This week we’re taking a look at two young-ish, alliterative first basemen repping the West Coast. At 28 years old, Brandon Belt is coming off of one of his most productive seasons as a pro, one year removed from signing a lucrative contract extension to keep him by the Bay. C.J. Cron got off to a hot start in 2016, but the embers were quickly extinguished by an errant Mike Wright fastball (bet you didn’t think you were going to read about Mike Wright today, huh?) in July, leading to surgery and missed time for the 27-year-old slugger. Who will be better long term? I’m glad you asked. Let’s dive in.
Above average contact skills make Cron an interesting bet in the batting average category. He struck out in only 16.9 percent of plate appearances last season, a number typically reserved for slap hitting middle infielders. His .278 batting average in 2016 was the best thus far in his short big league tenure.
While high contact is usually an ingredient for a higher average, there is some room for skepticism. Cron is a bit of a free-swinger. Last season, he swung at pitches outside of the zone 36.9 percent of the time, nearly seven percentage points above the league average. He made contact on those pitches only 60.1 percent of the time, which is below the league average. If he keeps flailing at bad pitches and either a) misses them or b) makes weak contact, his best (read: only?) tool, will suffer.
Belt has only produced a batting average below .275 once since his rookie year, and it came during his injury riddled 2014 season. While he strikes out a little more frequently than his counterpart, he actually managed to trim his strikeout rate by nearly four percentage points (down to 22.6 percent) last season. Belt also seems to avoid easy outs. His 5.2 percent infield-flyball rate last season was nearly five percentage points better than league average. It’s a skill that Belt has honed over the years, even putting up a ludicrous 0.8 percent infield fly ball rate in 2015. His .346 BABIP in 2016 looks a little swollen, but it’s not far off his career .341 number. While Cron’s promise makes this close, Belt’s consistency gives him the nod. Advantage: Belt
As mentioned previously, Cron is at the plate to take hacks. For his career, he swings at a little over half of the pitches hurled his way, a number nearly five percentage points higher than the league average. His tendency to, as the proverbs say, “grip it and rip it”, has led to a career 4.6 percent walk rate. While that number may make Jonathan Schoop or Salvador Perez jealous, it’s safe to say that Billy Beane would not have targeted Cron in the early 2000s.
This one isn’t particularly close. Whereas Cron avoids walks like the plague, Belt’s 15.9 percent walk rate ranked fifth-best in all of baseball last season. Done. Short and simple (hey, there’s a first time for everything). Advantage: Belt
Neither of these two are prototypical first base sluggers, having never hit more than 18 homers in a season. Cron tied a career high in 2016, smacking 16 bombs in 445 plate appearances. While his batting average didn’t dip in the second half after injury, his power certainly appeared to do so, as he hit only six home runs post wrist injury.
That said, Cron’s peripherals indicate that a homer surge could be brewing. He incrementally cut his groundball rate, which is good because it’s much harder to hit homers on the ground. Also, even though he hit more fly balls last season, he saw a dip in his home run to fly ball rate. That likely won’t happen again, assuming health. Another tally in Cron’s favor is Angel Stadium, which ranks as the ninth-best place for righties to hit home runs according to BP’s Park HR Factor.
Belt definitely has power. Since 2015, his 74 doubles rank 12th-best in the league, and he hasn’t had an ISO under .190 since 2012. Even so, Belt has yet to eclipse 18 homers in a season, thanks in part to AT&T Park being a cavernous abyss (but a beautiful abyss), and the second toughest place to hit home runs for left-handed hitters. Belt signed a six-year extension before the 2016 season, so one of those things definitely isn’t changing soon. Advantage: Cron
Cron hasn’t been able to translate his ability at the plate to counting stats, as last season he produced career highs for runs and RBI, 51 and 69, respectively. His OBP shortcomings make him a less than stellar candidate to rack up huge run totals, however he’ll likely have plenty of chances to hit with a certain god among men on base, which should give him plenty of RBI opportunities.
Top to bottom, the Giants lineup is better than that of the Angels. Belt’s superior on-base skills should easily give him the advantage in the runs department, and he has driven in more runs than Cron in every year of his career. That should likely continue, although it isn’t as clear of an edge. Advantage: Belt
Cron channeled Usain Bolt crossed with Rickey Henderson in 2013, swiping eight bags for Double A Arkansas. Since then, he’s stolen eight more bases…combined. It’s safe to say you should look elsewhere for steals.
Belt stole nine bases in 2015, which actually is a pretty interesting number for a first baseman. Unfortunately he followed that outburst with a big fat goose egg in 2016, which is definitely less interesting. Plan for nothing from either player, and then be pleasantly surprised with your handful of steals. Advantage: PUSH
After extensive research (one Google search), it would appear that Cron is one of the few athletes in history to not have a nickname. One article described his moniker as “The Unix,” but after further research (another Google search), and learning that a unix is defined as a multi-user operating system, I decided that the name is terrible and doesn’t count. No nickname for Cron it is.
It took considerably less effort to find Belt’s nickname. Baseball Reference lists “Baby Giraffe” as a common handle for the Giants’ slugger, which… is kind of perfect. It’s hardly fearsome, but it is apropos. Advantage: Belt
Playing Time Risk/Injury Risk
Cron required surgery to fix a broken left hand after being hit by a pitch in early July (from Mike Wright) and then again in October to fix a left thumb impingement. According to team reports, he has been cleared for all baseball activity. One hit-by-pitch does not an injury prone player make, although nobody likes to see two surgeries, in the same area no less, within a calendar year.
Belt battled a serious concussion in 2014 and dealt with its lingering symptoms for most of that season. At the time, many wondered if its effects would follow Belt for the remainder of his career, much like Justin Morneau’s devastating bouts with concussions. It has been two full seasons since Belt’s last trip to the DL, so fingers crossed, he might have escaped the worst of it. Since Cron is coming off two surgeries, and his risks are more fresh, this one probably goes to Belt, but it’s close. Advantage: Belt
In some regards, if you smashed Brandon Belt and C.J. Cron together, they would make the perfect first baseman. Cron has the promise of pop from the right side, Belt brings elite plate discipline to the table, as well as defense and doubles power from the left side, Cron avoids strikeouts, giving him a good chance to hit for average and, well, neither can steal bases (so ok, I guess it’s not perfect). But alas, we don’t have the technology to concoct such hybrids (although according to Ben Carsley, we might already be cloning and army of C.J. Crons).
In his “State of the Position” manifesto, George Bissell tabbed Cron as “the quintessential embodiment of replacement-level”. It’s hard to argue against his point, even after squinting to see potential 25 homer seasons in Cron’s future. Belt is better than replacement level, and is a better option now. He’s also probably the better option moving forward. Winner: Belt
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