"We’ll never see the likes of him again." Such a phrase is usually reserved for baseball’s greats—its Mickey Mantles and Roberto Clementes and Yogi Berras. They are stars sui generis and some of the best ever to play the game. These types of players are able to rise above because the vast majority of the over 18,000 players to have taken the field form a bulky middle of ability that ranges from a bit below to a bit above average. There are other players, however, whose careers stake a claim to singularity without quite reaching superstardom and are far from baseball immortality. Unlike Hall of Famers, they are not as easily remembered. Mark Belanger is one such player.
Belanger, a shortstop, debuted for the Orioles in 1965 as a 21 year old, though he first got significant playing time in 1967 and inhabited the starting role beginning in 1968. From that year until 1980, Belanger played in over 100 games per season and was the Orioles' everyday shortstop. He finished off his Orioles career in 1981 after appearing in only 64 games. He wrapped up his baseball career after the 1982 season, when he appeared in just 54 games, and received just 57 plate appearances, for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
What makes Belanger such a distinctive player in baseball history is that he was equal parts incredible and terrible. For a career to last 18 seasons, there has to be value. For Belanger, it was his glove. Belanger picked up eight American League Gold Glove awards in the ten-season span between 1969 and 1978. Belanger’s SABR Bio opens by describing him as "the most electrifying shortstop of his generation." But boy was he a terrible hitter. In 6,601 career plate appearances, Belanger posted a career slash line of .223/.300/.280. His career OPS was not that much higher than Hank Aaron’s career slugging percentage. His play at the plate amounted to a career OPS+ of 68.
Let’s put his singular combination of incredible and terrible into context. Mark Belanger is the only player in baseball history to have accumulated more than 40 Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) while posting an OPS+ under 70, according to Baseball Reference’s Play Index. Even more strikingly, he’s also the only player in baseball history to have more than 40 rWAR in a career while also posting an OPS+ under 80. We have to up the limit to 85 to find company for Belanger. The company is limited, revealing, and has all the components of a great Play Index search. We have the Hall of Famer in Luis Aparicio; there’s the more easily remembered, more contemporary defensive wizard Omar Vizquel; and filling the role of deadballer with a funny name is Rabbit Maranville, who is also a Hall of Famer.
One way to interpret Belanger’s uniqueness is to highlight just how poor of a hitter he was relative to his peers. In two of the 13 seasons in which Belanger played over 100 games, he hit under .200. In both seasons, his playing time was limited. It looks as if the lack of play was a consequence of the hitting rather than the other way around. Belanger posted an on base percentage above .300 in only five of his full seasons of play—his slugging percentage was .300 or above only three times. In his best hitting season, 1976, Belanger needed to ride a batting average on balls in play 24 points above the AL average just to hit .270/.336/.326, which amounted to an exactly average 100 OPS+. He was not good at the plate.
Another way to view Belanger’s singularity is to emphasize his rWAR as a testament to just how excellent he was on defense. Significantly, Belanger’s 41 career rWAR do not exist independent of his career 68 OPS+. His rWAR is defiant. A player with such a poor track record at the plate should simply not be so valuable. It’s not impossible, but it sure feels like it should be. Baseball Reference can find 1,676 non-pitchers with at least 100 plate appearances with an OPS+ under 70. Of those players, Belanger has the most rWAR by a significant margin. His mark almost doubles the figures posted by the two players below him, George McBride’s 21 and Ozzie Guillen’s 20.9. If we isolate defense and just look at Baseball Reference’s Defensive WAR, Belanger sits below just one name: Ozzie Smith.
One way to look at Belanger’s career is to wonder how he got so much playing time despite his poor offense; another way to look at it is to wonder at how valuable he was while one part of his game made a mighty effort to crush the value of the other part. If Belanger had been a better hitter, even if he remained below average, he would probably be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But if he was a better hitter, he would then be more easily lumped with Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio.
In 1985, Roger Angell wrote an extensive profile of middle infielders—what they do, how they do it, and what and how they feel about it. He asked his middle infield subjects about other players. "All my consultants," Angell notes, "brought up Belanger sooner or later." One of his interviewees said that he "never saw anybody play shortstop better than Mark Belanger, but he’ll never make the Hall of Fame." The reason he provided should be clear: he couldn’t hit. Angell’s subjects suggested "that Belanger would probably have had a much harder time making it in the major leagues today, because of his inferior batting."
One thing Belanger’s singularity shows us is that the possibility of a Belanger-like career might not be bound by context. Belanger didn’t have a defensive career just a little bit better than other shortstops. He was a lot better. And he didn’t have an offensive career just a little bit worse than other slick defenders. He was a lot worse. In a way, the latter is just another endorsement of the former. "We won’t see the likes of him again," indeed.