#28 - Don Buford, OF (1968-1972)
The next player on our top 40 list is Don Buford, a switch-hitting outfielder who hit leadoff for the Orioles in the midst of their glory days, 1968-1972. Buford was another player who blossomed under the direction of manager Earl Weaver, and his five seasons with the Orioles were the best stretch of his career.
Signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1959, Buford spent four seasons with them before he was traded to the Orioles in a six-player trade that sent Luis Aparicio (#35 on our list) back to the White Sox. In Chicago, Buford was an infielder, splitting time between second and third base. He played just 12 games in the outfield in his five seasons with the White Sox, and he struggled defensively.
When Buford was traded to the Orioles, he was a man without a position. Brooks Robinson was at third base and Davey Johnson at second, and Buford certainly wasn't going to displace either of them. Through the team's first 80 games, Buford made just 22 starts and served mostly as a pinch hitter. But after the 80th game of the year, manager Hank Bauer was fired and replaced with the first base coach, Earl Weaver. Weaver saw in Buford a guy who could get on base well and thought he was being misused as a bench player. Buford had been primarily an outfielder in the minors, and so that's where Weaver put him to get him playing time.
Buford flourished in his new role, hitting .298/.383/.457 after Weaver allowed him to play every day. As an infield sub and pinch hitter under Bauer, Buford had hit .234/.323/.378. His OPS+ for the entire season was 144. Imagine if he'd been playing the whole season?
Buford was the regular left fielder for the Orioles after that, but the emergence of Merv Rettenmund (#33 on our list) allowed Weaver to have flexibility with the way he used Buford. With Rettenmund also capable of getting on base well, and with his ability to mash lefties, Buford was free at times to fill in for Johnson at second base and spell Frank Robinson in right field.
Things went downhill for both Buford and the Orioles in 1972. Frank Robinson had been traded to the Dodgers during the offseason. Buford, Rettenmund, and Paul Blair all struggled at the plate, though newcomer Don Baylor put up a good rookie season. After the 72 season the Orioles released Buford and he went to Japan for three seasons before retiring from baseball.
Buford played in three American League Championship Series and three World Series with the Orioles, and played a big role. In 102 career postseason plate appearances, he hit .256/.363/.488 with five home runs, two of which came against the Pirates in 1971.
From 1968-1971 with the Orioles, Buford hit .283/.397/.434 with an OPS+ of 136. He racked up 19.2 bWAR in the four-year stretch. He garnered MVP votes in ‘68, ‘70, and ‘71, and was named to his only All Star Game in 1971, a year when he had an OBP of .413. In his five seasons with the team, his walk rate ranged from 11.5%-17.3%. His worst year, walks-wise, would have been the best rate on the team in 2013. The 17.3% walk rate he put up in 1970 is fifth-best in team history.