Belt quietly continuing resurgence for 1st-place Giants

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No one would blame you if you missed or dismissed Giants first baseman Brandon Belt's stellar 2020 campaign.

The veteran finished on pace for career bests in all counting stats, and even his notoriously unsightly batting average rose on the strength of his seemingly ever-improving plate discipline.

Granted, Belt's career-ish year came for an also-ran playing out the string in a shortened, compromised season. But in case you haven't noticed so far in 2021, he has continued his fierce hitting from last season, which marked a return to his early-career success and a notable improvement over his injury-marred 2018-19 seasons.

Through Monday night's action, the 33-year-old slugger was hitting .229/.359/.510, with 8 homers, 17 runs, and 18 RBIs. Belt's eighth homer came on Monday, an impressive opposite-field shot off Texas Rangers ace Kyle Gibson. Last week, Belt clubbed an RBI single and a grand slam in two separate first-inning at-bats in a game against the Rockies, coming away with five RBIs from the onslaught.

While a .229 average is no one's idea of exceptional, batting average has never been Belt's calling card. And in a league where hitters are increasingly trending toward the three true outcomes -- thereby dragging down batting averages -- low-average sluggers such as Belt are more accepted.

Setting aside his 2021 batting average for a moment, Belt's combined production between last season and this one is frankly stunning, and ranks among the best for MLB first basemen. In 296 plate appearances since the start of 2020, Belt is hitting .278/.399/.559, with 17 home runs, 42 runs and 50 RBIs. According to Fangraphs, Belt's adjusted weighted Runs Created (wRC+) of 160 in this span ranks second only behind Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves.

Of particular note over this period is Belt's apparent uptick in power. With a career isolated power of .192, Belt historically posted modest power numbers. Essentially, his offensive game was coupling strong on-base rates with "doubles power." Playing in pitcher-friendly San Francisco, this approach and style made some sense. In 2020, though, his ISO jumped 90 points to .282, and he appears to be repeating that figure again in 2021, sitting at .281 through early may. This is a very encouraging sign for the Giants as they look to squeeze every drop of punch from their lineup.

And, in case you still can't get past Belt's ugly batting average, there's actually a decent chance it will see a healthy dose of positive regression to the mean. His career mark of .262 suggests better days are ahead, and his 31% strikeout rate this season is pacing well ahead of his 23% career rate. If he cuts down on the whiffs and continues to draw walks at a high clip (16%), the average will assuredly come up.

That's a pretty big "if," but one only need look to last year to see the difference in Belt's numbers. The left-hander struck out considerably less often and apparently enjoyed a bit of good fortune on balls in play, bringing his average up to a career best .309 -- albeit in only 179 plate appearances.

A line of .309/.425/.591 -- what Belt posted in 2020 -- should be enough to garner some MVP votes, if it were repeated over the course of a full season. Oddly, he received only a few votes last year, finishing 16th.

And that's the rub here. Sample-size caveats do apply, and as always with Belt, staying healthy is a concern. These issues are the very reasons why his "resurgence" has been underreported in some quarters, or taken with a grain of salt in others.

But the MVP potential is there, and clearly Belt seems to be feeling better than he did prior to last season. The Giants, sitting atop the NL West through Monday's action, are reaping the benefits.

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