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I love the Belanger Gambit. It is, perhaps, my all-time favorite baseball thing, the thing I would pick first if I were drafting baseball things. For those who don’t know, here’s how the Gambit goes. Back in the 1970s, Earl Weaver loved having the sparkling glove of shortstop Mark Belanger in the lineup every day for his Baltimore Orioles. When Weaver preached “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer,” Belanger was a huge pillar of that second tenet. On the other hand, and much to the chagrin of his manager, Belanger couldn’t hit a lick. His glove work at shortstop was usually more than enough to outpace his problems at the plate, but he usually put a dent in his team’s offense. His .231 career True Average is (to the delight of baseball history nerds!) the same as that of Aurelio Rodriguez, but also (more helpfully, to you who want to get a sense of who he was as a hitter with some familiar context) halfway between those of Ozzie Guillen and Royce Clayton.

Mark Belanger, Offensive, Defensive, and Value Statistics, Prime Seasons

Season

BRAA

FRAA

WARP

1968

-21.1

14.1

1.6

1969

1.7

4.5

3.7

1970

-17.7

7.8

2.2

1971

5.5

4.8

4.0

1972

-16.2

1.0

-0.2

1973

-16.4

15.1

2.1

1974

-9.9

8.1

2.0

1975

-18.2

21.3

2.5

1976

1.8

20.9

5.3

1977

-24.7

11.7

0.6

1978

-13.0

13.7

1.9

As you might imagine, then, Weaver was loathe to take Belanger and that golden glove out of the game, but he tried to minimize the damage that balsa-wood bat could do to the Orioles’ otherwise formidable offense. One way he would do this went like this. In September, when the rosters expanded and he didn’t have to worry about running out of bench bats, and when the Orioles were on the road, Weaver would sometimes bat a player with no business playing shortstop near the top of the Baltimore batting order. The player would, however, be a well-qualified hitter, and (so the theory went) boost the Orioles’ chances of scoring in the first frame. When the inning turned over, Belanger would trot out to shortstop as, technically, a defensive replacement. Weaver didn’t do this a lot of times; the concept seemingly dawned on him only toward the end of Belanger’s career. (Or else, not wanting to wound his starting shortstop’s ego, he held the stratagem in reserve until then.) Royle Stillman made eight appearances in September 1975 as a reverse pinch-hitter, as it were, seven of those in the place of Belanger, once in the place of Paul Blair.

This bait-and-switch maneuver is still legal today, probably because it was deemed sufficiently low-yield as to be harmless, when it was feasible at all. In Weaver’s time, even the loss of one of six or seven available pinch-hitters in September was only occasionally worth the boost one might get from sending up a better hitter in an exactly average situation, in terms of leverage. You needed to have a very poor hitter in your everyday lineup, but enough good ones on your bench that you could spend one in the first inning without missing him if a higher-leverage pinch-hitting opportunity came up later. (Weaver was richly blessed in this particular regard, in 1975, with Al Bumbry, Elrod Hendricks, Jim Northrup, Doug DeCinces, and Tony Muser all coming off his bench, in addition to Stillman.) In today’s game, with shallower benches (albeit, much lower demands on what players teams do carry there), it’s an untenable strategy most of the year. Even Weaver would only try it in September, and then only when the Orioles were contending, but unlikely to catch up to the Red Sox. And Weaver didn’t know about the times-through-the-order penalty (if it exists), which adds a complicating factor, in that once the subbed-in slouché of a hitter does get a chance to see the opposing pitcher, he’ll be facing him for the first time while the rest of the team is doing so for the second.

I want the Belanger Gambit to live on. I want it to work. I love the creativity of the thing, the “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’” ethos, extended almost (but not quite) as far as actual cheating. I love the ingenuity. But to reanimate this particular dinosaur, which went extinct for perfectly sound biological reasons, we’re going to need precisely the perfect conditions. Let’s enumerate those conditions.

1. It has to be September. I once dreamed of making this a year-long high-wire act, but in the majority of games with a standard big-league bench, any player whose bat represented a big enough upgrade over the player being Belangered would be wasted in the Stillman role. Expanded rosters are a vital part of the viability of this ploy; add that to the long list of reasons why we should never get rid of expanded rosters in September.

2. The team in question has to be contending. Since it must be September, any team trying this is going to know before they try it whether they’re contending or not. Teams who aren’t contending can’t and shouldn’t do this; it just comes off as an insult to the Belangé. Besides, they should be using those games to find out whether certain young players can become future Belangers, or something even better, not trying to wring every last run out of meaningless games.

3. The team must have tremendous depth. We’re talking about 1975 Orioles depth: a full complement of competent position players, plus four or five guys who can do at least half the job of a regular everyday player. This is the hardest thing to find, but without it, a team is leaving themselves hung out to dry if they spend one of their solid bench bats in a medium-stakes situation like leading off the game on the road.

4. A Belanger who can at least be Belanger. This ploy doesn’t work if, instead of Belanger and his respectable batting eye (what he lacked more gallingly was power) and his career .300 OBP, you have a player like the one Leonys Martin was last year: 16 walks in 310 plate appearances, a .264 OBP. You need someone who can at least mimic a table-setter or second leadoff hitter the next time through the order.

