Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Internal Debate Rages

There's been a heated debate raging here at KCBS Sports Fans World Headquarters about Giants rookie Brandon Belt. Of course, the point may be moot by the time you read this, but the underlying issue is worth examining.

Simply put, my esteemed colleague Steve Bitker and I disagree about whether the Giants should send the young first baseman back to the minor leagues.

Steve has been banging the drum for a Belt demotion for several days now, citing the big kid's sub-.200 batting average (as I write, he's at .192). I've argued that it's too early to pull that lever, citing Belt's superlative defensive work and the patience he's shown at the plate.

With Cody Ross apparently ready to come off the disabled list, the Giants will need to make a roster move, and thus Belt's immediate future is up for discussion.

The temptation is to remind Steve and others who want Belt Fresno-bound that Willie Mays started his career 0-for-12. As legend has it, manager Leo Durocher stuck with the frustrated young centerfielder and the rest is history. Of course, it is wildly unfair to compare Brandon Belt--or anyone--to Willie Mays.

But. My argument--and that of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins--is that the conventional wisdom is wrong in this case. The standard thinking, to which my esteemed colleague subscribes, is that a player like Belt is better off playing every day in the minor leagues than either struggling or riding the pine in the majors.

Baseball is a game of subtleties, and its truths are not always revealed by statistics. I've seen every one of Belt's 2011 at-bats, and I saw plenty of him in the Cactus League, too. He has the sort of swing that makes veteran baseball people stop and watch, and defensively--same story. This guy will win a Gold Glove some day; bet on that.

Is Belt struggling at the plate? Absolutely. Is he overmatched? I'm not really seeing it. His patience and pitch selection are truly remarkable for a guy who was playing in college two years ago. His meteoric rise--Opening Day starter after one year in the minors--fuels Steve's argument that he could stand more minor-league seasoning. That's the conventional response when a young player struggles.

But ask yourself this: are the Giants a better team with Belt in Fresno and Darren Ford on the bench? Or are they better with Belt on the bench, Ford in Fresno, and Aubrey Huff at first base?

In the latter scenario, Belt's an occasional starter, a left-handed pinch-hitter and late-inning defensive replacement. Think of him as 2011's Travis Ishikawa (who is in Fresno precisely because Belt is in San Francisco).

And ask yourself whether you really believe Belt will become a better big-league hitter playing every day in Fresno, or watching the game from a major league dugout, surrounded by the wisdom of people like Shawon Dunston and Hensley Meulens and Bruce Bochy and Ron Wotus.

I don't think there's an easy answer when a young player stumbles. But I do think it's worth questioning the conventional wisdom sometimes, and this is one of them.

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