A Career Performed Freehan(d) Style

August 29, 2021
Key definitions related to this article:
 
Freehand:
 - Done without mechanical aids or devices. 
I drew a freehand sketch of the houses in our neighborhood.
 
Free Hand:
- Complete freedom to do as one chooses.
I was given free hand in how I was allowed to manage my big project at work.
 
Freehan:
- A historically underrated catcher
Bill Freehan was one of Dan's personal favorites.
 
"Behind the Mask"
 
As we all know, these past couple of years has seen the passing of so many baseball legends: Hank Aaron, Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Don Sutton, Lou Brock, Al Kaline, Phil Niekro, White Ford...and that's just the Hall of Famers.  There's also been Jim Wynn, Bob Watson, Dick Allen, Tony Fernandez, Tony Taylor, Mike Marshall, Lindy McDaniel, Mudcat Grant, and so many others.
 
I read with some sadness that Bill Freehan passed away last week at the age of 79. He's not as legendary as the Hall of Fame players named above, but he was an excellent player in his own right. I've always had a certain fondness for Freehan and have felt a close connection to him, even though, to be honest, I don't have many specific memories of watching him play. 
 
Now, that can happen to us sometimes. I'm sure you all have favorite players who you feel connected to or feel a personal affiliation towards even if you never actually witnessed them playing.  
 
For example, Stan Musial retired nearly a decade before I started following baseball. However, I'm told my grandfather, who passed away when I was very young and who I don't remember, was a big fan of Musial's and liked to refer to me as "Dan the Man" in deference to Musial. So, I feel a connection.
 
Or, Minnie Minoso. Minoso retired a year after Musial, and I never saw him play either, with the exception of his brief appearances in 1976 and 1980 when he was in his 50's or a few random video clips. But, there's something about the stories and the occasional footage I saw of him that endeared him to me.
 
Again, I'm sure you have your own examples. Bill Freehan was another one of mine, although his was a little different case. Unlike Musial or Minoso, Freehan was still active when I started following baseball in 1970, and in fact was only about halfway through his career. But, I really don't have any distinct memories of watching him play. I'm sure I saw him occassionally, whether it was in a playoff game or an All Star game or maybe on an occasional televised game, but nothing really stands out. No dramatic defensive plays, no late-inning heroics. Nothing really jumps out at me.
 
And yet, Freehan made a big impression on me, although in his case it was more in an literary sense. One of the first baseball books I remember owning was Freehan's "Behind the Mask". The book, which was written in a diary style, was published in 1970, and it walked the readers through the 1969 American League season as seen through the eyes of Freehan, a season that turned out to be a rather frustrating one for the Tigers whic0h came on the heels of their memorable 1968 World Championship. Because of its format, the book is often compared to other works such as Jim Brosnan's "The Long Season" (which was published about a decade earlier) and Jim Bouton's "Ball Four", which also was published in 1970.
 
In 1969 the Tigers, while still a quality team (90-72), finished 19 games behind one of the great regular season teams of all time, the 1969 Orioles (109-53). Freehan's diary captured the frustration of that fruitless pursuit, and it also received a lot of attention for shining highlighting the antics, behavior, and treatment of superstar pitcher Denny McLain, who won his second consecutive Cy Young Award that season (actually shared with the Orioles' Mike Cuellar).
 
I absolutely loved the book, and it made an impression on me, and I felt connected to Freehan from that moment on, despite the fact that I was a diehard Cincinnati Reds and National League fan. And, I even forgave Freehan for playing baseball at (as we in Ohio like to refer to the University of Michigan) "That School Up North".
 
So, in memory of Freehan, here a few observations and thoughts related to his career, including where I think he fits in the pantheon of the great catchers in history.
 
Random Observations
 
* I love assembling all-time all-star rosters, and I would select Freehan as the starting catcher on my all-time Detroit Tigers team. Others in contention were Lance Parrish, Mickey Cochrane, Ivan Rodriguez, Johnny Bassler, and Mickey Tettleton
 
Cochrane got off to a fast start with Detroit after being sold by Connie Mack to the Tigers following the 1933 season, as he guided Detroit to back-to-back World Series appearances as its player-manager in 1934-1935, culminating with the World Series title in 1935. Cochrane was the AL MVP in 1934, and followed it up with a 7th place MVP finish in 1935. However, he suffered a breakdown in 1936 and then his playing career ended suddenly in 1937 when he was beaned, so ultimately he only ended up with 2 full seasons and 2 partial seasons with Detroit. He's an important part of Tigers lore, but not enough to make my roster.
 
