How Blue Jays’ Brandon Belt remained productive in a sport conspiring against him –

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Throughout his 12-year MLB career, Brandon Belt had every reason to believe the baseball world was conspiring against him.

For starters, he entered the league by playing home games at San Francisco’s Oracle Park, where a stiff breeze blew in from McCovey Cove across an alleyway at right center of field that stretched 421 feet from home plate and ended at the foot of a 20 foot high wall. Since Belt’s debut in 2011, Oracle has underperformed for all hitters, but for hitters like him in particular – high-draw, left-handed, extreme flyball hitters – it’s been kryptonite. They couldn’t have put him in a less than ideal setting this side of Oakland.

Let’s go ahead and record the 103 times in his career that Belt has kicked a ball at least 375 feet in the air and didn’t get away with a home run, and then overlaid them at another park — oh, let’s just do one randomly select like, say, Toronto’s Rogers Centre:

That’s a few dozen more home runs Belt could have had on his FanGraphs page over the years. And who knows how many more OPS points. Or how many more zeros on his paycheck. It’s not like he just settles for doubles or triples instead. More than half of those balls resulted in outs.

“As a young player, I found it difficult to hit some balls that you know would go wide just about anywhere else,” says Belt. “And you not only didn’t get those home runs — you didn’t even hit base.”

Then, just a few seasons into Belt’s career, teams began to understand the power of change. By 2016, he was being postponed in more than half of his record appearances — a number that only increased until 2022, when Belt was being postponed over 85 percent of the time. He’d always tailored his swing to lift balls in play and lift them off the ground. But that positioning meant that the pitches that Belt inevitably failed became near-automatic outs.

As of 2016, Belt has had a .201 wOBA on groundballs, almost 50 points below the .246 xwOBA, which his touch quality suggests he deserves. The league’s wOBA average for groundballs over that span is .223. Of the 255 players who have hit at least 500 groundballs since 2016, only 10 have a larger negative gap between their wOBA and their xwOBA than belt:

“You know that in the big leagues, groundballs are usually outs,” Belt says. “But as the shift got more and more around, I just couldn’t hit the ball on the ground. I’m screwed if I do that.”

so what did belt do? He refined his approach. He chased pitches in the middle. He designed his swing to create a line drive contact that lifts balls lower in the zone – which of course he’s seen more and more throughout his career – over the infield wall teams built to his right would. He worked on his bunting and began using the tactic against teams that were over-aggressively shifting him or using four-outfielder formations. He has the lowest groundball rate — 28.9 percent — among 498 qualified MLB hitters since 2014.

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And he swore he’d never get out. Belt developed one of the game’s best understandings of the hitting zone, posting pursuit ratings within the top 20 percent of MLB batsmen every season since 2016. When pitches weren’t thrown at him, he was determined not to offer any and go on his walks instead.

only one problem The success of this approach depends on the ability of another person to judge balls from shots – the referee’s. And these individuals weren’t always as good at making such determinations as Belt.

Since 2016, no player has looked outside the hitting zone more often than Belt, according to StatCast’s interpretation. And it’s not particularly close:

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that over the years,” says Belt. “Unfortunately that’s part of it. I wish we could all be perfect out there. But we are not.”

So, put yourself in his cleats for a moment. You’re playing in a ballpark seemingly designed to curb the style of contact you make, against opponents who constantly place you in the most difficult areas of the zone to make that contact, while facing defenders positioned right there, where you send this contact most often. and standing in front of officers who keep saying you should have been chasing pitches you can’t even contact.

It’s a small wonder Belt even got to that point, with over 1,300 MLB games on his FanGraphs page and a career line of .261/.356/.458 under it. Since joining the league, he has hit 175 homers, pitched 124 wRC+ and lifted two World Series trophies over his head. And if it weren’t for chronic cartilage problems in his right knee that sabotaged several seasons of his career, he might have done even more. As if there weren’t enough variables conspiring against him.

“For most of my career, it was difficult to find the mentality I needed to be successful out there,” says Belt. “But I think at some point I got to the point, ‘Hey, I have to deal with this. So just deal with it.’ When things are working against you, don’t let them affect you. You just have to keep going. If you let it affect you, it can set you down a path that is difficult to get off.”

This path leads to a burglary. Every thug was there. Nobody is immune to it. But what Belt has learned over the years is that the way out of a crisis isn’t about making an effort. It shouldn’t change anything. It’s about trusting your approach and keeping it consistent – no matter what happens outside of your control.

