He looks much older in the inset than 38 years old. Well at least this 37.9 year old blogger thinks so!
Player: Rarely does the "good field / no hit" tag fit an 18 year major league veteran, but it definitely applies to Mark Belanger. Actually calling him a terrific fielder would be a more accurate description. He was the premier defender of his time at shortstop, winning eight gold gloves between 1969 and 1978. Signed by the Orioles in '62, Belanger had brief looks at the big league level in '65 and '66, mainly as a pinch runner. In '67 he made the team, backing up both SS Luis Aparicio and 2B Davey Johnson. He got into 69 games but did little with the bat, hitting just .174.
The Orioles traded Aparicio in the offseason opening the door for Belanger. His first year as a full-timer he hit .208/.272/.248. Although '68 is known as the year of the pitcher, a little more offense was expected from a non-pitcher. Belanger hit .287 the next year which would turn out to be a career high. He also hit a surprising home run in a Game 1 victory over the Twins in the ALCS.
Belanger's offense swooned again in 1970 as he hit .218 with just 12 extra base hits in 527 plate appearances. He rebounded to a .266/.365/.320 with his OBP marking a career high in '71. His glovework along with thirdbaseman Brooks Robinson gave the Orioles a wall on the leftside of the infield and helped them to three straight pennants and a World Series victory in 1970.
When Belanger struggled with the bat in '72 he lost some playing time to Bobby Grich. He batted .186 in 313 trips to the plate but remained the O's shortstop as Grich displaced Davey Johnson the following year. Belanger hit .226, .225, .226 over the '73-'75 seasons with a career high 5 HR in '74. The Orioles lost to the A's in the ALCS in '73 and '74 with Belanger managing just two hits in 25 at bats.
In 1976 Belanger had his best all around season and earned his only All-Star appearance. He batted .270/.336/.326 with career highs in doubles (22), steals (27) and OPS+ (100). His decent year with the bat helped him to a career best 6.2 WAR. There was no mistaking Belanger for an offensive juggernaut though as his value was in his defensive prowess. Beginning in '73 he registered between 20 and 36 Total Zone fielding runs above average through the '78 season. To put that into perspective there have been 44 shortstop seasons with a 20 or better Total Zone runs and Belanger has seven of them!
Belanger fell back to more familiar territory the next few years as he batted .206 then .213. After a .115 batting average in April of '79, Belanger lost his starting job to Kiko Garcia. He would bat under .170 two of the next three years and started just two games in the Orioles '79 playoff run. In September of '81 Belanger criticized longtime skipper Earl Weaver's managerial skills and he was released in November. He signed with the Dodgers and was used mainly as a late inning defensive sub. He batted just 50 times in 54 games and retired following the season.
Flipside: Since you probably can't read this tiny font anyway, perhaps we should just skip his batting numbers and talk defense. He led AL shortstops in fielding percentage four times and range factor three times. He topped the AL in defensive WAR every year from '73 through '78.
Oddball: Six times in Septmeber of '75, Earl Weaver wrote in outfielder Royle Stillman's name at the top of the lineup in the SS position. All these games were on the road, and after Stillman led off he would be replaced in the field by Belanger. Stillman went 3 for 7 in this role but it seems Weaver abandoned the experiment afterwards.
You know how the Orioles play John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" every 7th inning? You can thank Mark Belanger and his wife for that. In the mid 70's the O's were moving away from the old organ music and trying to find a few pop songs to rile fans and the Belangers suggested the song to the Orioles PR Director.
History: Belanger had quite a career, winning a World Series ring in 1970 and eight gold gloves. Heavily weighted by his stellar defense, Belanger finished his career with 37.6 WAR in his 18 year career. If a .200 batting average is referred to as the Mendoza line, perhaps .225 should be the Belanger line. He hit .228 lifetime and batted .225 or .226 three years straight.
Belanger had a big impact in labor negotiations as he represented the Orioles for years and later as an official for the MLBPA. He passed away in 1998 from lung cancer.
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