Rodriguez, like Cochrane, is one of the 10 best catchers of all time, and he did put in about 4 and a half years with Detroit. They were good years, but not at the same level as he had established with Texas.
 
Bassler and Tettleton were both on-base machines who played several decades apart. Bassler provided a good batting average and a lot of walks but had no power, while Tettleton was a catcher in the Gene Tenace "family" of catchers who provided a combination of high power, a ton of walks, relatively low batting averages, and limited defensive prowess.
 
Parrish is Freehan's main competition as the Tigers' all-time starting catcher. Parrish played 10 seasons with the Tigers and offered tons of power (one of only 7 catchers who reached 300 career home runs), a strong arm, and good overall defensive skills, but I think Freehan's overall game was a little better.
 
A couple of others to mention are Rudy York and Birdie Tebbetts. York was probably the best hitter of anyone listed so far. Over his first 4 seasons with the Tigers, in which he played more catcher than anything else, York hit .303/.395/.590, with a 140 OPS+. His record over that span in seasonal notation projected to 41 home runs and 139 RBI per 162 games. However, York was, shall we say, "challenged" at the catching position, and in 1940 the Tigers moved York to first base (and Hank Greenberg from first base to the outfield), and York's catching days were over.   Tebbetts was probably better known for his career as a manager, scout, and executive, but he put in 9 seasons with the Tigers. Tebbetts wasn't much of an offensive threat, but he did provide solid defense.
 
In the final analysis, Freehan would be my all-time Tigers starting catcher, and Parrish would be his backup.
 
* Speaking of all-time teams, Freehan is a candidate for the all-time "hometown" team, with "hometown" being defined as a player who was born in (or in the surrounding areas) of the major league team for which he was most associated with. Some of the more notable players who played for the same major league team as the place they were born include Honus Wagner, Lou Gehrig, Pete Rose, Cal Ripken Jr., Don Drysdale, Barry Larkin and Charlie Gehringer
 
Freehan was born in Detroit and starred for the Tigers. Freehan's primary competition at catcher would be Joe Mauer of the Twins who was born in St. Paul. I think many would opt for Mauer for such a team (his career WAR is higher than Freehan's, and he also won the 3 batting titles and was an MVP), but I think it's basically a tossup. Mauer was a better offensive weapon, but on the other hand, he only ended up with 5 seasons where he caught 100 or more games. Overall, I'd take Freehan.
 
*Another "team" that Freehan would be among the leading candidates for is the all-time "only played for one MLB franchise" team. Some of the same players listed in the "hometown" team above, such as Gehrig, Ripken Jr., Larkin, Gehringer, and Drysdale would be candidates for this one as well, as would many others, including Mike Schmidt, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, Willie Stargell, Jackie Robinson (he was traded to the Giants but did not report) Derek Jeter, George Brett, Kirby Puckett, Brooks Robinson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Tony Gwynn, Roberto Clemente, Bob Feller, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Mariano Rivera, and so many others.
 
The catcher on that team would have to be Johnny Bench, with Bill Dickey and Roy Campanella vying for primary backups. Freehan isn't far behind, though, in a group with Thurman Munson, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Jorge Posada, and Yadier Molina.    I believe that, among players who were primarily catchers, Molina leads the way with 18 seasons (and counting), Bench, Dickey, and Posada had 17, and then Freehan, Mauer, and Jason Varitek check in at 15.
 
* Freehan holds the distinction of teaming up with a single starting pitcher more often than any other battery combination in MLB history. According to the web site "High Heat Stats", Mickey Lolich (as a starting pitcher, not in any relief appearances) teamed up with Freehan 324 times, besting the figures posted by the duos of Warren Spahn/Del Crandall of the Braves (316 games) and Red Faber/Ray Schalk of the White Sox (306 games). 
 
One of the keys to that lofty total, of course, is that Lolich and Freehan essentially came up through the Tigers system at the same time, and their careers are in near-perfect alignment (Lolich's first season in the Tigers' rotation was 1963, which was Freehan's rookie season, and Lolich's final season in the Tigers' rotation was 1975, which was Freehan's last season of catching more than 100 games).
 