There are a few teams who seem to potentially fit these criteria for 2016. You’ve probably thought of them already: the Red Sox, the Astros, the Cubs, the Dodgers. Here’s the problem: none of them has the right Belanger. Sure, the Sox could take away a plate appearance per game from Jackie Bradley, but it’s not clear that he needs that kind of protection at this point. The Astros could force Jake Marisnick onto the field and strengthen their outfield defense to a maddening perfection, but they’ll only be doing so in September if someone gets hurt. Absent an injury to one of Carlos Gomez, George Springer, or Colby Rasmus, Marisnick isn’t just the fourth-best hitter in Houston’s outfield—he’s the fourth-best overall player. If someone in that mix does get hurt, though, helloooooooo, Jake Marisnick. He’d be a perfect candidate in a slightly thinner mix, especially with the bat-first profiles of Jon Singleton, Preston Tucker, Tyler White, and A.J. Reed all vying for playing time, and with the other Matt Duffy around, and with Colin Moran perhaps ready to chip in by then… yes, the Astros are our best hope.

They are, because the Cubs aren’t. Who loses the plate appearance in this scenario, for them? Addison Russell? Miguel Montero? If, by some horrendous twist and turn of fate’s knife, September finds Albert Almora starting for a Cubs contender, sure, Belanger him. But that’s not going to happen.

Nor will the Dodgers be fielding anyone like a Belanger, because they just don’t have a Belanger. Only backing way, way up as a hitter would bring Joc Pederson down to that level, and he’s the closest player to the profile as it is. If Corey Seager’s knee proves balky and Erisbel Arruebarrena becomes a starter, we can revisit this conversation. If that happens, though, there’s a decent chance the Dodgers are obsolete by September.

Other potential candidate teams include, but aren’t necessarily limited to: Tampa Bay (with Hank Conger playing an overqualified Belanger role), Toronto (when Ryan Goins is starting at second base, anyway), Arizona (if you think highly enough of their supporting cast to believe they can maintain some bench depth while plugging a better hitter in for Nick Ahmed; is Zack Greinke such a hitter?), and Pittsburgh (adding David Freese could give them the flexibility to use one of Jason Rogers, Matt Joyce, Michael Morse, or Jake Goebbert to Belangerize Jordy Mercer late in the season). If you’re like me, though, and you really want to see this goofy old trick tried anew by some team with a little bit of chutzpah, your primary focus is on the Astros.

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jhardman
3/16
Trying this with a good hitting pitcher (as you mentioned with Arizona and Greinke subbing for Ahmed) seems to be a better plan, particularly if the good hitting pitcher has a track record for doing so.
matrueblood
3/16
Yeah, except there are no good hitting pitchers. Even Greinke was basically Ahmed last year. Guys have a year, some have two or three. Real hitting pitchers who can outhit even Belanger types on a sustainable basis are an extinct species.
therealn0d
3/16
They're not extinct, of course, just rare. Perhaps only one can exist at any one time.
mathias
3/16
Gene Mauch did the same thing, using Tony Oliva as leadoff hitter at second base on April 11, 18, 19, and 20 in 1976.
KJOKBASEBALL
3/16
yes, it's not exactly the same thing because instead of trying to minimize a bad hitter you're trying to maximize your good hitter/bad fielder. Tony LaRussa did this also with Mark McGuire when McGuire's foot was hurting too much for him to play the field. I think the most realistic application of this strategy would be for an AL team playing an interleague game on the road. The Red Sox could bat Ortiz 3rd playing catcher, the replace him in the bottom of the inning for example.
oldbopper
3/17
This isn't feasible when an opportunity to use Ortiz in a more important situation later in the game is likely to present itself.
newsense
3/16
In a similar vein, It's also worth mentioning that Weaver would pencil in Steve Stone or some other pitcher certain not to pitch that day as DH and then pinch hit for him with the true DH when that slot first came to bat in order for Weaver to leave his options open until the last possible moment.
kgodd74
3/16
dont the angels with A. Simmons deserve a mention here?
jfranco77
3/17
If he wasn't like their 3rd best hitter, sure. But I think this gambit requires good bats from your farm team, and the Angels, well....
Njmasse
3/17
If Goins goes down for the Blue Jays and Darwin Barney plays 2B, he would seem to be a prime candidate. Career .231 Tav and .294 OBP
aflorimonte
3/18
Love it! I want it to live on and I want it to work, too! The Pirates could do it with Pedro Florimon or Gift Ngoepe... both all-glove guys who can walk a little bit. Or in September, if they are both still around, they could even do it another way, put one in for the first 2 innings in the #8 spot, and then pinch hit with Freese and move Kang to SS, then then bring the other glove guy back in at SS and move Kang back to third.
evergreen
3/18
Every National League team can do something like this on the road. Pencil in a decent bench bat or a starting position player getting a day off as the team's starting pitcher, batting third. When the bottom of the first inning comes up, the real SP comes in as a reliever. AL teams playing in NL parks should definitely do this. IIRC LaRussa did something similar with McGwire at the end of the line.