If you don't follow the Giants every day, you might not know about the weird relationship between Brandon Belt and a vocal subset of Giants fans. See, Belt is the problem. With everything. Take this Facebook comment from when the official San Francisco Giants account announced Belt won the NL Player of the Week Award:
Good point, Internet commenter. Belt's on a bit of a hot jag right now, though. He changed his grip, apparently, and that made him good or some such. Seems like a pretty convenient explanation -- sort of like the best-shape-of-his-life stories you read every spring. But until it stops working, it's working.
Belt in April: .235/.287/.353, 2 HR
Belt since May 1: .285/.370/.507, 12 HR
If you want to use an even more arbitrary endpoint, he's been even better since April 22. Those first three weeks absolutely killed him. But this isn't just about Belt. This is about an odd coincidence and a hypothetical question. Here are the splits from two other young first basemen:
Eric Hosmer in April: .250/337/.306
Hosmer since May 1: .301/.337/.461
Justin Smoak in April: .237/.333/.309
Smoak since May 1: .289/.382/.509
If you're looking for an explanation why all three struggled in April before salvaging their years, I think it's right there in front of us. Astrology. You're telling me the moon can move oceans, but that the stars and planets can't affect tiny ol' neurons in the brain of a young first baseman? Seems like the burden of proof is on you. And because Venus was in Sagittarius, young first basemen struggled in April.
Which is great for people looking for scientific explanations for what happened, but I'm not sure how much it tells us about what will happen. This brings us to the hypothetical question:
If you could pick one of the three to have for the next six years, which one would you pick?
Smoak is the oldest of the bunch, 26, but he's also a switch-hitter. Which isn't that exciting when you can't hit from one of the sides (.191/.269/.234 against left-handers in 104 PA), but maybe that tickles your roster-building fetish.
If you're looking for an explanation for Smoak's newfound success, it's kind of elusive. He's striking out more and hitting home runs at roughly the same rate as last season. He's walking a little more, which is a good thing, sure. But the biggest difference is with his batting average on balls in play: .243 last year, .333 this year.
Is that really it? Did we actually find the guy for whom BABIP is the only reasonable answer? I think the pendulum has swung right back to the middle of the stats world, which means we'll never get to say, "Yes, poor luck on balls in play is the only reasonable answer for this player's struggles." But it makes as much sense as anything else.
That written, his current .333 BABIP is probably a little high for a slowpoke. The true Smoak is probably somewhere in the middle. Considering his age and relative badness in previous seasons, I'm going to put him in third place.
Hosmer's the youngest, and he has the draft pedigree. He was supposed to be a monster, which is why he was drafted third overall, and he had a pretty outstanding rookie season when he was 21. But if you pick Hosmer, you're still engaging in speculation. His career OPS+ is just 103. Even after the hot stretch, his 2013 OPS+ is 111, which isn't exactly top-tier performance from a first baseman.
So if you're picking Hosmer, you're projecting. You're saying that he's okay now, but he's the only one with the tools to become an perennial All-Star. That just might be true. In two years, Hosmer might be a known quantity, a plus-plus hitter, and he'll be the same age as Smoak and Belt, who are still enigmatic.
If you believe in the park factors that go into OPS+, Belt is already something of a star, with a higher career OPS+ than Cecil Cooper, Paul Konerko, Gil Hodges, and Mark Grace. I do not believe in the park factors that go into OPS+, though, at least as they relate to Giants. If I believe in the park factors that make Belt an accomplished hitter already, that means I believe Madison Bumgarner was a slightly above-average pitcher in 2011 and 2012. That's … impossible. Sit on it, math.
But that doesn't mean the park factors are irrelevant. AT&T Park is murder on left-handed hitters, and especially left-handed power. Factor that in, and factor in the relative consistency, at least when compared to Hosmer, and it's close. It's close.
If you're holding a baby chinchilla out of the window and asking me to choose, I'll go with Hosmer. But that's only because of the age and scout-pleasing power potential. I wouldn't be surprised if Belt had the 2013 season for the next five years, no better and no worse. Whereas Hosmer could be a high-contact Chris Davis. Which is a brutally optimistic comp. But when you're picking between the three first basemen, the age and projection makes a huge difference.
Hosmer is 1a, Belt is 1b, and Smoak is 3. And if all of them can figure out the wiles of April, this will all be semantics because they'll already be pretty great.
The answer's probably going to be Ike Davis, of course. I wonder if baseball actually prints the pages of predictive articles like this out to tinkle on, or if it just whizzes right on the computer. Probably the latter. Baseball has a lot of money.