Good players who had shitty starts to their careers
The following tables shows the second season of players who have been on the Hall of Fame ballot, so long as that season both, a) occurred when the player was between 22 and 25 years old and, b) sucked (minimum 100 PAs). To receive only sucky returns, I set the parameters so that batting average was less than or equal to .260, on-base percentage was less than or equal to .375 and slugging percentage was less than or equal .400.
|Pee Wee Reese||2||.229||.311||.294||674||1941||22||152||136||68||56||10||*6|
As you can see from the last column marked “Pos” for position, most of these players were shortstops, where defense is emphasized and any offensive production is a pleasant bonus. Only Mike Schmidt, Bill Terry and Steve Finley played other positions, from which greater offensive output is expected. Their seasons were undoubtedly poor, but that didn’t stop Schmidt from becoming possibly the best-hitting third baseman ever, Terry from posting a career .341 batting average, or Finley from becoming one of the better players of the 1990s.
Let’s lower the standards a bit and look at the shitty second seasons (same age and PA requirements) of players since 1961 who may not have appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot but have made at least one All-Star roster, narrowing the field to only include players at first base, third base, left field, right field and designated hitter—positions with a great emphasis on offense.
Wow look at all those players with shitty second seasons. You probably know quite a few of them. Hell, as I typed this paragraph, 38-year-old Bobby Abreu just hit a single to right-center field off Kyle Lohse. He will probably be elected into the Hall of Fame after he retires. All of this is to say that shitty second seasons, even by my extremely narrow definition, plague very good players rather often.
(Also: Holy shit Vince Coleman! 107 steals! With a measly .301 OBP! You must have tried to steal like 60 percent of the time you reached base! Gotta love the ’80s, when everyone stole bases with impunity. I love doing these baseball-reference.com Play Index things every week because I always find some joyous nugget like Vince Coleman’s 107 steals.)
Ah, but what if these players had very good rookie seasons before falling victim to the dreaded “sophomore slump”? Why don’t you look at players with poor rookie and sophomore seasons? Certainly players who start their careers with two straight shitty seasons are more likely to have bad careers.
Let’s find out, other Marciano. I will look at a player’s first two seasons and up the minimum PAs to 300, resulting in a table that looks like this:
|Andy Van Slyke||15||.252||.355||.393||794||1983||1984||22-23||238||169||109||135|
Hmmm, some impressive names show up, like Andres “El Gato Grande” Galarraga and Andy Van Slyke, who, in another cool baseball coincidence like the one I mentioned above with Abreu, was just mentioned on ESPN’s broadcast of the Dodgers-Cardinals game, right as I was looking this table over. Van Slyke patrolled the Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfield in the late 1980s alongside young Barry Bonds, and according to one biography of Bonds I read a while ago, the two were adversaries. Bonds envied Van Slyke’s good standing with the fans and the media, while Van Slyke, whom the biography characterized as a team leader, loathed Bonds’ narcissism and the general malaise he brought to the clubhouse. Anyway, Van Slyke’s son Scott is on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster, which is why Andy got a mention on TV just now.
It’s no secret that sometimes good players start poorly, so what’s my point here? Well, I present these tables to you as a roundabout way of talking about Brandon Belt.
Radio hosts, newspaper writers, television reports and some people I know personally have grown impatient with Belt, some even asserting that he must be one of those guys who rakes in the minors but can’t hit major-league pitching. My friend John, whose opinion on baseball I greatly respect even though we tend to disagree, cited the almost instant success of Buster Posey as evidence against Belt’s efficacy.
Here is Belt’s career line (this may not include his stats from today’s game):
|162 Game Avg.||162||524||456||106||23||3||16||61||136||.233||.326||.401||106|
He barely has 300 career PAs, so all the usual sample-size caveats apply here. Yeah, his batting average isn’t pretty, but the sizable gap between that and his OBP shows he has a good idea of the strike zone and stays within it, which can’t be taught. The power isn’t what you expect for a first baseman, but power is usually the last thing to develop in a hitter, and as this nifty career spray chart from the good people at Texas Leaguers shows, he has shown flashes of power to all fields, which is rare.
Other idle thoughts about this spray chart:His all-fields approach should help him hit for high averages, even if that hasn’t manifested yet. He can go up the middle especially well.
The organization wanted him to be more aggressive, and he has responded by swinging at more pitches in the strike zone (75.9 percent compared to 72.5 last year). Still, his contact rate on pitches in the zone has dropped considerably (71.8 compared to 87.5 percent), perhaps because pitchers have adjusted to his game and started throwing him more changeups (18 percent this year, 11 last year) and curveballs (11.1 percent in 2012, 6.8 in 2011). Certainly his future success will depend on how he adapts to this development, because pitchers aren’t going to throw him fastballs (upon which he feasts) until he proves he can hit the soft stuff.
The only way he will ever improve against major-league breaking pitches is if he gets consistent playing time against major-league pitching. The Giants wouldn’t lose anything giving him time to develop; his .370 OBP this season is fourth on the team and he can really pick it at first. The organization and fans just need to be patient, like Belt at the plate.