How the Giants stole Brandon Belt
April 4, 2011 | 12:03 pm
Dodgers fans across the land are sighing -– last year, Buster Posey from the right side, and this year, Brandon Belt from the left. The first look at Belt over the weekend at Dodger Stadium showed us everything we need to know about why the Giants think their rookie first baseman is here to stay.
But less than two years ago Major League Baseball as a whole loved 146 guys more than Belt. The Giants drafted him in the fifth round with the 147th overall pick out of the University of Texas. How did a fifth-rounder beat the first four guys in his draft class to the big leagues and take over at a power production position for a defending World Series title team?
Belt is a case study of the value of institutional knowledge in amateur scouting, the value of why scouts need to like what players do best, need to pay close attention to where each player is along the developmental path, and why consensus thinking is the worst thing that can happen to any team.
It’s also an example of why the Giants are producing young impact hitters right now and the Dodgers are not.
Belt was drafted in the 11th round out of high school as a pitcher and went to junior college to focus on hitting. By the time he was draft eligible again, in 2009, Belt had fewer at-bats than many other college players and flashed only modest home run power in games.
But for veteran Giants cross-checker Doug Mapson, it was enough. Mapson had compiled a lengthy scouting history on Belt, spending enough hours early in the ballpark and watching enough batting practice before anyone else arrived to decide there was more power than what the stat sheet showed. Not every scout in America was convinced that Belt could climb so quickly. Many teams didn’t like his offensive set-up and approach. Some thought he had a hitch in his swing.
But instead of looking for what not to like, Mapson looked for what he could like: quick hands, hard contact and power to all fields. He believed that what scared off some teams about Belt’s swing could be fixed without compromising the crisp gunshot sounds off a wooden bat, an indicator of hand strength and torque. He also liked Belt's arm strength, but felt the bat was the more valuable tool.
“I think he’s an emerging hitter,” Mapson told the Baseball Beginnings website in 2009. “We saw him hit for power to all fields even though he doesn’t have a tremendous amount of home runs. Here’s a guy who is 6-5, 220, left-handed, who is a good athlete and a good fielder, has a good arm, he’s just learning to hit and he’s had moderate success. I think all the upside is in front of this guy.”
Belt’s home run to straight-away center field Friday night against Chad Billingsley -- his first big league home run -- flashed the ability to start his hands and produce above-average bat speed and bat control.
Belt loves to gear himself to pull and to get extension like he did against Billingsley, but he’s also smart enough to make adjustments at a young age. He hung in against Clayton Kershaw’s good stuff. His at-bats against Ted Lilly were decidedly poised for a strong young man facing a veteran junk ball-throwing lefty, though he’ll need a few times through the National League to sell everyone that he’s comfortable lefty vs. lefty. He also showed rookie pauses against premier right-handed stuff from Hiroki Kuroda. He showed discipline against bullpen slop, drawing a bases-loaded walk on Sunday.
How, then, did a fifth-round pick less than two years ago turn out to be virtually major league ready out of college and still fall to the Giants?
The simplest explanation is that Mapson did a better job than many scouts at looking at what Belt did best and where it would fit. A scout can only get the players his organization lets him get, but only the player can make the scout look smart. As Mapson’s old mentor and former Hollywood Stars second baseman Gene Handley liked to say, “We’re not any smarter than the next guy. We just hope to be.”
-- John Klima