Former Milwaukee, Colorado, Cleveland, St. Louis, Washington, and Los Angeles infielder Ronnie Belliard announced his retirement yesterday. This probably won’t garner too much attention. That is understandable, as Belliard was mostly an unspectacular player at a position that is perhaps the most frequently overlooked. This isn’t a “Belliard was a hidden superstar” post, but he was somewhat underrated, and he certainly had his moments.
Belliard won’t be on anyone’s Hall of Fame ballot, but as a second baseman (for the most part) who hit .273/.338/.415 (95 wRC+) and accumulated about 20 wins above replacement for his career, he did alright for himself. Belliard didn’t have exceptional skills in any one area, but did a number of things well. Despite not “looking like” a typical second baseman, most seasons he was average or above according to the fielding metrics, and TotalZone has him at 14 runs above average in 2001, and DRS having him at 19 runs above average in 2005. His walk rate fluctuated from just below to substantially above league average throughout his career, and along with a non-horrible batting average, his on-base percentage ended up being around average. He never hit an impressive number of home runs, but did hit more than his share of doubles and put up some nice offensive seasons for a second baseman. During his prime, Belliard was the classic “doesn’t do any one thing great, but does a lot of things average or better” sort of player.
The number of teams Belliard played for puts him in the “journeyman” category. Drafted by the Brewers in 1994, he made the majors as a full-timer in 1999. In 1999 and 2000 he had “typical” Belliard seasons with average hitting bolstered by a very good walk rate and decent defense. In 2001 his walks came down, the power went up (.190 ISO would be a career single-season high), and according to TotalZone, he had a great year in the field. However, in 2002 he totally fell apart on defense and at the plate (both his patience and power deserted him), finishing the season at almost two wins below replacement level. Unsurprisingly, Milwaukee let him go. He recovered somewhat in his 2003 season with the Rockies, although a .338 wOBA wasn’t much to write home about in Colorado back then. He was again granted free agency after the season, and signed with Cleveland.
It was in Cleveland that Belliard achieved his apotheosis, at least in my mind. The 2004 team almost went .500 due to the contributions not only of then-relatively-young and promising regulars like Victor Martinez, Ben Broussard, Coco Crisp, and Travis Hafner, but also slightly older veterans picked up on the cheap at various points as stopgaps to see what they might have: Casey Blake and Belliard stand out here. Belliard had a nice season with the bat, glove, and on the basepaths in 2004 at 3.4 WAR total as a rebuilding Cleveland team fell just short of .500. The 2005 team was the truly memorable one, however. Belliard again had a good season in the field and at the plate, including what would be a career-high 17 home runs for the season. In addition to the contributions of the players listed above, the team got great performances from newcomers Jhonny Peralta and Grady Sizemore. What makes that team so memorable for me and others is not that they almost made the playoffs by winning 93 games, but that they missed the playoffs while having the best run differential in the American League. Yes, the big contributors were great home grown players like Sizemore (okay, homegrown including “players received from the Expos due to utterly irresponsibel trades on the part of Omar Minaya), Peralta, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Pronk Hafner, and the rest. But smart, under-the-radar pickups like Belliard also played a significant part of giving the mid-2000s Cleveland front office its deservedly good reputation.
Cleveland would finally make the playoffs in 2007, but Belliard had already left town in a trade for Hector Luna during the Indians’ disappointing 2006 season. It worked out alright for him, as he played in the World Series with the Cardinals, the World Champions that year. They obviously didn’t realize that Belliard was the straw that stirred their drink, so he left for Washington, having two productive seasons there in 2007 and 2008 before being traded to the Dodgers in 2009, where he stole a few plate appearances from Orlando Hudson on the Dodger’s way to the National League West crown. He re-signed with the Dodgers for 2010, but for the first time since his problematic “transitional” seasons in 2001 and 2002, he was genuinely unproductive, being about replacement level (albeit in only 185 plate appearances).
Belliard signed with the Phillies before this season, a smart idea given the injury issues that Phillies infielders have been having have been having, but didn’t hit at AAA Lehigh. So, at 36 years old, Belliard has decided to call it a career. Given the constant remarks about his body type and his unexceptional offensive numbers, it is a bit surprising he’s been around this long. However, with six seasons of two wins or more, Belliard was usually worth more than he was paid. For all the jokes, he was more than just a journeyman, he was a pretty good player in his prime. He can rest content with that knowledge. Well, that and the more than $15 million he made during his career.