SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Giants first baseman Brandon Belt insists he has never lost a race at the community pool in Nacogdoches, Texas, a byproduct of having size 15 feet.
"When you've got flippers like that in the back," he said, "you've got some good acceleration in the water."
Belt also claims to be hard to beat on the pingpong table and says nobody in the clubhouse could top him in a game of one-on-one basketball. Finally, Belt says he has a foolproof plan for his post-baseball career. An eighth-grade hip dislocation ended his run as a place-kicker, but Belt thinks he has what it takes to head back to college and be a punter.
"Once again, the feet play into it," he pointed out, smiling wide. "I know people don't expect me to be good at anything because I look goofy and awkward. But I sneak up on them."
Belt sneaked up on baseball in 2010, posting a .455 on-base percentage and hitting 23 homers across three levels to shoot up prospect lists. Over the next two seasons, the sport returned the favor with a series of ups and downs.
The struggles at the plate were hard for Belt to handle at times, and it didn't help that he spent the 2011 season becoming familiar with the roads between San Francisco and Triple-A Fresno.
Too good for the minors but too inconsistent in the big leagues, Belt felt his career hit a crossroads moment last summer during a trip through Atlanta and Philadelphia. The kid with the discerning eye and sweet swing had one hit in 20 at-bats on the trip, striking out eight times and looking generally lost at the plate.
On the flight back to San Francisco, Belt stared down at those size-15 feet and contemplated his big league future. He realized that in an effort to avoid another trip to the minors, he had started obsessing over his own stats.
"I was worried quite a bit, because it was a year, honestly, of just playing terribly," Belt said. "Once you get that low, you kind of think to yourself that you need to get your stats up if you want to hang around any longer."
As the flight soared over the Midwest, something clicked. Belt says he has always played his best when he looks at wins, not walks, homers and other individual stats, and he decided he would do the same the rest of the season, regardless of how long slumps might last.
"That's a real long flight, so you have a lot of time to think," he said, laughing. "I just said, 'Screw going out there and worrying about numbers all the time.' I was fed up with it, so I put all my focus on the team."
As it turned out, Belt didn't need to worry all that much about his status. The Giants knew they had put Belt, 24, in a tough spot with the lack of a consistent role, and they also knew that Belt remained the best option at first base.
"He's been great at handling all that we've thrown at him," manager Bruce Bochy said. "At his young age, he dealt with it as well as you can."
Immediately after the tough trip, Bochy gave Belt a day to clear his head. From then on, the Giants had a force at first base. Belt hit .328 from July 24 to the end of the season and improved his power numbers while providing his usual strong defense at first.
Belt knows it's a clichi to say that "playing for the team" turned around his 2012 season. He also knows it worked.
"I was putting too much pressure on myself," he said. "You can't play like that. The game is already hard enough."
As he plays through his first spring as an everyday first baseman, Belt is making it look easy. After the second-half turnaround and a significant postseason role, Belt knows what he needs to do from the start this season, and he knows what he is capable of.
"I want to reach my potential," he said.
The Giants are counting on it. As National League rivals rebuilt and reloaded, the Giants opted to bring their championship squad back. Any improvements will have to come from within, and few have more room for growth than Belt, who finished last season with his usual high on-base percentage (.360) but just seven homers.
"He continues to learn as a hitter, and the better hitter he becomes, the more power you're going to see," general manager Brian Sabean said. "And he's very much on the path to being a Gold Glove first baseman.
"The sky's the limit for him."