#33 - Merv Rettenmund, OF (1968-1973)
Over my years, I have seen a lot of Orioles players. Adding in all the stories I heard from my dad about the great Orioles of the past, I have heard about a whole lot more. As we scanned the record books to compile our list, there was one name that I had never seen or heard in my life. Merv Rettenmund is a forgotten part of the stretch of three straight American League champion Orioles from 1969-71 and he is one of our greatest Orioles of all time.
How does a career spent largely as a fourth outfielder earn his way onto the list? It helps to have your career-best season in a year where the Orioles win the World Series. That's exactly what Rettenmund did in 1970, batting .322/.394/.544 in 106 games. He started in 78 of those and was used as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement in the rest. That batting average! That walk rate! That slugging percentage!
Rettenmund had an OPS+ of 156, which means he was 56% better than the average player that year. That puts him in the top 20 all-time in the Orioles franchise history for a single season. In 385 plate appearances, he had 18 home runs. He did all of this while playing all three outfield positions, making him a true fourth outfielder rather than just a left fielder on the bench who leaves you hoping your right and center fielders are up to playing 162 games, whether or not they actually are.
By modern metrics, Rettenmund was little more than adequate in the outfield. There's still value to the team in having a player who's adequate in all three spots, especially hitting the way Rettenmund did. Another thing that boosts Rettenmund is that he played five of his six Orioles seasons before the introduction of the designated hitter. His versatility added even more to a team that had pitchers batting every night. (Though, it's less than you'd think: The 1971 Orioles had 71 complete games.)
He even played a couple of games during the World Series against the Reds, hitting a home run in the clinching Game 5 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. It's awfully nice to have a guy on your bench who bats .348/.425/.723 against left-handed pitching, which Rettenmund did in that season. In recent years, we have gotten accustomed to scrubs on the bench. One thing the team has missed is a player like Rettenmund. We should be so lucky for one of the dozen left field candidates for the 2014 season to turn out anywhere close to him.
The lone season where he played nearly every game was the following year, 1971. In that season, his batting line was almost as good: .318/.422/.448 over 141 games. He had over 200 plate appearances more than the previous year. This was enough to get him a little down-ballot attention in Most Valuable Player voting - he finished in 19th place, one among nine Orioles who received MVP votes that year on a team that won a mind-boggling 101 games.
As an amateur free agent signed late in 1964, Rettenmund is one of the last players to sign with a team before the introduction of the first-year player draft in 1965. Hailing from Flint, he played out his college days at Ball State University in Muncie, IN before signing. The Orioles traded him to Cincinnati after the 1973 season, when he was 30, which is probably when you want to trade a guy. He played in parts of seven other seasons but never came close to that individual glory of 1971 - though he did get another World Series ring in 1975 with the Reds.
In his six Orioles seasons, Rettenmund played in only 570 games, with his most significant roles in the consecutive AL championship seasons. Over those games, he had 485 hits, including 50 home runs, and he walked more than 10% of the time. His final slash line as an Oriole was .284/.383/.436 - a 133 OPS+ in his Orioles career. Not a single player on the 2012 playoff team had an OPS+ so high.
Merv Rettenmund was likely not very many people's favorite Oriole in his time with the team, but he was a crucial bit of glue that held together some of the best Orioles teams of all time. We will probably never see the likes of that three year stretch of teams again. He was undoubtedly unheralded in his time. We herald him now, the 33rd-greatest Oriole of the last 60 years.
(After finishing up this article, I found this treasure trove of a biography of Merv Rettenmund on the SABR Baseball Biography Project website. The lives of old baseball players are fascinating. Give it a read!)