San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt will never be more valuable than he is now. Many expected his breakout, and it seems those who invested in the late bloomer will be rewarded handsomely, depending on how much they paid for him or in which round they drafted him. He leads MLB tied for most home runs (5) with Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Mark Trumbo, a free-swinging, powerful fella. Those are important words, because that is exactly what Belt has been so far.
The sample size is very small — 35 plate appearances — but the statistics are telling: He has 10 strikeouts and zero walks. Meanwhile, Belt is batting .343, which is buoyed by a .350 batting average on balls in play (BAbip). Savvy readers will be quick to point out that his 2012 and 2013 BAbips were both .351, so perhaps that’s his baseline. And it’s possible. But that would be his saving grace. If his BAbip fell to a league-average level around .300, we’re looking at Trumbo numbers, or maybe even (Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman) Pedro Alvarez numbers.
It’s realistic to think he will walk a little more and strike out a little less. His fly ball rate is conducive for home runs given his power, but it’s unrealistic to think he will hit a third of all fly balls out of the park. That’s territory reserved for, well, no one. Only a dozen batters hit 15 percent of fly balls as home runs (15% HR/FB), all of them fabled power hitters. Even Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz notched HR/FB rates of 14.0 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively.
I think projecting a HR/FB rate of 13 percent is fair, and it would afford him 30 to 35 home runs for the season — a tremendous performance, indeed. But the batting average is bound to plummet (not that it took a rocket scientist to know he can’t sustain a .343 batting average), and it’s entirely dependent on his plate discipline and whether or not his BAbip is actually real. Today’s power hitters have pretty polarized BAbips, and it mostly comes down to their plate discipline: Ortiz, Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Mike Trout and Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt all struck out in, at most, 20 percent of plate appearances last year, and all of them posted BAbips above .320. Meanwhile, Alvarez, Oakland Athletics third baseman Brandon Moss, New York Yankees outfielder Alfonso Soriano, and Chicago White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn all strike out in at least 25 percent of plate appearances, and only Moss posted a BAbip above .300 (fun fact: it was .301).
It’s possible that Belt is a unique breed of hitter that can strike out a lot and hit for a high batting average on balls in play, and it’s certainly possible he sustains it for the rest of the season. But strikeout-prone power hitters tend to be batting average liabilities — one of the reasons why Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is, I think, due for some heavy batting average regression.
This has all been a long-winded way of me saying: Belt’s batting average will regress to the mean, but it’s impossible to know whether he’ll end up hitting .295 or .245. Even somewhere in the middle means it’s a long way to fall for Belt.
I would absolutely sell high on Belt, depending on the format. If I’m in a dynasty league, or I can keep him next year at a discount, then I would be inclined to keep him. But if I owned him and had the opportunity to swipe Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce from a panicked owner, I would pull the trigger. Bruce will probably hit more home runs the rest of the way, and his batting average will only trend upward while Belt’s trends downward.
When it comes down to it, I think Belt will hit about .275 and end up with 32 home runs. But I also think the possibility of him pulling a Justin Upton or Domonic Brown circa 2013, during which both players hit 12 home runs in one month and slept the rest of the year, is very real.
Meanwhile, Trumbo has also hit five home runs. This isn’t anything new from him, although the frequency and earliness of the bombs is surely delightful for owners. It’s worth keeping in mind that Trumbo hit no fewer than five home runs and no more than seven in any given month last year. It’s possible he surpasses his monthly high from last year by next week, but it’s also worth noting he hit seven, nine and eight home runs in May through July of 2012, only to go cold in the other three months. Every player has ups and downs, and I would be wary that such a high in April will lead to, say, an equally low August, as he regresses to the mean.
It probably sounds like I’m super down on these guys, but I’m not. I swear! It’s just that smart fantasy owner knows when to sell high and buy low, and even Trumbo can be a sell-high candidate. He will probably also hit 32 home runs, just like Belt, but if you can somehow trade him for a slow-to-start Encarnacion, who has the potential to hit 40 bombs, I would again pull the trigger. That’s at least 10 more home runs you would have otherwise gotten had you kept Trumbo all year, and Encarnacion will hit for a better average in the long run.
Other home run leaders, per ESPN’s MLB home page: Blue Jays outfielders Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista (both at 4), Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter (3), White Sox outfielder Alejandro De Aza (3), Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun (3), and Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (3). Bautista, Braun and Gonzalez are legit. Cabrera is not legit, but that’s not to say he doesn’t have power. I projected him for 14 home runs and 11 stolen bases, but at this point I think he’s well on his way to a 15/15 season supplemented by a .280 batting average at the top of Toronto’s batting order. De Aza and Hunter also have pop, but they are not noteworthy hitters — go ahead and sell high, but they are still valuable commodities otherwise.