Why the Giants asked a Gold Glove-caliber defender to switch positions

SAN FRANCISCO–Three Giants infielders have won Gold Gloves, but the one starter who hasn’t isn’t exactly a defensive liability.

First baseman Brandon Belt is considered one of the game’s top defenders at the position and even though he missed 50 games due to injury last year, Belt ranked second among all major league first baseman with 13 defensive runs saved in 2018.

Evan Longoria, Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik all have hardware on their shelves to celebrate elite defensive seasons, and while Belt can’t say the same, he’s been a model of consistency for the past several years.

From 2015-2018, Belt’s 41 defensive runs saved led all first baseman and his total is at least twice that of all but two other players at the position (Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo). Belt has already saved the Giants a number of times this season with scoops and saves at first base, but on Monday, he was asked to switch positions.

In the Giants’ series-opener against the San Diego Padres, one of the best defensive first basemen in the league found himself starting in left field. Belt moved to the outfield so the Giants could make recently acquired utility player Tyler Austin comfortable in his debut with the club.

The Giants believe Austin has the athleticism to eventually play regularly in the outfield, but after he flew from Atlanta to San Francisco for Monday’s game, Austin started at the position he’s appeared at most frequently in his major league career.

Belt, a Gold Glove-caliber defender at first, played in left field for just the 71st time in nine major league seasons.

“I think Brandon is probably a little more comfortable moving to the outfield for a few days here,” manager Bruce Bochy said Monday. “We’ll see how it goes, if we want to switch it, we can.”

Bochy indicated Monday the position change is temporary, and on Tuesday, he said Austin will begin taking flyballs in the outfield each day during batting practice. Austin didn’t play a single inning in the outfield during spring training with the Minnesota Twins, but the Giants are hoping he’ll be comfortable enough to start in left field at the beginning of a three-city road trip that starts next Tuesday.

Though Belt is one of the longest-tenured players on the Giants’ roster, Bochy and president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi preferred for him to shift to the outfield instead of Austin because they believed it reduced the likelihood of a costly defensive miscue. By the sixth inning of Monday’s game, Austin was out of the game and Belt had moved back to first, but the Giants will again start Tuesday’s matchup with Belt in the outfield.

Some Giants fans expressed concern on social media that a veteran like Belt was required to move positions so the Giants could accommodate a new player’s desires, but expressing concern over emotions has led the franchise down the wrong path in recent years.

Belt has long insisted he’s happy to play the outfield when it benefits the team and the Giants believe having both Belt and Austin in the lineup gives them their best chance to win against the Padres.

While moving Belt back to his natural position is a priority, the Giants are pleased with the current roster configuration and believe they have increased their overall defensive flexibility with the recent additions of Austin and center fielder Kevin Pillar.

“I think Belt and Tyler Austin and (Yangervis) Solarte, with their ability to play in the outfield, it’s going to make it easier,” Bochy said.