After the 2010 season, the Atlanta Braves did a risky thing for a team that's expecting to contend. They set aside first base for 21-year-old Freddie Freeman, completely ignoring the trade and free-agent markets for the position. Freeman had 24 at-bats in 2010 with four hits, so the Braves were taking this leap of faith based on their scouting and the youngster's performance in AAA.
The San Francisco Giants did not set aside a job for Brandon Belt. They re-signed Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell, leaving a tiny opening for Belt, but only if he looked great in spring training. He did just that, and began the season as the starting first baseman
Both rookies struggled at the start of the season, and Belt was sent down after 17 games. Here are where the two players were when Belt was sent down:
Belt: .192/.300/.269 in 52 AB, eight walks, 13 strikeouts
Freeman: .224/.321/.347 in 49 AB, six walks, 10 strikeouts
Pretty similar struggles, yet Belt went to the minors while Freeman stayed up.
The demotion of Belt was certainly justifiable at the time. It's easy to poke fun at the Giants for being veteranophiles who never met a rookie they couldn't bury, but Aubrey Huff was fantastic in 2010 -- one of the best first basemen in baseball. His misadventures in the outfield this spring were well documented, so if the Giants needed his bat, they'd have to have it at first base. Though Belt had a few innings in the outfield as a minor leaguer, it would be a substantial burden for a kid with 48 at-bats above AAA to break out of a slump and learn a new position at the same time.
Freeman started to rake. He ended April with a .217/.314/.380 line, but the Braves stuck with him. Since the start of May, Freeman has hit .322/.380/.507 with 12 homers in 304 at-bats.
Belt started to rake, too ... back in AAA. In 142 at-bats with Fresno, he hit .324/.462/.549 -- similar to his career minor-league line of .348/.460/.603.
Huff started to swing a rake. Literally. He literally swung a non-regulation bat. It was three feet long, much thinner than traditional baseball bats, and much better served for raking leaves. At least, that's my guess just from looking at the numbers. He's struggled, flashing a penchant for pulling every single ball weakly to second base, and making Giants fans pine for the return of Brandon Belt. It's been quite the cause célèbre for the blognoscenti -- Free Brandon Belt! -- over the past few months.
Belt has been up twice since his initial demotion -- the first recall was ended by a broken hand, and the second by a demotion on Thursday. He wasn't starting, even with Huff struggling, so the Giants figured their rookie would be better served with regular at-bats. Manager Bruce Bochy is stubbornly clinging to the idea that the veteran who was so good for him in 2010 will find what he's lost in 2011. It's a ludicrous idea, as you can see from these rest-of-season projections from FanGraphs and Dan Szymborski:
Rest of season projections:
Wait a sec. It's not as if ZiPS is an infallible formula from the gods, but it's pretty handy in this case. Huff's past performances do matter. Belt's minor-league numbers matter. About an equal amount, it looks like. Huff's wretched four months don't wipe out how he hit for the 11 seasons that preceded them.
The Giants are sticking with Huff. Belt may or may not get significant time in September, but he'll almost certainly be a bat off the bench. The Braves have already stuck with Freeman, and their patience paid off. The Braves' approach has been more successful without question so far in 2011, but it's not like the Giants can retroactively replace Huff's 2011 performance with some estimate of what Belt might have done. Those at-bats are gone.
What the Giants are hoping is that their steadfast approach will be successful for the next two months. It's a frustrating approach for fans -- we're like music executives, always looking for the latest and greatest thing -- but it's not as insane as it might initially seem.