Gabe Kapler's introduction to San Francisco last November was more of an interrogation, with very little baseball mixed in during his hour on the podium. But at one point, Kapler did get a chance to bring up one of his Giants players. It probably wasn't the one most expected.
"I've thought a lot about Brandon Belt (and) how impressive it is to watch him take an at-bat, independent of the outcome of the at-bat," Kapler said that day. "He tends to look over pitches and make really good swing-or-don't-swing decisions."
In Belt, Kapler and his three young hitting coaches already had a player who could be a model for what they wanted the lineup to look like moving forward. Control the strike zone. Make good swing decisions. Try to drive your pitch when you get it. Don't be afraid to strike out if you were looking for something else.
The Giants hope to one day soon have a lineup full of players who grind through at-bats like Belt, and the polarizing first baseman might be a part of that. After years of inconsistency and trade whispers, Belt was a superstar at the plate in 2020. The Belt Wars, at least for now, are over.
Here's what Belt and other Giants first basemen did during the 60-game season:
The only team in the majors with a higher OPS from first basemen was the Atlanta Braves, who happened to have the NL MVP at the position. So yeah, the 2020 season was a very, very successful one for the Giants who manned first base.
The Giants had four guys play the corner, with Belt and Wilmer Flores getting all but 32 plate appearances and Darin Ruf and Pablo Sandoval soaking up the rest. While playing first base, those four combined to hit .316/.417/.549, with 11 homers and 42 RBI.
Belt missed the start of the season with a heel injury that ultimately required postseason surgery, but he came back on the first homestand and saw by far the most time at first, with 43 appearances and 41 starts in what became a breakout season.
He set career-highs in average (.309), on-base percentage (.425) and slugging (.591), with that latter mark being 110 points better than his previous best. His best OPS in nine previous seasons was the .868 he put up in 2016, his only All-Star season; in 2020 he posted a 1.015. Belt had nine homers, getting halfway to his previous career-high in just 149 at-bats.
When the Giants brought Flores in, it was clear the lifetime middle infielder would be used as a right-handed complement for Belt. The plan worked out to perfection. Flores had a .830 OPS overall but did his best work at first, posting a 1.084 OPS in a dozen appearances. Ruf was 4-for-9 at first base but Sandoval went 3-for-19.
It's hard to really trust defensive metrics during a 60-game season, but the Giants did tie for third in the NL with two Defensive Runs Saved at first base, for what it's worth.
The Giants had high hopes for Belt this season, and he has never lacked confidence. He'll still tell you he's the best swimmer, best soccer player, and best everything else from Nacogdoches. So in theory, Belt simply hit the ceiling that everyone envisioned ... but his 2020 season still qualifies as a surprise.
Belt might have the exact approach this new staff preaches, but he was still a 32-year-old who was coming off his worst season and missed most of July's camp with heel pain. That's not the profile of someone you would expect to put up MVP-type numbers. But that's what Belt did, especially over the second half of the season. Belt started to get hot in mid-August, and from August 16 on, he hit .373 and slugged .718, with six more walks than strikeouts. Those are Barry Bonds numbers.
Belt just missed qualifying for MLB's leaderboards, but he would have finished fourth in the Majors in OBP and OPS. His park-adjusted OPS+ of 178 was third in the Majors, behind only Juan Soto and Freddie Freeman. That's the type of season we're talking about here.
It's hard to dig one up for this group overall, so instead, we'll focus on one play.
Given that the Giants missed the playoffs by one win, there will be moments of the 2020 season that are remembered as being massive swings. Trevor Gott giving up five runs against the A's is at the top of the list, but he might have gotten out of that game unscathed had Flores touched first on a routine grounder. Instead, he moved toward the bag and then fired a throw to second, failing to get either out.
Flores was a standup guy that night and admitted he made a mistake, but he wasn't the only one to take the heat. Kapler had tried to give Belt a day off defensively and paid for it, although we now know the heel was more bothersome than the team let on during the season.
Still, that's one all involved would like back.
Kapler made a concerted effort to play the platoons at first base, with Belt facing just 32 lefties all year. He hit .350 against righties and .115 against lefties, but that usage wasn't the only reason for his surge.
Belt had knee surgery in 2018 and admitted this summer that he wasn't all the way back last year. You could see this year that his legs were back under him. Belt ranked in the 96th percentile in barrel percentage and 84th percentile in hard-hit percentage. He had an average exit velocity of 90.7 mph, the hardest of his career and an improvement of 3.4 mph from 2019. He also became more selective, swinging at the lowest percentage of pitches in the zone since tracking began in 2015.
So, you have a healthy player who was put in a better position to succeed, swung at fewer bad pitches, and hit the ball harder when he made contact. That's how you get a career year at 32.
Prospect to Watch
You don't see many first basemen on prospect lists because the best young players are usually in the middle of the field, and the Giants have just one on their top 30. That would be Logan Wyatt, a second-rounder in 2019. Wyatt had a .278/.388/.377 slash line last summer but was not part of the player pool this season, so there's not much info on him.
What we do know about Wyatt is that he has Belt's profile, which makes him kind of fascinating when you see what Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind have been able to do with hitters. Wyatt was compared to Belt during the draft process and is known for having an extremely patient approach. He hasn't tapped into his raw power yet, but if he does he could move quickly.
The most interesting development for the future at first base may have come in the 2020 draft. The Giants took catcher Patrick Bailey, who joined Joey Bart in getting reps at first at the alternate site. Both will continue to do work at first so that it's an option when they're in the big leagues together.
The 2021 Plan
Belt recently became the seventh Giant to appear in 1,000 games at first base, and he should pass some familiar names next season. He's 88 appearances from Will Clark and 101 from J.T. Snow, who currently ranks third in franchise history.
That brings us to the elephant in the room here. Belt's production has traditionally tailed off in the second half, sometimes dramatically, so it's fair to question if he can do what he just did over 162 games, or come close.
The good news is the Giants won't necessarily ask him to. Next season is the final year of Belt's five-year extension, and you can expect Kapler to treat him similarly, limiting his exposure to left-handers and finding games and innings to rest when possible.
Assuming there's no DH, the Giants will need to find plenty of at-bats for Flores, and he should team with Belt to again give the Giants one of the best first base situations in the league, with the possibility that Buster Posey and Bart get some time there, too.