Monday, June 8, 2009

Happy Birthday...

Mark Belanger!
Just proving he knows how to hold the thing

Belanger has one of the greatest and most widely known nicknames not to appear on his BBREF page: "The Blade." Standing 6'1" and weighing approximately nothing, that plus the alliteration made it just about a perfect nickname (if a little on the nose).

Belanger won eight Gold Gloves, and to hear the people who watched him or played with him talk about his play at shortstop, you'd think he was the reason the award was invented. My own subjective evaluation of the collective subjective opinions of the greatest defensive shortstops of the part of baseball history most living people still remember would go like this: (1) Ozzie Smith; (2) Omar Vizquel; (3) Mark Belanger. And with Mark, like with Ozzie (and unlike with Omar), the reputation appears justified. BBREF and BP both report that he saved about 235 runs over the average shortstop for his career; consider that "the average shortstop" is likely to be the best defensive baseball player on the diamond on any given night, and that's pretty freaking impressive. (Ozzie had 380. Ozzie is so far above every other fielder who has ever played that they should probably rename the position after him.)

On the other hand, Belanger was an almost unbelievably terrible hitter, with a career line of .228/.300/.280 and 20 homers in 6602 PA. The amazing thing is that he had three years in which he was a considerably better-than-average-hitting shortstop, 1969, 1971 and 1976 (95, 97, and 100 OPS+, respectively), but that just underscores how horrible he was in his other 13-ish seasons, putting up full-season lines like .218/.303/.259 and .206/.287/.274. BP has him as being worth 40.4 wins above replacement for his career, which is fantastic for a guy who couldn't hit at all. When he could hit a little, he played like a superstar; he gets 8.4 wins above replacement for his 97 OPS+ year in 1971 (which BP says was also his best defensive year, at an incredible 40 fielding runs above average).

So, here's something a sabermetrician never would have admitted 10 years ago (someday I'm going to go back and try to find all those Rob Neyer posts about how baseball is 60% offense and 35% pitching and 5% defense, so we can laugh at ourselves): historically great defender at the most important defensive position + historically awful hitter = pretty damn good player. Belanger is one of those rare little "gamer"-type guys who deserved all the accolades he got (or most of them, anyway).

Some fun facts about The Blade:
  • He batted second in the Orioles' batting order 54 times in 1968 (.208/.272/.248); 53 times in 1970 (.218/.303/.259); and 29 times in 1977 (.206/.287/.274), just as a sample. Worse, he hit first or second 43 times in 1979 at age 35, a year in which he hit .167 in 242 PA and wasn't even playing good D anymore. He did usually bat 8th or 9th, but would occasionally also fill in at leadoff. He's exactly the type of guy you probably don't want hitting in front of the likes of Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Bobby Grich, Reggie Jackson and Eddie Murray. Why not just stick Jim Palmer in there?

  • He was intentionally walked three times from 1973 on (actually four, but the fourth was as a Dodger hitting in front of Fernando Valenzuela, and I'm sure most or all of his 18 pre-1973 IBBs were in front of the pitcher as well). In 1973, with a runner on third and one out in the bottom of the 11th, Texas manager Whitey Herzog made the...interesting decision to walk both Elrod Hendricks and Belanger, hitters 8 and 9, intentionally to get to the top of the order with the bases loaded. To be fair, leadoff hitter Merv Rettenmund had been just as bad as Belanger, and was actually pinch-hit for here, and the Rangers got out of it when Bill Gogelewski struck out the next two batters (the first on a foul two-strike bunt). This game would have been a lot more frustrating to me had I been around to follow it 35 years ago.

  • Post-DH Intentional Walk #2 is one of the strangest things I've ever seen. In 1977, Cleveland manager Frank Robinson has his old teammate The Blade, the O's #9 hitter, walked to bring up leadoff hitter Al Bumbry. The pitcher (Don Wood) was a shut-down lefty and Bumbry was a LH hitter. But: (a) Bumbry was a good hitter, particularly so in '77, and was a better hitter even against lefties than Belanger was against anybody; (b) Cleveland was already down 4-0; and (c) there were two outs and a runner on third! So rather than take the near-automatic out and end the inning, F-Rob puts him on base to face the much better hitter, who predictably lines an RBI single, and the O's go on to win 7-2. I wish that all IBBs (that don't come right in front of the pitcher) would end this way.

  • IBB #3 was another head-scratcher, Red Sox manager Don Zimmer walking Belanger in front of Larry Harlow (a very unlikely candidate to have already made two appearances on this blog), who had already homered in the game. Harlow singled, but no runs scored. O's won 5-3 anyway.

  • A candidate for his best offensive game would be August 18, 1969. The O's spanked the Seattle Pilots, 12-3, and Mark went 4-for-5 with three doubles and 5 RBI.

  • Another is May 11, 1974: 5-for-5 with a double, stolen base and three runs scored. Managed not to drive in any of the twelve runs the O's scored against Cleveland.

  • He seemed to like playing against Cleveland. On at least one occasion, he made Earl look like a genius for batting him leadoff, going 4-for-4 with 3 R, 3 RBI, a stolen base and a triple in a 7-0 win. I'd like to find a big offensive game where he carried the team to a win, but they're all blowouts. Apparently, if Mark could hit your pitching, so could the rest of the team.

  • I'm guessing this might be the weirdest game he ever played: August 25, 1968. In 18 innings, the O's beat the Red Sox 3-2. The Blade (batting second) comes up nine times. Three of those times he gets a hit, and he scores one of those precious three runs. One other time, he has a sac bunt. Each of the other five times, Belanger strikes out.

  • So over the course of a long career, even the worst hitter will have a handful of amazing games where it seems he can do no wrong, the kind you remember forever. By the same token, of course, even the best fielder can make an absolute ass of himself. Just like his teammate Brooks Robinson more famously did, Belanger (who retired with the highest fielding percentage of any SS in AL history) once committed three errors in one inning. The errors led to three unearned runs and gave the Twins a one-run lead. Luckily for Belanger, his teammates bailed him out and the O's won the game.
Belanger would have turned 65 today. Sadly, he passed in 1998 at just 54, succumbing to cancer (or as his BBREF sponsor kind of irreverently says: "Unfortunately, he smoked cigarettes, and he died too young"). But happy birthday wherever you are, Mark.


  1. Nice post. I remember watching Belanger play.

    He was good. Smooth and slick. But remember, he came up in the 60's with guys like Ron Hansen and Eddie Brinkman. Defense was where it was at with SS's, because no one hit the ball.

    I'm not saying you, but too many people judge players from the 60's/early 70's against what is happening now.

    Even though there are good numbers, like OPS+ (which I really like), it was a different game then. An entirely different mind set about who played where and when that doesn't exist today.

  2. That's certainly true. There are defensive wizards in the minors right now who can't hit a lick (Emilio Bonifacio comes to mind), but would probably be everyday players in the 70s.

    But I think (having never seen him play, just looking at how all the numbers and his reputation agree on how great he was) that Belanger, with the glove, was a cut above even the Ron Hansens and Luis Aparicios of the world. He might not get a chance today (and certainly wouldn't bat second, thankfully, unless he played for Dusty Baker), but he was the kind of talent who deserved to play, in any era, and hit .200 and still be awfully valuable.