Here are the top 10 listed on the site (but I'll provide an update on the Wainwright/Molina combo):
 
Games
Pitcher
Catcher
Team(s)
324
Mickey Lolich
Bill Freehan
1963-75 Tigers
316
Warren Spahn
Del Crandall
1949-63 Braves
306
Red Faber
Ray Schalk
1914-26 White Sox
283
Don Drysdale
John Roseboro
1957-67 Dodgers
282
Red Ruffing
Bill Dickey
1930-46 Yankees
**274
Adam Wainwright
Yadier Molina
2007-20 Cardinals
270
Steve Rogers
Gary Carter
1975-84 Expos
264
Bob Lemon
Jim Hegan
1946-57 Indians
252
Pete Alexander
Bill Kellefer
1911-17 Phillies, 1918-21 Cubs
250
Early Wynn
Jim Hegan
1949-57 Indians
 
**Note - the figure for Wainwright/Molina was as of the beginning of the 2021 season. By my count, they have hooked up 25 times so far in 2021, which would put them at 299 (and counting) and move them up to #4, with the possibility that, if they both return with the Cardinals in 2022, they could eventually move to the top.
 
Another side note - Jim Hegan appears twice in the top 10 with Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. He appears again at #14 with Bob Feller (240 games).
 
* According to oWAR, Freehan has had 2 of the top 10 offensive seasons by a non-Hall of Fame catcher**. The top 10 are below
 
(**note - I decided to keep Torre on the list because he's in the Hall of Fame primarily due to being a manager, although he was a fine player as well. Mauer and Posey are listed even though they're not yet eligible. It is my belief that they will both be elected to the Hall of Fame eventually).
 
Rk
Player
oWAR
Year
Tm
Lg
G
PA
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
OPS+
1
Joe Mauer
7.7
2009
MIN
AL
138
606
28
96
.365
.444
171
2
Buster Posey
7.3
2012
SFG
NL
148
610
24
103
.336
.408
171
3
Darrell Porter
6.8
1979
KCR
AL
157
679
20
112
.291
.421
142
4
Jorge Posada
6.6
2007
NYY
AL
144
589
20
90
.338
.426
153
5
Bill Freehan
6.6
1968
DET
AL
155
635
25
84
.263
.366
145
6
Joe Torre
6.6
1966
ATL
NL
148
614
36
101
.315
.382
156
7
Darren Daulton
6.5
1992
PHI
NL
145
585
27
109
.270
.385
156
8
Dick Dietz
6.5
1970
SFG
NL
148
612
22
107
.300
.426
153
9
Bill Freehan
6.5
1967
DET
AL
155
618
20
74
.282
.389
144
10
Javy Lopez
6.4
2003
ATL
NL
129
495
43
109
.328
.378
169
 
Undoubtedly one of the keys to Freehan's results is that 1967 and 1968 were both extremely low-offense seasons, so while Freehan's numbers don't look all that outstanding on the surface, in context of those run-scoring environments they were impressive performances. Freehan's 1968 season, for example, would be closer to 30 home runs and 110 RBI in a more neutral run scoring environment, with a batting average in the mid-.290's and an OBP around .400.
 
Freehan's oWAR in 1968 was third in the AL among all position players, behind Carl Yastrzemski (7.6) and Frank Howard (7.0). Again, while 25/84/.263 looks modest in most years, in 1968 that was a very valuable performance. I have no doubt Freehan was, at worst, a top-5 AL hitter that year.
 
* As you are probably already aware, Freehan was a little bit unlucky in his timing. Tthose 2 seasons highlighted above were overshadowed by two of the more iconic individual performances of the last 60 years - the Triple Crown season posted by Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and the 31-game winning season by Denny McLain in 1968. Freehan finished 3rd and 2nd in those awards, respectively. You have to wonder what an MVP in either of those years might have meant to his legacy. 
 
* One other notable thing about Freehan's 1967 and 1968 seasons was that he led the league both seasons in being hit by a pitch (HBP), and in both seasons he had 20 or more HBP's, which gave a nice little boost to his OBP's in both years.

What's notable about his HBP's in those seasons is that, to that point in history, Freehan was only the 2nd AL player to have multiple seasons of 20 or more HBPs (the other was Minnie Minoso in 1956 and 1957). Several old-time players (Hughie Jennings, Tommy Tucker, Dan McGann, Curt Welch, and Jake Beckley) had accomplished that in late 1800's/early1900's, and it's been done several times since (Craig Biggio and Run Hunt with 6 seasons each, and Don Baylor and Jason Kendall with 5 each), but at the time it was pretty rare.
 
* Freehan is one of the more decorated defensive catchers of all time. His 5 Gold Gloves is tied with Salvador Perez (who is still active) and is exceeded only by Ivan Rodriguez (13), Johnny Bench (10), Yadier Molina (9), Bob Boone (7), and Jim Sundberg (6).
 