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“Absolutely. And I haven’t always done that. It’s one of those things that I’ve had to learn,” says Belt. “But I’ve seen over time how focusing on those things can really affect your game. “If you think about it too much, don’t think about batting baseball. So I just have to let it go and move on. You just have to accept that sometimes things happen.”

Sometimes, in the seventh inning of a tie ball game, you execute an incredible swing on a down-the-zone switch — one of those fields designed to induce Belt’s racquet to ground ball contact — and destroy a ball absolutely 407 feet in 107 miles per hour just to see it being tracked down the warning lane:

Sometimes you’ll smoke another one of those hard dives at the bottom of the zone at 108 mph out of your racquet and straight at a third baseman playing in flat right field:

Sometimes when the bases are loaded in the ninth inning, you’ll be called out on a field above your chest to end a ballgame:

Sometimes it will feel like the entire baseball world is against you. Doesn’t matter. Never. Change. The. Approach.

“You have to trust yourself. I think that has helped me overcome a lot of challenges in my career,” says Belt. “I have to trust my hands. I have to trust my eyes. It’s really difficult – but I’m working on it in the cage.

“No matter what I do, I work at it. When I practice my hitting, I’m working on it. If I’m picking up groundballs on first base, I’m working on that. I’m always working on my approach. It’s not always just about going in and being mechanical. It’s about working on the mental things you need to be successful in the game.”

That’s one thing the Blue Jays learned about Belt during his first spring training session with the club — he works smarter, not harder. He’s not the type to haul a handful of bats to the cages at dawn and ask a sleepy-eyed trainer to fire up the high-speed pitching machine. You won’t hear his racquet cracking every pitch before a game in the tunnel. He does not chase quantity; he’s after quality.

Some days before a game, Belt only needs a dozen or so cuts to determine if his swing is ready for competition. Once he’s in a good rhythm, sees the ball well and shoots on time, he’s done everything he needs to do. He knows he’s better off spending the fleeting hours of his day relaxing physically, learning about the tendencies of that night’s starting pitcher, or just taking some time to clear his head.

“He knows himself very well,” says Blue Jays hitting coach Guillermo Martinez. “Knows his swing, knows what to do to finish it. He’s not going to be the type to take a thousand cuts in the cage. He’ll do it right, feel right and just walk away and bring that into play.

To that end, Martinez’s conversations with Belt this spring were about anything but hitting mechanics. It was mentality, approach, headspace. And the coach listened a lot more than he talked.

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Belt isn’t particularly concerned about how tightly he keeps his elbows on his torso or how high he keeps his hands. His swing is his swing. He’s more concerned with adapting his approach to the way he’s set up. Always have a plan. Understand on which pitches he should offer and on which not.

“He never wants to go out again. If he wants out, the pitcher gets him out. Not the other way around,” says Martinez. “It’s cool to hear him talk about his thought process behind this stuff. He just wants to swing strikes. Especially these days when a lot of balls are thrown in the game.”

And that’s just one way the game itself can finally, finally, flex in Belt’s favor. He feels as healthy as he has in years following off-season surgery to clean the frayed cartilage that had caught on his right kneecap. The hyper-aggressive shifts he was so often subjected to are now regulated, requiring two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base and all four to be on infield dirt.

For the first time in his career, he will play home games in a favorable offensive environment, with power alley running in right center field at the Rogers Center just 359 feet from home plate with a 14-foot-4-inch wall. That’s 62 feet closer than Oracle, with a wall half a foot less to climb. Belt has hit 17 balls 359 feet or further since 2019 – the most of any Blue Jays racquet:

The only thing that doesn’t differ from Belt is the way balls and shots are governed. It will be a year or two before the ABS Challenge system — which allows teams to address Hawk-Eye technology to confirm referee calls they believe are bogus — makes its way to MLB.

But I’m sure he’ll take care of the rest. And if that means Belt can do what he believes in and regain his form from 2020 and 2021 when Belt hit .285/.393/.595 with a 162 wRC+ on 560 plate appearances while playing through knee issues, the Blue Jays win it too.

“It’s really hard to hit,” says Belt. “And I think the more you think about it, the harder it gets. If you have other things on your mind while you’re at the top of the plate, you’re screwed. So I’m literally trying to make it as easy as possible. In my eyes I want to swing for strikes and not swing for balls. And from then on I just have to trust myself.”

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