Brandon Belt acting as crucial middle-of-the-order table setter
Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
By Thomas Hall5 months ago
Brandon Belt has certainly come a long way during his three-month tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays.
At first, though, the 35-year-old’s journey largely began behind the scenes as he skipped most of the club’s spring training games, opting to log his pre-season at-bats on backfields at the player development complex. Of course, he and the team crafted this plan in hopes of being preventive less than six months after undergoing season-ending knee surgery last September.
From a health standpoint, it worked perfectly, as Belt opened the 2023 campaign without limitations once Opening Day arrived in late March. He felt the strongest and healthiest he had been in a few seasons. The only issue, however, is he was met with immediate struggles out of the gate.
Belt looked like someone who played less than half a season in 2022, going 1-for-23 (.043 AVG) with 15 strikeouts and just two walks in his first six games during Toronto’s season-opening road trip.
Blue Jays fans, meanwhile, expressed their displeasure with Belt’s poor showing – regardless of its tiny sample size – when the club returned home to the newly-renovated Rogers Centre on April 11 as several boos rained down during the on-field player introductions. But he seemed to respond well to that criticism, recording four hits – including two doubles – over his first three home games.
The veteran lefty was starting to show signs of a resurgence, especially after blasting his first home run of 2023 – a 416-foot shot to right centre at Yankee Stadium – but that success was short-lived and followed by an 0-for-12 slump that included seven punchouts from April 25-May 1.
Much of the fan base was ready to call it quits on Belt after that, willing to throw the two-time World Series champion to the curb despite his decorated track record. But Toronto’s front office waited patiently, and it’s a good thing they did, as the 6-foot-3 slugger has been the club’s most valuable player since then.
A self-proclaimed MVP – that is, according to Belt.
Labelling Belt as the Blue Jays’ MVP might be a bit of a stretch – a title that likely belongs to Bo Bichette or Kevin Gausman. He has, however, provided new life to a lineup that has struggled to generate consistent scoring this season, particularly from the left side of the plate.
Following his March/April woes, Belt has broken out since the start of May, hitting .317/.438/.500 with three home runs, 12 RBIs and a 165 wRC+ across 34 contests. Most notably, his stellar on-base percentage ranks third among qualified big-league hitters (100 plate appearances), behind only San Diego’s Juan Soto (.456) and New York’s Aaron Judge (.457).
It may have taken over a month, though the former San Francisco Giant is proving why he was signed to a one-year deal worth $9.3 million over the off-season. It was because he could provide quality at-bats, as he has done for almost the last two months, regardless of his position within the club’s batting order.
Not only has Belt done that, but he has also been among the Blue Jays’ key contributors during this productive span, raising his wRC+ from 49 on Apr. 30 – 51 percentage points below league average – to 126 entering the final week of June.
A critical reason for Belt’s resurgence has been his increased walk totals, resulting in a 17.2 per cent rate since May 1, placing fifth-highest in the majors over that span. This has also bumped his overall walk rate to 14.5 per cent, which ranks in the 94th percentile of the majors.
The veteran first baseman – now primarily a designated hitter – is still striking out more often than most would prefer, evidenced by his 35.2 per cent clip (tied for 11th-highest). But he has significantly improved his swings decisions.
It probably doesn’t seem like it, of course, considering he is being retired on strikes over a third of the time. Many of those, however, are transpiring within the strike zone rather than beyond it.
That wasn’t the case in April, as Belt carried a 30.5 per cent O-swing percentage (number of swings outside the strike zone) to match his 41 per cent strikeout rate. But his knowledge of the strike zone has been on full display since then, leading to his MLB-best 17.2 per cent O-swing percentage.
Belt’s recent success in that department has also lowered his chase rate on the season to a career-low 17.6 per cent, positioning him in the 97th percentile. And fewer offers outside the zone have meant an increase in walks and balls in play, allowing his wOBA and OBP to trend in opposite directions from his O-swing percentage.
In need of middle-of-the-order production, the Blue Jays positioned Belt behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the clean-up spot throughout the second half of May, hoping the move would help spark the franchise’s struggling All-Star. Not long after, though, the Texas native was bumped into the No. 3 hole, that is, until he landed on the IL with a hamstring injury earlier this month.
Despite only missing a minimum of 10 days, Belt’s value quickly became obvious in his brief absence as Toronto’s offence ranked middle-of-the-pack or worse in AVG (.257), OBP (.303), SLG (.381), wOBA (.300) and wRC+ (90) throughout the majors during that 10-game stretch.
These mediocre results only helped the left-hander’s case to return to his previous position in the order sandwiched between Bo Bichette and Vladdy. While he’s played just three games since being activated, he has seemingly picked up where he left off, going 3-for-11 with a sac fly and extending his hit streak to four straight.
Toronto’s fan base was preparing to run Belt out of town at the end of April. But now, less than two months later, he has become essential to their lineup’s dynamic – an outcome that didn’t seem possible for most not long ago.
A period of regression likely lies ahead for Belt, evidenced by his .526 BABIP, which sits over .200 points higher than his batting average. But no one should’ve expected him to continue hitting well over .300, anyway. Based on his encouraging hard-hit (46.7 per cent) and barrel rates (13.3 per cent), though, plus his improved swing decisions, his production shouldn’t slide too much.
Guerrero’s long-awaited offensive explosion, consisting of six hits – including a pair of home runs – in three games versus Oakland over the weekend, should also benefit Belt’s odds of receiving hittable pitches moving forward. Assuming he continues reaching base at a high rate, there shouldn’t be any shortage of run-scoring opportunities for No. 27.
There may come a time when it makes more sense to return Vladdy to his usual spot behind Bichette, maximizing the number of times he steps to the plate per game. For now, however, the Blue Jays’ top four of George Springer, Bichette, Belt and Guerrero remains the most sensible combination.
Belt, in particular, will surely be motivated to continue leading the charge when his former team, the Giants, visits Rogers Centre for a three-game series beginning Tuesday.
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