Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The One and Only Mark Belanger

There is only one player in the history of Major League Baseball that played two thousand or more games and finished his career with a slugging percentage of .300 or lower. His name was Mark Belanger. And not only did Mark Belanger play 2,016 major and finish his career with a slugging percentage of .300 or lower, he obliterated it, finishing at .280. You would have to set the bar down to 1,800 games to even come close. Eddie Brinkman, who has gotten a lot of mentions here in the Fandome lately, played 1,846 games and finished with a slugging percentage of .300 on the nose. More on him later. Donie Bush, who played in the tail end of the dead ball era, played 1,945 games and also finished with a .300 slugging percentage.

But that's not all that makes Mark Belanger unique. He is also the only batter in major league history that played more than two thousand games and batted below .230 for his career. Belanger finished with a career .228 batting average. If you bring the threshold down to 1800 games again, he is joined by one other player. Do you want to guess who that is? Why, of course, it's Eddie Brinkman who finished with a .224 batting average.

To backtrack just a minute, you may not know who Mark Belanger is. Once upon a time, the Baltimore Orioles were one the best teams in the American League. Mark Belanger was the shortstop of that great team and he played from 1965 to 1982. During that span, the Orioles went to the World Series six times and won it three times. Two other times, the Orioles lost the American League Championship Series. It was the Orioles who were the other half of the great story of the 1969 Miracle Mets. They were the Baltimore Colts to the Joe Namath-led New York Jets. There was no way the Mets were supposed to beat the Orioles, but they did and a large part of that win was beating the Orioles at their own game: Pitching and Defense.

Getting back to Mark Belanger, he was signed by the Orioles right out of high school (Pittsfield, MA) in 1962. He only got brief looks in 1965 and 1966 because the Orioles had a Hall of Fame shortstop named Luis Aparicio. With Aparicio at shorstop and Belanger only getting brief appearances, the Orioles swept the Dodgers in the World Series four games to nothing in 1966. Many people think Earl Weaver was the manager then. But he wasn't. Hank Bauer managed the team until 1968 when he was replaced mid-season by Weaver. Weaver's ascension as manager coincided with the beginning of the Mark Belanger era as the Orioles' starting shortstop.

Brooks Robinson preceded Belanger to the Orioles and of course, Robinson became known as the best fielding third baseman of all time. Belanger would also make a strong claim to be the best fielding shortstop of all time. Both men have the highest fielding WAR according to for their respective positions. That has to be the best left side of the infield that ever played defense. But at least Brooks Robinson could hit a little bit, especially early in his career. Belanger never could hit.

Belanger did have three or four half-way decent seasons with the bat. He actually reached 100 in OPS+ once in 1976. He came close to that number in 1969 and 1971. But other than those years, he was awful. If you broke his career down in 162 game intervals (like B-R does), his average season would be 106 hits, 14 of which would be doubles, three triples and two homers. His final career slash line was .228/.300/.280. Notice that his on base percentage was higher than his slugging percentage. Belanger was so bad at the plate that he averaged two less sacrifice bunts a year than doubles. He led the league twice in that category.

Mark Belanger played his entire career with the Orioles until his last season in 1982 when he played for the Dodgers. Despite his weak hitting, he made the All Star Team once and was in the top 30 in voting for the MVP three times. He won eight Gold Glove Awards and probably should have won more. You may have noticed that the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies rotation is being compared a lot to those Baltimore Orioles' rotations that featured guys like Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez and others. A large part of the success of those rotations was the defense of Belanger and Robinson. Belanger topped 500 assists in a season for four straight seasons and topped 400 six other times.

Belanger died in 1998 in New York City. Many of the current generation do not know anything about him and his passing at the age of 54 was largely missed. But Belanger made a mark and is unique among all major league players. He made history. He was probably the greatest fielding shortstop of all time. And he was probably the mamby-pambiest hitter that ever graced a baseball diamond.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He was signed out of high school. What kind of a hitter was he there?