Bart impresses defensively, but looks for adjustments to the plate that originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
SAN FRANCISCO — Brandon Belt has been through this before.
Belt was once the young top prospect breaking into a good Giants team, with questions cropping up about his bat as the strikeouts piled up. He’s been through years of the Belt Wars, which have raged for so long, in part because so much of what Belt has always done well shows up through advanced, not traditional, metrics. He knows a lot of people will look past a solid defense when your batting average is low.
Yes, Belt knows exactly what Joey Bart is going through right now, so earlier this week the team’s longest serving player took a chair next to the rookie who was asked to fill Buster Posey’s shoes. .
“I just tried to let him know that I’ve been through a lot of this already and that I’m here if you need any help, and I gave him my advice if I was talking to myself or someone. else: just simplify your bats,” Belt said Wednesday. “It’s something that’s going to click in his head, but it’s tough, man. He has to focus on getting out there and helping the pitchers and running the baseball game, and in same time trying to figure out how to get his shot going too.”
There’s no one in the clubhouse with more on their plate right now than Bart, and there’s perhaps no one harder to assess through 31 games. Bart has played 20, and there are reasons for optimism, as well as reasons for concern.
Bart is hitting just .167 with 34 strikeouts in 60 at bats, but the Giants aren’t asking him to replicate Posey’s contributions at the plate, at least not yet. He mostly hit the ninth and they just want him to flip the lineup while leading the pitching staff. He struggled with the first, but so far Bart has received rave reviews for the second.
“He’s preparing as well as anyone on our roster,” manager Gabe Kapler said on this week’s Giants Talk podcast. “I think he’s very aware that his primary responsibility is to protect and put pitchers in the best possible position to be successful. That also comes across in his conversations with (Andrew Bailey) and the rest of our coaches from pitchers, and with (bullpen coach) Craig Albernaz, and we see the benefits of that preparation.”
The job came on the defensive, and this is where the Bart-Belt comparison becomes particularly clear. Even in his worst moments at home plate, Belt brought an elite glove to first base, helping the Giants every night. Bart currently ranks third among NL catchers in Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average and in baseball’s top 10 in field framing, according to Baseball Savant. No matter how a plate appearance goes, he was able to put it aside the second he started putting his catcher gear back on.
“Games are won on the mound, so I have to be at my best whether I’m 3-on-3 with a few homers or have a few punches,” Bart said. “It doesn’t really matter. It wasn’t even one of my goals to think like that, like, hey, don’t let (strikeouts) affect (defense). It’s something that would never cross my mind because I know how important it is to try to keep things in order on the defensive end.”
The ability to work with and coach a diverse pitching team will keep Bart in the lineup, but there are big steps to take offensively. Three homers and a good walk rate kept Bart’s head above water overall (his wRC+ is at 98, just two points below the league average), but the swing-and -miss should be checked. His strikeout rate is the highest among MLB batters with more than 50 plate appearances, and during the recent homestand, Bart often practiced at bat early to try to make adjustments. Kapler was candid about what needs improvement in the plate.
“There’s nothing more than meets the eye here,” he said this week. “I don’t want to complicate things. He swings and misses a lot.”
It could well be part of the package moving forward. Bart had high strikeout rates in the minors and breathed 41 times with three walks in this 2020 cameo. Perhaps that’s the reality of a swing the Giants are hoping will ultimately lead to a lot of power against big-league pitches.
“He’s been great with his swing decisions. Look, he drives baseball, so there are slugs, there are good swing decisions that translated into a few walks,” Kapler said. “There are still strikeouts – that’s fine, as long as those other things are happening. That doesn’t mean we’re not trying to reduce strikeouts, but sometimes Joey swings and misses in the area and that’s is a result of his swing path and a few coordination tricks. It’s often not under Joey’s control. His swing path is what it is so he can drive the baseball and put balls in the seats, and we don’t want to change that. As long as the swing decisions are good and he manages his shots well, we’re happy with his progress.”
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Focusing on good swing decisions is what got Belt through the early years, even if it was tough at times. He’s had a lot of months similar to the one Bart just had, but he still tried to stick to his plan, even when fans started grumbling for a replacement. Belt pushed through, and he said he saw similar behavior from Bart. Ultimately, good processes will lead to better results.
“My advice for him, because I’ve been through this so many times, is that the game seems to get really fast sometimes, so you have to slow it down, and the best thing to do is keep it as simple as possible. Focus on having good sticks, swinging on good pitches and eliminating bad pitches. For me, that’s the easiest form,” Belt said. “And look, it’s early. You just have to stick with it. Sometimes it takes a month or two to find your swing.”
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