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Blast from the past: Rafael Belliard

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How a replacement-level player contributed to an epic run

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

“Showing up is 80 percent of life,” Woody Allen famously once said. Rafael Belliard made an 18-year MLB career by showing up day in and day out, putting in work, and finding a way to contribute to his team.

At 5’6”, 160 pounds, Belliard was never going to hit for much power in the major leagues. In fact, he hit just two home runs in 2524 career plate appearances, and he hit them a decade apart. Waiting a decade for your second home run, though, makes it much sweeter:

Nor was Belliard a good contact hitter. His career clash line was .221/.270/.259, and his career wRC+ was 44. In a 2008 FanGraphs article, Eric Seidman wrote about the rare occasion when batters have a higher on-base percentage than slugging percentage over their careers (Belliard was not mentioned because Seidman made the career plate-appearance threshold at 3000, and Belliard had 2524.) After examining players who fit that criteria, Seidman concluded, “Pretty safe to say these guys fit the bill described above, as either defensive wizards, menaces on the basepaths, or utility players that can fill any and all gaps for teams.”

Yet Belliard was hardly any of those. His 43 career stolen bases don’t qualify him as a “menace on the basepaths.” He played only 11 games in his career not at second base or shortstop – all 11 were at third base – so he wasn’t much of a utility player.

And while Belliard was a defensive specialist, his defense wasn’t exactly elite. Belliard’s best year defensively per FanGraphs was 1995 when he posted an 11.0 Def rating. For reference, Dansby Swanson posted an 11.3 Def rating in 2018. To be sure, those are good defensive numbers at an important position. But that was Belliard’s peak, and he never won a Gold Glove.

In the majority of his seasons in MLB, his defense was not enough to overcome his lack of hitting to make him above replacement-level, per FanGraphs. His career fWAR was -1.2.

Yet Belliard kept showing up and kept finding a way to contribute to his team. In the 1991 World Series, he went 6-for-16 and drove in four runs. In the 1995 World Series, Belliard took playing time from a better-hitting shortstop, Jeff Blauser, who had started over Belliard for the vast majority of the regular season. Although Belliard went 0-for-16 in the 1995 World Series, he played every inning and provided valuable defense en route to a championship.

What Belliard did excel at was playing good defense consistently. In his 18-year career, Belliard only had two seasons where his Def rating was in the negative. That is impressive for such a demanding position and an indication of his work ethic. While the clichés of being a “pro’s pro,” possessing intangibles, or having “grit,” are often joked about pejoratively nowadays, if anyone possessed those attributes, it was Belliard. His hard work and determination earned him a roster spot year after year on some legendary squads and earned him a World Series ring.

This is perhaps the most unique aspect of Belliard’s career – he was a replacement-level player who got regular playing time on a championship-caliber team over several seasons. Belliard played seven full seasons with the Braves, and the team reached the World Series in four out of the six seasons in which there were playoffs (the 1994 season did not have playoffs due to a player strike). And while Belliard ceded playing time to Blauser after the 1992 season, he played in more than 70 games in each of the six full seasons he played with the Braves (not counting the strike-shortened 1994 season nor his 1998 season during which he made his last major-league appearance early in the season).

It is interesting to think how Belliard’s career might have been different in today’s game and specifically how it might have been impacted by advanced analytics. On the one hand, it might not have been impacted at all because even his traditional hitting metrics were poor, and Bobby Cox, who was fiercely loyal to his players, still gave him a lot of playing time. On the other hand, being able to use stats like WAR to demonstrate that, even with his defense factored in, he performed like a Triple-A player might have altered how Belliard was utilized on a team that was chasing championships. (This, of course, is setting aside the fact that Bobby Cox was an old school manager who likely would not have been swayed heavily by advanced metrics.)

Baseball in the 1990’s was much different than today’s game, also, and that played in Belliard’s favor. The 1990’s Braves featured one of the best starting rotations in the history of the game and valued defense highly. The Braves’ winning formula then was to try to shut out the opposing offense with superb pitching and good defense and hope that hitters like Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, and Fred McGriff could provide a few runs. Belliard fit well into that formula.

Above all, though, Belliard’s career is a testament to his work ethic and determination. That a 5´6” middle infielder who was neither a good contact hitter nor a blazing-fast runner could make an 18-year MLB career on great teams and play every inning of a World Series that his team won is as inspirational as it is unlikely.