12/15/11 8:02 PM EST
Winter ball helps renew Belt's confidence
By Adam Berry / MLB.com
His up-and-down season started full of promise, as he was named the club's Opening Day first baseman. But he was sent down in April, called up in May, injured for six weeks, placed on the disabled list, optioned again, recalled in July, optioned once again in August and recalled for good about a week later.
Belt took it all in stride, but he had to deal with circumstances largely unfamiliar to him even when he was in the Majors. A natural first baseman, he started 30 games in left field and one in right. He had to learn on the fly how to pinch-hit against big league pitchers.
So, when Belt set out to leave the country for the first time in his life, off to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball, he had two goals set in his mind. He wanted to finish his tumultuous season on a high note, and he wanted to be consistent -- "consistently good," he said.
The 23-year-old did just that for Leones del Escogido, batting .300 (30-for-100) with a .395 on-base percentage and .470 slugging percentage as he saw time at first and the corner outfield spots in 28 games.
He showed the characteristic plate awareness that helped him tear through the Minors in 2010, drawing 16 walks to just 19 strikeouts, and 11 of his 30 hits went for extra bases. And he still felt like he hit even better than his impressive numbers show.
"I had gotten away from that comfortable feeling I'd had," Belt said in a phone interview. "I hit the ball very well. I hit the ball hard and consistently. I felt like I did really well, and I got back to that point where I wanted to be."
The Giants' front office was equally impressed with Belt's time in the Dominican. General manager Brian Sabean and vice president of baseball operations Bobby Evans watched some of his games on TV and spoke highly of his approach and results.
"I think he made a concerted effort to make some adjustments," Sabean said. "This was a nice step for him. I'm really happy and pleased that he accepted this challenge."
"I think he looked very good after a long season, to go out there and perform as well as he has," Evans added. "It's been a successful winter-ball season for him."
Belt said his greatest adjustment came between his ears. Playing out of position in the outfield admittedly affected him. He said he put too much pressure on himself last season, feeling a need to prove he belonged in the Majors and deserved consistent playing time.
That's how he's always been, he said, but that pressure changed his mental approach at the plate. And it showed.
He struggled to hit breaking balls. He struck out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances and drew only 20 walks. He didn't hit for average (.225), and though his nine home runs were actually tied for fourth on the team, he couldn't drive the ball the way he wanted to.
"I just didn't have the approach to hit the ball consistently up there. Every time I got a breaking pitch in the big leagues, I was swinging way too early on it," Belt said. "I couldn't really figure out why. I think it was all mental -- just a lack of confidence and maybe trying to get a bit pull-conscious and trying to hit the ball too hard, stuff like that."
That all changed when he got to the Dominican. He let the game come to him, as he always had. He waited for breaking balls to get deeper in the zone. And perhaps most importantly, he forgot about everything that went wrong in San Francisco the few months prior. Then, he said, "everything else just fell into place."
Now back from the Dominican Republic, Belt is enjoying the offseason and preparing for his second Major League season. He's been home to Texas. He celebrated his first wedding anniversary by making his first trip to New York City with his wife, Haylee, who supported him through the highs and lows of the year, usually packing the suitcases he had to live out of.
Amid all that, Belt has done his best to keep up with the Giants' offseason activity. San Francisco traded for Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, who are projected to start in the outfield alongside Nate Schierholtz. That means Aubrey Huff figures to see a good number of starts at first base, and Buster Posey will play there on occasion.
Sabean has said he hopes to primarily use Belt as a first baseman, knowing that is the lefty hitter's best position. Given the club's current surplus of infielders, Belt also figures to be involved in the outfield mix and could be used as a pinch-hitter again.
"Anything I can do to get up there, get some playing time and help the team out, I'm willing to do it," Belt said. "I'm hoping that maybe through my play in Spring Training, I can show that I'm ready to take on a full-time position out there, whether it's in the outfield or first base. That's kind of the mentality that I'm coming into Spring Training with."
And this time around, Belt will be prepared.
"I'm going back to that same 'I'm going to show them I can do it' mentality," he said. "I'm going to do it without putting too much pressure on myself. I'm just going to go out there and try to remember that I know how to hit."
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.