Before we talk about what Mark Belanger could do, let’s talk about what he couldn’t do.
If you’re at all familiar with Belanger, you know offense wasn’t his game, to put it mildly. The numbers are truly staggering. Belanger finished his 17-year Orioles career with a .227 batting average, .300 OBP, and .280 SLG. His OPS was .580 and his OPS+ was 68.
Belanger had an awful lot of time to put a lot of awful numbers, garnering 6,545 plate appearances with the Birds. For context, no other Oriole in history has had even a third as many plate appearances with a SLG, OPS, or OPS+ that low. No Oriole with even 2,500 plate appearances has hit fewer home runs than Belanger’s 20.
Any time the Orioles had a chance to not let Belanger swing a bat, they took it. He has the most sacrifice bunts in O’s history (153) and, according to his SABR bio, he holds the American League record for most times being pinch-hit for (333).
Belanger wasn’t just the worst hitter in Orioles history, but one of the worst in MLB history. Only one player, Ed Brinkman, had more plate appearances than Belanger with a .580 OPS or lower. Only two, Brinkman and Alfredo Griffin, had more PAs with a 68 OPS+ or lower.
Hey, great article, Paul. Way to sell Belanger as the ninth best Oriole in history. Totally nailing it!
But that’s the thing — this is a celebration of Belanger. Because how does someone so offensively deficient get so many years and years of regular playing time? How does he rise to the level of one of the most elite players in franchise history despite being a zero in the batter’s box?
By being possibly the best damn defender ever to play the position of shortstop. That’s how.
It’s a shame there’s no advanced defensive metrics available for Belanger’s era. I’d love to rattle off some eye-popping Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating numbers for the guy. Statistically, we’ll have to make do with fielding percentage, where Belanger’s career .975 mark was tied with Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith for the best mark ever by a shortstop.
All you really needed with Belanger, though, was the eye test. To watch him play shortstop was to be constantly impressed by his athleticism and his sheer consistency.
“He was the most sure-handed shortstop I ever saw,” former O’s outfielder Ken Singleton told the Baltimore Sun.
“He was so good and made it look so easy, most of the fans probably never realized how good he was,” reliever Dick Hall told the Sun. “He was the epitome of the great defensive shortstop back when they were held in very high esteem.”
“I never ever saw him blow a routine play,” said first baseman Boog Powell, Belanger’s teammate for a decade. “[He] had wonderful range to his left and he would venture out into center field and catch balls and throw you out. He was special out there.” (Quote courtesy of 100 Things Orioles Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Dan Connolly.)
It’s no accident that during Belanger’s nearly two-decade stint with the Orioles, the club was a perennial American League powerhouse. The Pittsfield, Ma., native, an amateur signing by the O’s in 1962, made his first big league start in 1966, the year of the Birds’ first World Series championship. While Belanger barely contributed to that title-winning club, he earned an everyday job two years later after the Birds traded another stellar shortstop, Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio, to the White Sox.
The then-23-year-old Belanger picked up the mantle and ran with it, quickly developing as a stalwart with the leather. By 1969, Belanger had won his first Gold Glove award. He later added seven more to his resume, including six in a row from 1973-78. Paired with 16-time Gold Glover Brooks Robinson at third base, the Orioles boasted the most stellar left side of the infield of all time.
Those incredible defensive infields — which also included Belanger’s double play partners Davey Johnson (a Gold Glover at second base from 1969-71) and Bobby Grich (Gold Gloves from 1973-76) — were a hallmark of the dominant Orioles clubs from the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s. The O’s, in fact, never had a losing record in any season in which Belanger played 100 or more games — which he did for 13 straight years.
Belanger also happened to have one of the coolest nicknames in baseball: “The Blade.” He came by that moniker because...ooh, ooh, let me guess! Because his hit-robbing defense cut down potential baserunners like a blade? Because he was so gifted at positioning that he could preternaturally predict every blade of grass the ball would hit on his way to him? ...Oh, actually, he was just called “The Blade” because he was tall and skinny. Oh well. Moving on.
Belanger received down-ballot MVP votes in three seasons but was an All-Star just once, during a 1976 campaign in which he posted a career-high 100 OPS+. No matter. The Orioles wouldn’t have been the same team without him. Belanger was the starting shortstop on most of the best O’s clubs of all time, including the 1970 World Series champs.
Beyond that, Belanger emerged as a well-respected leader on and off the field, tutoring rookies on how to do things the Oriole way while also serving as the club’s player representative. “He was always a good player, but he was also a great human being, a guy we all loved having on our club,” outfielder Al Bumbry told the Baltimore Sun.
After being a mainstay at short for the majority of the 1970s, Belanger began to lose playing time by the end of the decade, and by 1981 his Orioles career was finished. He received a standing ovation from the Memorial Stadium crowd during the final game of the season, though he didn’t play. Belanger spent one season with the Dodgers before calling it a career. He was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1983.
Belanger went on to a successful post-playing career working for the MLB Players’ Association, helping fight for fair salaries and benefits. A longtime smoker, Belanger sadly passed away from lung cancer at just 54 years old in 1998.
Baltimore has seen its share of great shortstops over the years. But with the leather, none ever held a candle to Belanger.