SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Shortly after the Giants announced that Gabe Kapler would be their next manager, Brandon Belt looked down at his phone and saw a funny text from Evan Longoria.
The veterans have a group chat in the offseason and Longoria sent Belt, Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and others a video of Belt squaring to bunt on a 3-1 count against the Phillies in 2018. In the video, Kapler smiles and says, "With a 3-1 count? You're hitting fourth for the Giants, (bleeping) swing!"
Kapler, not a fan of Brandon Belt bunting pic.twitter.com/IaJA2lCy7x— Ahmed Fareed (@FareedNBCS) November 13, 2019
Belt enjoyed the video and said he understands where Kapler was coming from, particularly since the game was played in the launching pad that is Citizens Bank Park. He hasn't had a chance to tease Kapler about it yet, but said he will at some point this spring. When he does sit down with his new manager, Belt will find someone who may be his biggest ally in 2020.
Kapler has made no secret of the fact that he likes Belt's approach, pointing specifically to his first baseman during an otherwise awkward introductory press conference and again at FanFest. On Thursday, Kapler sat down in front of reporters and cameras and asked if he could start with some of his own impressions before taking questions.
"I think Brandon Belt looks really good in the batter's box," Kapler said, his eyes lighting up. "He's kind of an assassin in there in that he's not passive at all. He's very aggressive, but if a pitch doesn't look like he can drive it he's just laying off. When something hangs and he gets a good pitch to hit, he's really taking a good, healthy aggressive pass.
"I just think we value his approach at the plate so much and I think it's going to play very well for him in spring training but ultimately in the season."
And with that, the new manager of the Giants planted his flag firmly on one side of the Belt Wars.
The first baseman has been the most polarizing Giant of the championship era. Supporters point to his high on-base percentages, ability to wear down an opposing pitcher, numbers away from power-suppressing Oracle Park, and a glove that has had him garner Gold Glove consideration. Critics tend to grumble about slumpy shoulders and the fact that Belt, who has the physique of your classic slugging corner infielder, never has hit 20 homers in a season.
Belt long ago gave up on trying to bring fans over to his side, but he knows there still have been detractors. Even behind closed doors there were disagreements among the staff, with some quietly complaining that the front office gave Belt a massive extension while imploring him to "get the bat head out" and pull the ball more often.
Kapler has come in and told Belt to do what he does best. He wants him to have good plate appearances and keep the ball in the middle of the field, which is his natural swing path. More than that, he has said he wants younger Giants to follow that approach.
Asked about Kapler, Belt paused and said he didn't want to make it seem any previous coaches had been unsupportive. But there certainly is something different about the way Kapler talks about Belt.
"It's something that I've always believed about myself. It's just now coming from somebody else," Belt said. "To say that it doesn't really affect me at all, honestly, I think I would be lying. I think it does. I put a lot of work and effort into honing my craft, and to see the organization I play for and my teammates appreciate that, it does mean something. I don't hold any resentment towards anybody else because they didn't share that with me the whole time. It's just something I had to know about myself.
"Whether other people liked it or not, I had to know that's what made me successful and I had to stick with it. There's a lot of baseball knowledge in this clubhouse coming from the coaches or whoever, but for me, I had to know my own limits and had to know what I did well, and that's what I knew that I did well, so I stuck with it. That's what made me a successful baseball player, and now it's just being more vocalized, I guess."
The support has come in ways that don't always have to be vocalized. Since Farhan Zaidi took over in 2018, Belt's name has come up often in trade rumors. But those aren't leaking from the Giants, and there doesn't appear to be any legitimacy to them. The Giants believe Belt should hit in the middle of the lineup for them. Their hope is that in a couple of years the entire group has the same grinding approach.
"There have been times when he's been elite at the plate and hasn't gotten the credit that he deserves for just how productive he's been from an all-around perspective," Kapler said of Belt.
Kapler pointed to two years in particular, 2013 and 2016. Belt had a 139 OPS+ in 2013, ranking ninth in the NL in a metric that adjusts for ballparks. Three years later, he ranked eighth at 135. Kapler noted that Belt didn't hit a bunch of homers in those seasons but still was elite per advanced metrics.
"Power production doesn't have to come in the shape of 30 homers," he said. "It can come with extra-base hits, and then obviously his ability to reach base and grind pitches down is really what we're looking for from Brandon.
Last year, though, there was a drop-off. Belt's OPS+ dipped to 98, putting him below league average for the first time. He had a solid .339 OBP, but slugged just .403, the lowest of his career.
Looking back on it, Belt said he never fully recovered from knee surgery in September of 2018. He was noticeably hobbled throughout the summer and there were times when the staff wondered if Belt should sit out. This spring, he said he feels the best he has since the first half of 2018, when he had a .862 OPS and was on pace for 30 homers for a while.
If Belt can be that guy again, he could be one of the rare everyday players in Kapler's platoon-heavy lineups. The Giants brought in Wilmer Flores on a two-year deal and have made no secret of the fact that he's an option at first against left-handed pitching, but Kapler said he would wait to see how Belt is swinging this spring before making any determinations. He pointed out that Belt has in the past hit lefties better than righties.
That versatile version of Belt is the one Kapler calls elite, and that has been communicated from manager to player. Belt said his first conversation with Kapler nearly was entirely about their families and getting to know one another, but subsequent talks have included a message that Kapler isn't shy about sharing publicly.
"He said, 'From watching you from afar, I really appreciated what you've done and how you go about your at-bats,'" Belt said.
There was that one exception, and Belt laughed as he said he would soon bring it up with Kapler. But the manager should have a good rebuttal ready. After taking an Aaron Nola curveball for a strike on the bunt attempt, Belt swung away. He lined a single down the right-field line.