SCOTTSDALE — Brandon Belt had already hit a long sac fly and a double when he came to the plate in the fifth inning against the Padres midway through camp. He calmly pushed a perfect bunt toward third base, cruising to first without a throw because the shift was on.
“Pretty sick, huh?” Belt said the next morning.
It was pretty slick, too. It was no coincidence that Belt beat the shift while playing a division rival. Almost every team shifts these days, some far more than others, and Belt has found that National League West teams put three fielders on the right side just about every time he comes to the plate.
“That was part of it — you want to let them know you’re capable of that,” Belt said. “It’s something I’ve worked on quite a bit during spring training. It’s a big deal to let them know you might do that, and it also is about letting myself know that I can do it.”
Bunting doesn’t come naturally to a 6-foot-5, 220-pound line-drive hitter like Belt. Hitting coach Hensley Muelens has had some of his position players practice bunting for hits a couple times a week this spring, and Belt had adjustments to make. At first, Muelens said, Belt would stand too tall as he tried to bunt. Then he went the other, getting down too low.
“We’ve got him to a position now to where it’s almost the same as when he’s hitting,” Meulens said.
Belt admits that his mindset when he sees a shift is usually to hit the ball so hard that it finds a hole anyway, and it’s not a bad plan. FanGraphs.com tracks hard-hit balls, and Belt had the ninth-highest percentage in the big leagues last year, ranking just behind the likes of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. He was third on the Giants in average exit velocity and he had the team’s longest homer of the season.
Belt had a monstrous spring by driving the ball to the gaps, hitting .395 with five homers, six doubles and 19 RBI in 43 at-bats. He knows, however, that life at the plate will be a bit easier with infielders spread more evenly. In a deep lineup, he hopes to make life easier for teammates, too.
“My main focus is hitting line drives and hitting the ball hard, but if it’s the right situation in the game and they’re giving (the bunt single) to you, I’ll take that hit,” he said. “It could change momentum, or change the pitcher’s mindset since there’s now a runner on. If someone is on base in front of me, my first thought will be to drive him in. But with nobody on, or if we’re behind, we’ll take the baserunner.”
If Belt did need a reminder of how important it can be to keep defenders honest, the spring provided a refresher course. He was shifted in his very first at-bat of the Cactus League season and it was a regular look throughout the month, whether the Giants were facing familiar big leaguers or a bunch of prospects. Over the weekend Belt hit a hard shot up the middle — losing a single because the third baseman was playing behind the pitcher’s right shoulder. As teams continue to adjust their schemes, it will only get worse. Joe Panik was shifted at times this spring despite being an all-fields hitter. On Monday night the Diamondbacks even used a shift on George Kottaras, the fourth catcher on the depth chart.
“It’s gotten kind of crazy,” Belt said. “You could tell (last year) that most teams were doing it. You see a pattern and you realize what they’re doing.”
The Giants are right on board with the trend, with bench coach Ron Wotus leading the positioning revolution. Wotus has had infielders do shifting drills and practice taking and making throws from different areas, a common sight across the desert. It has taken a while for hitters to catch up, and Belt said there’s “still some ego” involved when it comes to putting down a bunt instead of swinging away. But if you can get past that — and he long ago did — there’s another way to keep that confidence up.
“If they’re playing me that way it’s something I’m going to utilize, and that could be an extra 10 hits a year,” Belt said.
Turn 10 of Belt's 2015 outs into bunt hits and he would have batted an even .300. Ten would be a stretch for a player who had just one bunt hit last season — and one in his career — but the Giants expect it to be added to Belt's repertoire once the exhibition season is over.
“It’s another option, another tool he can use,” Meulens said. “It’s changed the game and we’re seeing shifting more and more, and it’s going to keep happening. He’s in a better position as a hitter, too. He hit the ball over (to the open side) for a base hit the other day, which we didn’t see a whole lot of last year.
“That’s going to help him grow and progress. He’s made progress every year. Last year was his best year, and we expect him to be even better.”