Should the Blue Jays be worried about Brandon Belt?
By Edward Eng
During the past offseason, with the Toronto Blue Jays desperately looking for a left-handed power bat, they were able to sign Brandon Belt to a one-year, $9.3M contract. With both Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. leaving due to trades, the signing of Belt would hopefully help offset some of the offensive output that they provided, along with giving the team some added veteran leadership.
Belt is coming off a season in which he was plagued by a chronic knee injury; one that ultimately required season-ending surgery. After signing with the Jays, he had worked hard to get back into game shape and hoped to regain his form from the 2021 season when he hit .274 with 29 home runs and 59 RBI.
Belt had played his entire career with the San Francisco Giants, with two World Series rings and an All-Star appearance under his belt. During that time over the past decade, he had averaged 15 home runs 50 RBI with a .260 batting average each season, so he was expected to bring both that consistent production and his valuable experience to the Jays.
In Spring Training, Belt was slowly eased back into playing. He was limited to just nine games, but he hit a respectable .286, with three doubles and two RBI. However, he appeared overmatched at times in his plate appearances, leading to seven strikeouts in just 21 at-bats. Many believed that he was just working out the kinks to get back into game shape and that he would be up to speed by the time the regular season rolled around.
Now one week into the regular season, some huge red flags are beginning to surface for Belt, as he is off to a rough start. In five games, he has registered only one hit in 19 ABs for a .053 batting average, with two walks and 12 strikeouts, meaning he is striking out at almost a 60% rate.
But what is much more concerning is for most of Belt’s actual plate appearances, he appeared totally dominated and overmatched by the pitcher, similar to what was observed occasionally during Spring Training. This wasn’t just high heaters blowing past him, but even pitches with lower velocities were baffling him, as he appears to be unable to catch up to them, as seen with this confrontation with Zack Greinke.
It even appears as though pitchers have figured him out and are starting to exploit a weakness in his swing, with pitches down and in.
Perhaps Belt hasn’t fully recovered yet from his knee surgery during the offseason, thus affecting his bat speed and power generated from his back leg to catch up to major league pitches. If so, a brief rehab stint would probably be invaluable to him to get him back to his prime self. However, if it is due to father time starting to creep in, this may become much more worrisome issue for the Jays.
Although Belt has played both in the outfield and first base in the past during his career, at age 35 and with prior injury history, he is mainly limited now to DH duties, with occasional starts at first base to give Vladimir Guerrero Jr. some rest. In the past few years, the Jays had mainly utilized the DH position to give an everyday player a day’s rest from fielding, or for a player that may be playing through a minor injury limiting their fielding ability, or to give playing time to a player that had been producing but in a platoon position.
By giving up that primary DH slot this year to Belt on most days, the Jays are sacrificing a bit of that versatility to commit to what they expected to be valuable production from that slot. However, if Belt isn’t able to work his way out of his current slump quickly and start having productive at-bats, he may soon find himself battling just to stay in the lineup, or even the 26-man roster. Hopefully, with his abundance of experience of ups and downs from the past, he will find a way to make things work eventually.