A minor adjustment is paying off big for Brandon Belt

A slight drop of his hands has paid big dividends for Brandon Belt. Getty Images, AP Photo

Brandon Belt just wanted a little more time.

The 6-foot-5 first baseman takes a bit longer than most to unfurl his long frame as he swings. And after Belt struck out a career-high 147 times in 2015, San Francisco slugger and hitting coach Hensley Meulens suggested a minor change that's paying off in big ways.

Belt used to set up with his hands closer to his shoulders before sliding them down into a hitting position as he readied to swing. Now the lefty sets up with his hands slightly lower, allowing him to be quicker to the ball.

"I don't know if you'd even notice it if you were watching on television," Belt said.

That small tweak has led Belt to become one of baseball's most-improved hitters over the last year.

From last season to this season, the few extra hundredths of a second have led to a 26-point jump in batting average, a 61-point bump in on-base percentage and a 56-point rise in slugging percentage. Belt's .952 OPS ranks fifth in the National League, and he's doing all this while playing half his games in a ballpark that's unfriendly to left-handed power hitters.

The 28-year-old could certainly have gone about his business and taken the same approach to things as he did for most of last season, when he hit .280 with 18 home runs. His play even earned him a five-year, $72.8 million contract extension that begins in 2017.

But near the end of the 2015 season, with his strikeout totals rising, he tried bringing his hands down just a little bit, to get them closer to his waist. The adjustment gave him more time to react to the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand.

Belt went 5-for-15 with two doubles and a triple in three games against the Reds and one versus the Diamondbacks before his season was ended by a concussion on Sept. 18.

This season, he came back intent on taking that late-season adjustment and a more discerning two-strike approach into an entire at-bat.

"From spring training into the season, he's stayed consistent with it," Meulens said. "I wouldn't say this is 'the new Brandon.' I would say he's finally showing the signs we knew he had, finally getting comfortable, and finally trusting the adjustments he's made.

"The beauty of the game is that a player can make small adjustments and have big success and productivity."

In particular, Belt cited a difference in approach against high fastballs as one of the keys to his improvement. He already has as many hits in the upper half of and above the strike zone as he did last season (10). The chart on the right shows a big decline in how often he's whiffed against pitches in that area.

"My swing is a little more level now," Belt said. "I'm definitely putting that [high fastball] in play more. If I'm not, I'm fouling it off, and with two strikes, that's not the worst-case scenario."

Belt has used that approach to better recognize and take advantage of pitchers' mistakes. Belt homered off David Price and Julio Urias last week, pouncing on pitches in his comfort zone.

That pitch recognition has also been the catalyst for his improved strikeout and walk numbers -- he's on pace to strike out 102 times with 100 walks.

The improvement in drawing walks is a two-year progression in which he's learned not do something foolish, like swing at a bad pitch to help the pitcher. His chase rate (rate of swinging at pitches out of the zone) in three-ball counts was 41 percent in 2013 and 2014, but is 28 percent since the start of 2015.

In terms of avoiding strikeouts, Belt is making better decisions on his swings. He currently ranks as the least likely hitter to swing at a two-strike pitch that's out of the strike zone. And if he sees something he likes, he goes after it.

If not, he holds off.

Last season, he struck out looking 39 times in 492 at-bats. This season, his pace over the same number of at-bats would net just 26 caught-looking strikeouts.

Because the adjustment has caused Belt's swing to be a tad faster, he can use that extra time to better recognize pitches.

A pitch takes about .4 seconds to go from a pitcher's hand to home plate, and it takes .15 seconds for a batter to swing, according to Dr. Alan Nathan, an expert in the physics of baseball.

"Now suppose the batter can cut his swing time by five microseconds (.005 seconds) to .145 seconds," Nathan wrote. "It would seem that would give him an extra five microseconds of information [in deciding whether to swing]. That would seem to be some advantage."

Belt's seeing that advantage this season.

"If my eyes can see the ball and I'm not thinking about anything else, my hands are going to go where my eyes are looking. The more I'm able to focus on seeing the ball, the more success I seem to have," he said.

This is not the first time that Belt has tried to gain an edge by make adjustments to how he uses his hands. In 2013, he changed his grip so that it was more on his fingertips and less deep in his palm. The payoff came in the final two months of the season, when he hit .346 with a .982 OPS.

"When I got it in my fingertips, it had a domino effect," Belt said. "It straightened out my body a little bit and kept me more upright, and gave me time to see the ball a split second faster."

All this tinkering has done a lot for Belt's ability to spray the ball all over the field, as he's going to the opposite field more often than he ever has, and he describes facing shifts as "a non-factor".

"I've had to work a lot at keeping extra stuff out of my head, because it takes away from me seeing the ball," Belt said. This approach "definitely gives you more confidence. It keeps rolling into every at-bat and every game. You don't feel pressure that you have to get a hit or put a ball in play early in the count because you know you can put it in play in any count.

"When you have that confidence, it helps you relax and helps you see the ball better."