Fall League A Finishing School For Belt
The Arizona Fall League has long been considered a "finishing school" for Major League Baseball, with many of the game's best prospects heading to the desert each October for their final lessons before advancing to the big leagues.
Giants first base prospect Brandon Belt may be one of the league's more advanced pupils this year.
To say that the 22-year-old former Texas player has moved rapidly through the Giants system AND that he exceeded expectations would both be big understatements. The Giants drafted Belt in the fifth round of the 2009 draft and signed him just before the mid-August signing deadline. His pro career didn't get started until a month later when he reported to instructional league in Arizona.
The Giants' coaching staff immediately went to work on Belt, completely re-engineering his approach at the plate.
"We took him out of the stance he had in Texas," farm director Fred Stanley said. "We made him a little bit more upright, squared him off and put his hands back a little bit."
Belt credits the Giants coaches, especially hitting coordinator Bob Mariano, for the significant changes in his approach at the plate. Once the 2010 regular season started, Belt took responsibility for reinforcing the lessons from the coaches.
"You're your own best hitting coach," Belt said. "I had to go out there and figure out what to do, as far as my swing goes, and what I needed to do to fix it whenever something goes wrong. That helped me through the season."
It was apparent to Stanley that Belt was a quick study.
"Our hitting people have done a fantastic job with him, plus it's pretty nice to have a guy that's athletic and can repeat things," Stanley said. "He understands. My goodness, that's a wonderful sign right there."
The Giants challenged Belt with his first placement in professional baseball, sending him to high Class A San Jose to start the 2010 season. The 6-foot-5, 195-pound lefthanded hitter tore up the California League, batting .383/.492/.628 in 77 games before earning a promotion to the more challenging Double-A Eastern League.
Skeptics predicted that Belt would tail off after moving away from the hitter-friendly Cal League. Instead, he continued his torrid hitting in Richmond, batting .337/.413/.623 in 46 games for the Flying Squirrels. Belt finished the regular season with a 13-game stint with Triple-A Fresno, hitting .229/.393/.563. he wound up leading the minors in batting by a point over the Dodgers' John Lindsey.
He's also regarded as a plus fielder with plus range at first base.
Belt's got loads of confidence in himself, but even he was surprised by his sterling season.
"I feel like I've always had the ability to be able to do that," Belt said, "but I didn't know how quickly I was going to adjust to my new mechanics. I definitely didn't think it was going to be this fast; I thought it was going to take a little time."
It's not the first time in his baseball career that Belt has had to make a big adjustment. He was originally drafted in the 11th round out of high school by the Red Sox—as a pitcher. He's satisfied to now be a position player, but there's still a little piece of him that wonders "what if."
"Growing up, I always thought I'd be a pitcher because I'm tall and lanky," Belt said, "a projectable lefty who threw somewhat hard. I did think about that quite a bit, but I feel I'm pretty happy where I'm at now."
Belt also doesn't regret bypassing the Red Sox offer so that he could enroll at the University of Texas.
"The best thing that could ever happen to me was going to college," said Belt, who led the Longhorns in the triple-crown categories in 2009. "I matured as a person and as a baseball player. I learned so much about the mental part of the game from Coach (Augie) Garrido and Coach (Tommy) Harmon over there. I feel like that helped me so much when I got into pro ball."
Belt is not one to rest on his laurels. He's approaching the Arizona Fall League experience as a brand new season with many lessons still to be learned.
"I got to the point last year where I started getting out front—out on my front foot a lot—so I'm going to try to stay back and let the ball travel and put good wood on it as much as I can," Belt said.
Stanley is equally enthusiastic about Belt's participation in the AFL and his future with the Giants.
"We would just like to see him get in there and get a few more at-bats," Stanley said. "He doesn't need a lot. His eye at the plate is phenomenal. You look at his walks and strikeouts, his on-base percentage . . . the more he gets the opportunity to play, he'll get more confidence under his belt. Then we'll bring him to spring training and see what happens."
GETTING HIS FEET WET:
It's not only the AFL players that are prepping for future big league assignments this fall. Don Mattingly, who was named Dodgers manager for the 2011 season when veteran skipper Joe Torre announced his retirement last month, will get his feet wet this fall as the manager of the Phoenix Desert Dogs.
The AFL managers include: Casey Kopitzke (Cubs), Mesa Solar Sox;
Mike Sarbaugh (Indians); Peoria Javelinas;
Ted Simmons (Padres); Peoria Saguaros;
Don Mattingly (Dodgers), Phoenix Desert Dogs; Randy Knorr (Nationals), Scottsdale Scorpions; Mike Guerrero (Brewers), Surprise Rafters.