Why the Toronto Blue Jays shouldn’t bring back Brandon Belt for the 2024 season

Photo credit:Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Scott
19 days ago
Despite speculation that he was going to retire, Brandon Belt announced recently that he planned to continue his playing career for at least another season.
This begs the question — if Justin Turner can give the Toronto Blue Jays 1,000-or-so innings at third base (hey, he did it as recently as 2021!) and the Jays had room for a full-time designated hitter, would Belt be a good option?
On Tuesday, my colleague, Tyson Shushkewich, wrote a case in favour of the Blue Jays bringing Belt back for another season. Today, I’m going to look at the other side of that argument, that Belt is no longer a fit for the team’s roster.
Let’s start with the obvious. If the Jays signed Belt, it would be for his bat. His sprint speed is in the bottom quartile in the majors and his arm strength is in the bottom decile. He still plays a decent first base with the glove, but the Jays have other options when Vladdy needs a day off. So leather is not where Belt adds value – at least, not at this point in his career (he was an excellent defender in his heyday in San Francisco, though).
So let’s talk lumber. Belt’s 138 wRC+ in 2023 was easily the best on the 2023 Jays among full-time players and was 15th in the majors among players with at least 400 plate appearances. Heady stuff! But there are some red flags.
Brandon’s 2023 stat line of .254/.369/.490 was excellent. But his Statcast expected stats told another story, with an X-line of .212/.336/.437. If you call the difference between actual stats and X-stats a player’s “luck”, then Brandon’s 2023 slugging was 19th “luckiest” of 258 qualifying batters. His wOBA was the 12th luckiest, and his BA was the fifth luckiest. Now, “luckiness” is not a guarantee of regression, but it is concerning.  The three “luckiest” players from 2022 were Paul Goldschmidt (2022 wRC+ of 176, 2023 =  122), Manny Machado (2022 = 153, 2023 = 114) and Jose Altuve (2022 = 164, 2023 = 154).
This difference is consistent with Belt’s batted ball stats. While his 2023 Barrel% of 15% (i.e. the percentage of balls hit squarely) was excellent, his average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage were both below league average. This is unusual  — ordinarily, a player who regularly barrels the ball will have an above-average exit velocity. That Brandon is hitting the ball with good technique but still having an average exit velocity in the 45th percentile is troubling.
There are also concerns about Belt’s career splits. In low-leverage situations, he has averaged a 123 wRC+.  In medium leverage, he averaged 134, and in high leverage, he averaged 103. (In 2023, his wRC+ stats were 138 low, 153 medium, and 84 high). It’s normal for a player to have a lower wRC+ in high-leverage situations: in 2023, MLB batters had a 97 wRC+ in high-leverage but a 103 wRC+ in medium-leverage.  This is understandable — hitters are more likely to face a Josh Hader or Felix Bautista in high-leverage situations.  But Brandon’s gap is larger than most.  This might be due to the higher prevalence of “power” pitchers (i.e. high strikeout) in late-game high-leverage situations.  Brandon’s career line against average-power pitchers is .256/.356/.471 – but his career line against power pitchers is .225/.337/.407.  This is doubly troubling, given the increased emphasis that MLB teams are placing on late-inning power pitching.
The impact of these red flags can be seen in the projections that major prognosticators have made for Belt in 2024.  Steamer projects a decline in his wRC+ to 106 in 2024 (other forecasts have him at 109, 112, 113, and 122). The average is 112 — which is a low figure for a pure DH.

The bottom line

It is entirely possible that the Jays see Turner as a full-time DH.  In that scenario, there might be no room for another DH.  But even if there were DH at-bats available, Brandon Belt might not have the upside and the skill set fit that the Jays need in 2024.


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