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Can you believe it?

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 21, 2010 05:16 PM

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N0111100487.jpgEmbellished tales and exaggerated anecdotes aren't part of Joe Castiglione's repertoire when it comes to calling a Sox game. So my BaseballNerd antennae went up the other night when, in the context of talking about feeble hitters having success against superb pitchers, he noted that Mark Belanger owned Nolan Ryan. (Owned is my word, not his, but the sentiment doesn't change.)

Belanger, as you know if you're familiar with the great Orioles teams of the 1970s, was the ultimate "run prevention" player -- that is, he prevented runs for both teams. He won eight Gold Gloves in essentially 15 seasons (1967-81) as Earl Weaver's shortstop on some excellent Baltimore teams. Playing alongside Brooks Robinson for 11 of those seasons, they arguably formed the best defensive left side of an infield in baseball history. Maybe not so arguably, given the 24 Gold Gloves between them.

The trade-off for his defense was that his bat was more of a prop than a weapon. His career adjusted OPS was 68, or three points lower than Nick Green's with the Sox last season. Belanger batted .228 with a .300 on-base percentage and a .280 slugging percentage. He hit 20 home runs in 2,016 games -- roughly one every 100 games -- and 6,602 at-bats. I'm just going to stop here and presume that the case that he was not a good hitter has sufficiently been made.

So . . . Belanger owning Ryan? How can that be? Well . . . turns out it can't be. With the assistance of my longtime companion baseball-reference.com, I looked up Mark Belanger's career numbers against Nolan Ryan. And they looked pretty much what you'd expect Mark Belanger's career numbers to look like against Nolan Ryan:

58 plate appearances, 45 at-bats, 11 hits, one extra-base hit (a double), .244 average, .267 slugging percentage, .357 OBP.

Meh. Save for a very respectable OBP -- he walked seven times against Ryan -- those are pretty Belangerian numbers.

I must emphasize that the intent here is not to act like a product of the Jerk Store and call out Castiglione for passing along an anecdote or recollection that statistics prove untrue. Maybe there was a particularly big hit or moment that Belanger had against Ryan, one that I'm unaware and one that kick-started the myth. Maybe Ryan himself gripes to this day about struggling against Belanger.

And anyway, those occasionally accurate myths are part of the charm of baseball. I'm relatively sure all of the innings and dates in Vin Scully's tales of Dodgers past aren't always historically accurate. But I sure do love hearing them regardless. And I doubt Ernie Harwell was so beloved because of an encyclopedic memory. He was beloved because he helped us connect with and cherish the game.

Returning from that digression, the interesting thing I discovered is that Belanger actually did fare well against quite a few top-shelf pitchers. There are some whose knowledge of the game I respect who might argue that Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame just as much as Ryan does.

And get this: Belanger owned Blyleven. In 60 PAs (52 ABs), he batted .346, slugged .404, and had a .433 OBP. His .847 OPS against the future Hall of Famer was his highest against any pitcher he faced 60 or more times.

Blyleven wasn't the only quality pitcher whose stuff Belanger tased. He batted .333 with a .936 OPS in 38 PAs against Denny McLain. Steve Busby, one of baseball's lingering "what-ifs" from the '70s -- he won 22 games in '74, pitched a pair of no-hitters, but won just 11 games after age 25 because of shoulder problems -- struggled to solve Belanger, allowing a .907 OPS in 37 PAs (not to mention one of his 20 career homers).

And then there's Goose Gossage. One of few pitchers of the time who could match the Ryan Express's readings on the speedometer, Belanger nonetheless whacked him for a 1.121 OPS in 25 plate appearances.

Sure, the sample sizes are small. And there were plenty of elite pitchers --- Gaylord Perry (.274 OPS against), Fergie Jenkins (.317), and the Eck (.421) among them -- who dominated Belanger.

But his success against Gossage and other quality pitchers suggests that every now and then, Belanger could catch up to a blazing fastball.

Maybe even Nolan Ryan's, on an a special occasion or two.

* * *

Update, Saturday, 10:04 a.m. Well, turns out it was more than a special occasion after all. As I said in the piece, I suspected there might be a specific instance or development that I was missing, and astute reader TickOver14Million (strangest birth name ever) politely details in the comments why Belanger has the rep as a Ryan killah:

I can attest Belanger's success against Ryan is no myth. The confusion comes from the fact you are looking merely at Mark's career stats against Nolan, while everyone else is looking at just the final seven years of Belanger's career:

26 PA's
20 AB's
5 Walks
6 Hits
.300 BA
.423 OBP!!!!!!!!

Also in 1973 Ryan was just six outs away from back-to-back no-hitters when guess who - Mark Belanger - broke up Nolan's bid for history.

When you get a chance you might want to read "Earl Weaver's Art of Managing a Baseball Team", this is what he had to say about Belanger:

"Usually Mark was our ninth hitter. His lifetime batting average was in the .220's but he was the best hitter I had against Ryan. Mark hit over .350 against Ryan's fastball. Mark had a short stroke and did very well against fastball pitchers. He was also 7-for-13 against Jim Kern and a .300 hitter against Goose Gossage. Mark's history against Ryan was the reason I moved him up in the lineup. Mark also had a good eye and could draw a walk. Ryan's control can be shaky, and if you give him a chance he might beat himself with walks."

So there you go. I wish I'd recognized this myself, but it's also damn cool to have readers who can point my lazy wayward self in the right direction when I need it. Thanks, Tick.

* * *

(Note: The tentative plan is to bang out one of these little Completely Random Baseball Card posts on Fridays after my chat, just to give me one more reason to pointlessly jabber on about baseball. So consider yourselves warned.)

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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