* In his New Historical Abstract (from 2001), Bill James had Freehan ranked #12 all-time among all MLB catchers. I hope Bill won't mind me quoting his entry:
 
"Durable power hitter who could throw, very solid in every area of the game. An underrated player historically, in part because he played in an era in which hitters didn't compile big numbers. He was third in the MVP voting in 1967, runner-up to battery mate Denny McLain in 1968. In my opinion he was more valuable than McLain in '68".
 
- The New Bill James Historical Abstract, page 376. (bold emphasis is mine)
 
I agree with those sentiments, although I have to say that final sentence is an intriguing one. When I first read it 20 years ago, I thought perhaps it contained a little bit of hyperbole. McLain's iconic season was the first time in over 30 years (Dizzy Dean, 1934) that a pitcher had won 30 games. Sure, Freehan was a valuable player on that championshiop team, but more valuable than a 31-game winner? Well, I think there is something to that, so I'm going to take a little time to dig into some details.
 
For starters, 1968 was the famous "Year of the Pitcher", with run-scoring at historical lows. So, not only does McLain's performance need to be considered in that context, so does Freehan's, and so does everyone else's.   
 
For example, McLain's ERA was 1.96, a figure that would be very impressive in most years, but was only good for fourth best in the AL that year. Luis Tiant of Cleveland led the league with 1.60, Tiant's team mate Sam McDowell posted a 1.81 figure, and Dave McNally of the Orioles finished at 1.95. Tommy John of the White Sox was right behind McLain with a 1.98 figure, and Yankees rookie Stan Bahnsen was close behind at 2.05. 
 
In other words, from a run-prevention standpoint, McLain had a good year, and his innings pitched total of 336 was 44 more innings than the #2 man (Dean Chance of Minnesota). He deserves credit for combining very good run prevention with an impressive workload. However, his run prevention performance, while still quite good, wasn't really spectacular in context. McLain's ERA+ that year was 154. That's a good mark, but it was only 4th in the league (behind Tiant, McDowell, and John), and in roughly 80% of all American League seasons in history, that figure would not be enough to lead the league. Using baseball-reference.com's "neutral stats" tool, his 1.96 ERA translates to a 2.69 figure in a neutral setting. His pitchers wins were certainly historic and notable....but his other categories really were not.
 
Also, we can look at WAR to help put performances in perspective. McLain's baseball-reference WAR was 7.4, a good figure for sure, but Freehan's was not far off that at 6.9 (Fangraphs has them even closer, with 7.2 for McLain and 7.0 for Freehan). Again, run-context matters, and what ultimately matters are the impact of players in terms of wins and losses. 
 
And, in addition, positions (and position scarcity) matter. To revisit Freehan's 1968 stats again, he hit 25 home runs, drove in 84 runs, hit .263, and had a .366 OBP. The natural reaction to stats like that are, "yeah, they're pretty good, but nowhere near MVP level". However, in 1968, and in particular a catcher in 1968, that's an outstanding performance.
 
I pulled data for AL catchers in 1968 (anyone who played 50% or more of their games that year at catcher, and a minimum of 10 games played). That data is below, sorted by rWAR:
 
Player
rWAR
Tm
G
PA
R
HR
RBI
BB
HBP
BA
OBP
OPS+
Bill Freehan
6.9
DET
155
635
73
25
84
65
24
.263
.366
145
Joe Azcue
3.4
CLE
115
389
23
4
42
28
0
.280
.331
106
Duke Sims
2.9
CLE
122
429
48
11
44
62
5
.249
.366
133
Duane Josephson
2.0
CHW
128
465
35
6
45
18
6
.247
.284
88
Tom Satriano
2.0
CAL
111
335
20
8
35
37
1
.253
.337
118
Andy Etchebarren
2.0
BAL
74
214
20
5
20
19
3
.233
.311
113
Frank Fernandez
1.9
NYY
51
171
15
7
30
35
0
.170
.341
125
Jake Gibbs
1.5
NYY
124
460
31
3
29
27
6
.213
.270
70
Jim Pagliaroni
1.3
OAK
66
227
19
6
20
24
2
.246
.330
114
Jerry McNertney
0.7
CHW
74
197
18
3
18
18
2
.219
.300
81
Larry Haney
0.4
BAL
38
89
5
1
5
0
0
.236
.236
69
John Roseboro
0.4
MIN
135
435
31
8
39
46
2
.216
.300
81
Elrod Hendricks
0.3
BAL
79
204
19
7
23
19
1
.202
.279
96
Bruce Look
0.3
MIN
59
139
7
0
9
20
0
.246
.353
89
Jim French
0.2
WSA
59
191
9
1
10
19
1
.194
.277
62
Elston Howard
0.2
BOS
71
229
22
5
18
22
1
.241
.317
93
Dave Duncan
-
OAK
82
276
15
7
28
25
1
.191
.266
74
Orlando McFarlane
(0.1)
CAL
18
36
1
0
2
5
0
.290
.389
114
Ken Suarez
(0.2)
CLE
17
11
1
0
0
1
0
.100
.182
-12
Jerry Zimmerman
(0.2)
MIN
24
50
3
0
2
3
1
.111
.180
-6
Billy Bryan
(0.3)
WSA
40
123
7
3
8
14
1
.204
.301
91
Jim Price
(0.4)
DET
64
146
12
3
13
13
1
.174
.253
58
George Mitterwald
(0.4)
MIN
11
38
1
0
1
3
0
.206
.270
51
Gene Oliver
(0.5)
BOS
16
40
2
0
1
4
1
.143
.250
19
Phil Roof
(0.5)
OAK
34
67
5
1
2
2
0
.188
.212
39
Tom Egan
(0.5)
CAL
16
45
2
1
4
2
0
.116
.156
13
Rene Lachemann
(0.7)
OAK
19
63
3
0
4
1
1
.150
.177
8
Russ Nixon
(0.8)
BOS
29
92
1
0
6
7
0
.153
.217
17
Buck Rodgers
(0.9)
CAL
91
281
13
1
14
16
3
.190
.244
46
Russ Gibson
(0.9)
BOS
76
246
15
3
20
8
0
.225
.247
66
Paul Casanova
(1.3)
WSA
96
335
19
4
25
7
0
.196
.210
42
 
As you can see from the list, it's not exactly overflowing with quality catchers. Aside from Freehan, the two catchers with the most career value are Howard and Roseboro, but by 1968 both were at or near the end of their careers.
 
Freehan was far and away the best individual catcher that year, although I will have to admit that the Cleveland duo of righty bat Jose Azcue ("The Immortal Azcue") and lefty bat Duke Sims made for a pretty effective pair (Azcue and Sims split the job that year, with Sims also getting in some time at 1B and the OF). Still, when matched up against nearly every team, Detroit had a huge advantage at the catcher position. Freehan hit more twice as many home runs as any other single catcher in the league. Freehan was also the only catcher who had enough plate appearances to even qualify for the batting title. Having an option like Freehan where position scarcity is a reality for most of the league is a very valuable position to be in.
 
Here's one other interesting angle I wanted to explore. The '68 Tigers were a fascinating squad. It was a good lineup with the exception of what had to have been one of the weakest left-side infield that any championship team has ever had with Ray Oyler at SS and Don Wert at 3B although, amazingly, Wert did make the All Star team that year. To be fair, Wert was a decent player in prior seasons. However, in 1968 he wasn't. Some of that may have been related to a severe beaning he took in late June, although he was only hitting .224 at the time of that incident (and .179 after).  
 
Norm Cash (1B), Willie Horton (LF), Dick McAuliffe (2B), Jim Northrup (RF), and Mickey Stanley (CF)were all quality players and had good years in context. Tigers legend Al Kaline was still around as well, although he missed about 60 games. That gave the Tigers 4 quality outfielders (you may recall this was the year that Mayo Smith famously moved Stanley, a Gold Glove center fielder, to shortstop late in the year and in the World Series in order to address the weak bats at shortstop while at the same time allowing the Tigers to get Kaline, Northrup, and Horton all in the lineup). 
 
Another outfielder, Gates Brown,  also had a legendary season as a bench player/pinch-hitter (.370 batting average).   The Tigers led the league in runs scored and in fewest runs allowed. They won 103 games. And I think Freehan was their most important and most valuable position player.
 
On baseball-reference.com, there's a table that is provided for each league/year that provides data on how each team performs relative to each other by Wins Above Average (WAA) at each position. It's a pretty nifty tool. It captures all players at that position for the team, not just the starters/primary players.
 
I took the data from that chart and rearranged it into a Detroit-based table below for non-pitchers (pitchers gets a little more complicated to compare, unless you're comparing the whole staff or just starters or relievers). This table summarizes how Detroit compared to the league average WAA at each position, both by rank and by the difference between the Detroit and the League WAA figures (Detroit WAA minus the league average at the position). I also listed the "primary" Detroit player at each position, even though the figures reflect all players for the team at that position, not just the primary one. Also note that, at some positions, the league average is less than zero, at some it is right at zero, and at some it is greater than zero. You can see all three possibilities.
 
 
 
 
Position
 
Detroit Primary Position Player
 
Detroit Position WAA
League Position Average WAA
 
Detroit Position Rank
Difference Between Detroit WAA and League Average WAA
C
B. Freehan
3.2
-0.5
1
3.7
1B
N. Cash
2.8
-0.4
1
3.2
2B
D. McAuliffe
3.0
-0.1
1
3.1
3B
D. Wert
-1.6
0.4
9
-2.0
SS
R. Oyler
-2.3
0.2
10
-2.5
LF
W. Horton
3.9
1.0
2
2.9
CF
M. Stanley
2.2
0.6
2
1.6
RF
J. Northrup
3.5
0.0
1
3.5
PH
G. Brown
1.1
-1.1
1
2.2
Non-P
DET Total
15.8
0.0
1
15.8
 
As you would expect, Detroit was really poor in comparison to the league at SS (primarily Oyler, but also Dick Tracewski and Tommy Matchick) and 3B (primarily Wert), but they were #1 or #2 everywhere else. They were #1 at catcher, first base, second base, and right field, and at each of those positions they were more than 3 wins above average relative to the league position average.  They also had the highest figure for pinch-hitters (led, of course by Brown). They were also strong in LF and CF, but Boston (primarily Carl Yastrzemski and Reggie Smith) finished above Detroit at those positions. 
 
So, although it's close, Detroit's biggest single position advantage was at catcher, where, led by Freehan, they were 3.7 above the league average figure of negative 0.5. Which, again, reinforces the notion that, relative to the other options in the league, Freehan was an especially valuable asset to have.
 
Now, to be fair to McLain, he was clearly a very valuable pitching asset. The Tigers' staff, outside of McLain, wasn't particularly impressive that season. Earl Wilson was effective with a 13-12, 2.85 record and a 106 ERA+. Mickey Lolich was 17-9, 3.19 (and was the star of the World Series). That record would normally be a pretty nice performance, but the league ERA in 1968 was 2.98, and Lolich's ERA+ was sub-average at 95. Joe Sparma was 10-10, 3.70, with a very unimpressive 82 ERA+. The Tigers' bullpen was pretty good - Pat Dobson and John Hiller both pitched well out of the pen (as well as making around 10 starts apiece), and Daryl Patterson was pretty effective as well. So, McLain's performance, even aside from the historic 31 wins, was extremely impressive and valuable in the context of the Tigers' overall pitching staff.
 
So, I'm not trying to re-litigate the 1968 MVP award. McLain won it, he won it unanimously, it was obvious he was going to win it based on his historical accomplishment and the Tigers' team performance, and it's unreasonable to think that anyone would or should change their minds. However, while McLain had an impressive year, so did several other pitchers. Freehan was far and away the best single catcher in the league offensively, and he took home the Gold Glove award to boot. 
 
If forced to choose, I think McLain was perhaps a little more valuable to the Tigers than Freehan was, but I don't think it's a big difference when you put everything in context.  To me, it's pretty much a tossup.
 
Best Catcher of the 60's?
 
The 1950's witnessed two all-time great catchers that helped define that era - Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, each of whom won 3 MVP awards during the decade.   The 1970's were a kind of golden age of catchers, including Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons, and Gary Carter (who debuted mid-decade, although he realized more of his stardom in the 1980's), not to mention other valuable backstops who were prominent in that decade, including Thurman Munson, Gene Tenace, Bob Boone, Jim Sundberg, Manny Sanguillen, and Darrell Porter.
 
In between those two eras, the 1960's was, quite frankly, a little bit of a lull at the catcher position in terms of star power. I think Freehan was the best catcher of the decade, but it's not a runaway.
 
Here are some candidates for the top catchers of the decade. I defined it based on players who played 50% or more of their total games during the decade at catcher, and then sorted descending by rWAR. I'm also including the "Positions" information from baseball-reference.com to capture other positions that each player appeared at, as it will come into play later:
 
Player         
WAR
Age
G
PA
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
OPS+
Positions
Joe Torre
36.2
19-28
1,196
4,777
160
653
.293
.357
129
*23/H7
Tom Haller
25.9
24-32
1,039
3,782
117
412
.255
.340
114
*2/H937
Bill Freehan
24.9
19-27
967
3,766
110
416
.262
.343
113
*2/3H9
Elston Howard
21.7
31-39
1,072
3,962
115
502
.272
.324
109
*2H/37
Tim McCarver
20.8
18-27
969
3,649
63
393
.275
.328
103
*2/H
John Roseboro
20.3
27-36
1,272
4,454
77
455
.251
.327
96
*2H/53
John Romano
19.6
25-32
848
3,095
124
391
.253
.352
121
*2/H73
Earl Battey
17.6
25-32
990
3,692
91
410
.277
.354
109
*2/H
Clay Dalrymple
15.9
23-32
1,043
3,425
53
318
.234
.320
85
*2H
Jim Pagliaroni
15.8
22-31
848
2,852
90
325
.252
.344
110
*2H/39
 
Note that Freehan only ended up with about 7 full seasons in the 1960's, so he's a little light on games played vs. a few of the others who were able to span the entire decade.
 
On the surface, Joe Torre would seem to have a good case as the best catcher of the decade, and maybe he was, but there's a little bit of an issue in that, while he did play catcher more than anything else, he did play quite a few games as a non-catcher, as the "Positions" column alludes to. The "3" in front of the slash on Torre's line implies some significant time at first base. 
 
Below is Torre's games by position data for the 1960's. When not pinch-hitting, he was about two-thirds catcher and about one-third first baseman (as opposed to Freehan, who played around 95% of his games as a catcher):
 
Year
Total Games
C
1B
LF
PH
1960
2
0
0
0
2
1961
113
112
0
0
4
1962
80
63
0
0
19
1963
142
103
39
2
11
1964
154
96
70
0
2
1965
148
100
49
0
5
1966
148
111
39
0
4
1967
135
114
23
0
9
1968
115
91
30
0
1
1969
159
18
143
0
1
Total
1,196
808
393
2
58
 
So, I would say Torre was clearly the best hitter among players who could be considered catchers in the 1960's. However, his catching defense (despite winning the NL Gold Glove in 1965) and time spent at other positions is a little problematic in declaring him the best backstop of the decade. 
                                              &nbs​p;                        &nbs​p;                        &nbs​p;                        &nbs​p;                   
Incidentally, that 1965 NL Gold Glove has always struck me as a curious choice. Torre only caught 100 games that year (he also had 49 appearances at first base). Bill referenced that decision in his write-up of Torre in the New Bill James Historical Abstract, commenting that he felt Torre won it with his bat, and that John Roseboro (who was a Gold Glover in 1961 and would be again in 1966) or Tom Haller should have won the award instead. In addition to those two, I think Johnny Edwards, who was in the middle of his third consecutive All Star season and had won the award the 2 previous years, or Tim McCarver, who was emerging as a talented young receiver, would have been decent choices as well. I mean, the voters had some better options. I've never quite understood that decision.
 
Speaking of Tom Haller, he doesn't typically attract much attention, but he had a quality decade as well. Elston Howard has a case, as he had some significant seasons early in the decade (MVP in 1963, 3rd place in 1964, .348 batting average and a 10th place MVP finish in 1961). In addition, Howard was named to the All Star team every year from 1960 to 1965 (not to mention the last 3 years of the 1950's). John Roseboro had some good moments, as did Tim McCarver (McCarver was the runner-up in the 1967 NL MVP to his teammate and unanimous winner, Orlando Cepeda).
 
How about individual seasons in the decade? Here are the top individual seasons (by rWAR) for 1960's catchers. I have Freehan in yellow below, Howard in green, and Torre in blue:
 
