Joey Bart's mixed bag of positives, areas in need of improvement

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Bart impressing defensively, but seeks adjustments at the plate originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO -- Brandon Belt has been through this before.

Belt was once the young top prospect breaking in for a good Giants team, with questions popping up about his bat as the strikeouts piled up. He went through years of the Belt Wars, which raged on for so long in part because so much of what Belt has always done well shows up through advanced metrics, not traditional ones. He knows that a lot of people will look past strong defense when your batting average is low.

Yes, Belt knows exactly what Joey Bart is working through right now, so earlier this week the team's longest-tenured player pulled up a chair next to the rookie who was asked to fill Buster Posey's shoes.

"I just tried to let him know that I've been through this a lot before and I'm here if you need some help, and I gave him what my advice would be if I was talking to myself or anybody else: Just simplify your at-bats," Belt said on Wednesday. "It's something that's going to click in his head, but it's tough, man. He's got to focus on going out there and helping the pitchers out and running the baseball game, and at the same time trying to figure out how to get his stroke going, too."

There is nobody in the clubhouse with more on their plate right now than Bart, and there is perhaps nobody who is harder to evaluate through 31 games. Bart has played 20 of them, and there are reasons for optimism, as well as reasons to be concerned.

Bart is hitting just .167 with 34 strikeouts in 60 at-bats, but the Giants are not asking him to replicate Posey's contributions at the plate, at least not yet. He has primarily hit ninth and they simply want him to turn the lineup over while leading the pitching staff. He has struggled with the former, but thus far Bart has gotten rave reviews for the latter.

"He's preparing as well as anybody on our roster," manager Gabe Kapler said on this week's Giants Talk podcast. "I think he's very cognizant of the fact that his main responsibility is to protect and put the pitchers in the best possible position to succeed. That's happening in his conversations with (Andrew Bailey) and the rest of our pitching coaches, as well, and with (bullpen coach) Craig Albernaz, and we're seeing the benefits of that preparation."

The work has shown defensively, and this is where the Bart-Belt comparison becomes particularly clear. Even in his worst times at the plate, Belt brought an elite glove to first base, helping the Giants on a nightly basis. Bart currently ranks third among NL catchers in Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average and in the top 10 in baseball in pitch framing, per Baseball Savant. No matter how a plate appearance goes, he has been able to put it aside the second he starts snapping his catcher's gear back on.

"Games are won on the mound, so I've got to be at my best regardless of if I'm 3-for-3 with a couple of homers or have a couple of punchies," Bart said. "It doesn't really matter. It hasn't really been one of my focuses to even think like that, like, hey don't let (the strikeouts) affect (defense). It's something that would never cross my mind because I know how important it is to try and keep things in line on the defensive side."

The ability to work with and frame for a varied pitching staff will keep Bart in the lineup, but there are big steps to take offensively. Three homers and a good walk rate have kept Bart's head above water overall (his wRC+ is at 98, just two points below league average), but the swing-and-miss will have to be controlled. His strikeout rate is the highest among MLB hitters with more than 50 plate appearances, and on the recent homestand, Bart took early batting practice often to try and make adjustments. Kapler has been blunt about what needs to improve at the plate.

"There's not more than meets the eye here," he said this week. "I don't want to complicate it. He's swinging and missing a lot."

That might just be part of the package moving forward. Bart had high strikeout rates in the minors and whiffed 41 times with three walks in that 2020 cameo. Kapler has said repeatedly over the last couple of months that "Joey has some swing-and-miss in his game," which may just be the reality of a swing the Giants hope ultimately will lead to plenty of power against big league pitching.

"He's been great with his swing decisions. Look, he's driving the baseball, so there's slug, there's good swing decisions that have translated into some walks," Kapler said. "There are still some strikeouts -- that's okay, as long as those other things are happening. It doesn't mean that we're not trying to reduce the strikeouts, but sometimes Joey swings and misses in the zone and that is the result of his swing path and some coordination stuff. That's not within Joey's control a lot of times. His swing path is what it is so he can drive the baseball and put balls in the seats, and we don't want to change that. As long as the swing decisions are good and he's managing his at-bats well, we're happy with his progress."

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Focusing on good swing decisions is what kept Belt going through the early years, although it was sometimes difficult. He has had plenty of months similar to the one Bart just had, but he always tried to stick to his plan, even as fans started grumbling for a replacement. Belt pushed through, and he said he has seen a similar demeanor from Bart. Eventually, good processes will lead to better results.

"My advice to him, because I've been through this so many times, is the game seems like it gets really fast at times so you've got to slow it down, and the best thing is to keep it as simple as possible. Focus on having good at-bats, swinging at good pitches and laying off bad pitches. To me that's the simplest form," Belt said. "And look, it's early. You've just got to stick with it. Sometimes it takes a month or two to find your swing."

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