Brandon Belt was a top-5 hitter in 2020’s shortened season (min 170 PA), posting a career high 172 wRC+. He posted a career high hard hit rate of 46.9% and a career low strikeout rate of 20.1%. This season he has been a bit up and down but after a recent power surge, where he has hit three homers in five games, Belt is up to a 146 wRC+. Relative to last season, he has seen some significant dips in expected stats, is whiffing a ton more, and is striking out at one of the worst rates in the league. However, I’m not too sure he’s all deserving of his shortcomings and I think in due time we might be looking at the same, if not better, hitter that we saw from Belt last season.
Strikeouts have never been Belt’s weakness at the plate. In 2019, he was in the 59th percentile and in 2020 he placed in the 63rd percentile by strikeout rate. However, this season he is in the 4th percentile. His strikeout rate has jumped by 12% up to a whopping 32.1%. It’s the 7th worst rate among all hitters with at least 190 plate appearances to their name. However, this habit of heading back to the dugout isn’t one that is necessarily Belt’s fault. Belt is currently posting the lowest chase rate of his career and the league’s 18th best rate — 18%. As evident, Belt still has a great eye at the plate. However, the main contributor to his strikeout uptick has been whiffing and more specifically, whiffing on pitches in the zone. Belt’s whiff rate is at a career-high of 30.8%, nearly 8% up from last season, and he is whiffing on pitches in the zone nearly twice as often as he did last season. Here’s what that looks like.
The most noticeable difference is that Belt is now whiffing more often on pitches at the top of the zone and has seen a moderate improvement on his weakest spot last season — middle pitches away. But, Belt isn’t being pitched much differently from past seasons. He is seeing pitches at the top of the zone 38.1% of the time, which is only one percent away off his rate last year. Whiffing on strikes hasn’t been a recent trend in Belt’s career, but this season it is and it’s holding him back just a bit. On the Brightside, Belt has the 4th highest strikeout minus deserved strikeout differential, which means he has been a bit unlucky. By deserved strikeouts, Belt could have been expected to strikeout 24.5% of the time – which is still an uptick from his previous season – but it is much more in line with his career rate.
I think part of the solution to Belt’s strikeout problem is just some poor luck, but I think the other part is the whiff rate, and he’ll need to correct that. One thing I noticed is that Belt’s sd(LA), or standard deviation launch angle, hasn’t changed much. This says more about the repeatability of his swing, but it tells me that mechanics behind his swing are probably not problematic. Belt’s historically performed best against fastballs, but this season the pitch has been his biggest struggle. So far he holds a 33.2% whiff rate and 24.8% put away rate against fastballs. Maybe his whiffing is just due to some early season timing issues, something that is hard to quantify. Nonetheless, it is an issue. If Belt can continue to drop his whiff rate, something he has done over his last seven games, there’s a lot of potential for him to repeat his massive season in 2020.
If you pull up Belt’s Baseball Savant page, you’ll see the aforementioned whiff rate highlighted in cold blue by his percentile rankings, but you’ll also see a really poor expected batting average. After posting a .287 xBA in 2020 – another career high – Belt’s xBA is sitting at an ugly .216. I’m sure the main culprits are his strikeouts and whiffs, but this got me looking at his batted ball data. By batted ball type, Belt’s season stands out a bit. He’s hitting a tad more grounders and flyballs than usual, but he’s also hitting significantly less line drives than last season. Dropping nearly 11% from last year, Belt’s line drives have been replaced with primarily flyballs and pop ups. Additionally, Belt is pulling the ball more than half the time, which is a huge jump by his career average. Neither of these changes are inherently bad, but they could be worrying if they are an indicator that Belt is selling out for power. He’s on pace for a season-high in home runs, which is awesome, but eventually the cost may be more flyballs that don’t leave the yard and a lot more whiffing – which both pose problems.
I think it’s too soon to make a call on his batted ball data, but if we’re building a better Belt, I’d like to see him get back to the batted ball data that he showed last season. Belt is showing plenty of signs of hard contact, posting a career high 47.9% hard hit rate, so if he can pair this with more line drives and the all field approach that he’s shown throughout his career I think Belt could be even better.
Belt is already having a great season. He’s 46% better than the league average hitter and has a .382 wOBA. However, I think the strikeouts and pulled flyballs are two areas that could make or break him. If we see these two trends start to turn for the better, Belt might take his bat to the next level.
(Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire)