 18 home runs in the past.