Rank
Player
WAR
Year
Tm
Lg
G
PA
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
1
Bill Freehan
6.9
1968
DET
AL
155
635
25
84
.263
.366
2
Joe Torre
6.4
1966
ATL
NL
148
614
36
101
.315
.382
3
Johnny Bench
6.2
1969
CIN
NL
148
592
26
90
.293
.353
4
Bill Freehan
6.1
1967
DET
AL
155
618
20
74
.282
.389
5
Tim McCarver
6.0
1967
STL
NL
138
540
14
69
.295
.369
6
Elston Howard
5.5
1964
NYY
AL
150
607
15
84
.313
.371
7
Joe Torre
5.4
1964
MLN
NL
154
646
20
109
.321
.365
8
Elston Howard
5.4
1961
NYY
AL
129
482
21
77
.348
.387
9
Bill Freehan
5.3
1964
DET
AL
144
573
18
80
.300
.350
10
Elston Howard
5.2
1963
NYY
AL
135
531
28
85
.288
.342
11
Joe Torre
5.1
1967
ATL
NL
135
534
20
68
.277
.345
12
Johnny Bench
5.0
1968
CIN
NL
154
607
15
82
.275
.311
13
Tom Haller
4.8
1968
LAD
NL
144
534
4
53
.285
.345
14
Joe Torre
4.7
1963
MLN
NL
142
556
14
71
.293
.350
15
John Romano
4.6
1961
CLE
AL
142
580
21
80
.299
.377
16
Del Crandall
4.6
1960
MLN
NL
142
596
19
77
.294
.334
17
John Romano
4.5
1962
CLE
AL
135
548
25
81
.261
.363
18
Earl Battey
4.2
1963
MIN
AL
147
586
26
84
.285
.369
19
Joe Torre
4.1
1965
MLN
NL
148
594
27
80
.291
.372
20
Randy Hundley
3.9
1967
CHC
NL
152
597
14
60
.267
.322
 
Freehan and Howard each have 3 of the top 10 seasons.   Torre has 2 of the top 10, but then also has 3 of the next 10, while Freehan and Howard don't have any others. Johnny Bench posted 2 really good seasons in '68 and '69, setting himself up well for his domination of the 1970's, and John Romano had a couple of really nice seasons as well.
 
So, I guess it depends on how you evaluate them and what's important to you. Overall, I would consider Freehan to be the best "pure" catcher of the decade, but I would certainly understand anyone opting for either Torre or Howard instead.
 
All Star Seasons
 
One of the most striking numbers from Bill Freehan's resume is his 11 All Star game selections, including 10 in a row from 1964-1973. Now, I know that not everyone places a whole lot of importance on the number of All Star seasons that a player has, and I can certainly understand that. Sometimes All Stars are based on popularity, familiarity, reputation, or all of the above, and they're not necessarily indicative of who is having the best season. Also, since the MLB All Star game didn't get established until the early 1930's, you can't use it to assess players prior to that era. And, of course, the whole requirement of having each team being represented means that it's not a strict meritocracy. Nevertheless, I consider the # of All Star teams that a player makes to be a significant basic piece of information in assessing a player's career. 
 
Now, of course, anyone can have a fluke selection or two. As Bill observed once, even Dave Chalk made 2 All Star rosters. But, once you start getting up to 10 or more appearances....well, that doesn't prove that you're a great player, but generally someone who achieves that much recognition is doing something right.
 
Here are the players with the most MLB All Star seasons (as opposed to All Star games, since some seasons had more than one game). There are 46 players.
 
Hall of Fame
Non-Hall of Fame
 
Player
Seasons on Roster
Henry Aaron
21
Willie Mays
20
Stan Musial
20
Cal Ripken Jr.
19
Rod Carew
18
Carl Yastrzemski
18
Ted Williams
17
Pete Rose
17
Mickey Mantle
16
Yogi Berra
15
Al Kaline
15
Brooks Robinson
15
Tony Gwynn
15
Ozzie Smith
15
Warren Spahn
14
Johnny Bench
14
Barry Bonds
14
Reggie Jackson
14
Derek Jeter
14
Alex Rodriguez
14
Ivan Rodriguez
14
George Brett
13
Joe DiMaggio
13
Ken Griffey Jr.
13
Mariano Rivera
13
Roberto Clemente
12
Nellie Fox
12
Frank Robinson
12
Roberto Alomar
12
Wade Boggs
12
Barry Larkin
12
Mark McGwire
12
Mel Ott
12
Mike Piazza
12
Manny Ramirez
12
Mike Schmidt
12
Tom Seaver
12
Dave Winfield
12
Ernie Banks
11
Harmon Killebrew
11
Miguel Cabrera
11
Gary Carter
11
Roger Clemens
11
Bill Dickey
11
Carlton Fisk
11
Bill Freehan
11
 
Pretty good company. Basically, reaching 11 is a pretty good lock on immortality. The only non-Hall of Famers at this level are those who are not yet on the ballot (such as Cabrera and A-Rod) or have "baggage" (Rose, Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Manny, and A-Rod again).
 
Now, of course, to be fair, you probably noticed I drew the line right under Freehan. If I drew it at 10, we would see Steve Garvey appear, and if we go down to 9 we would pull in some players like Dave Concepcion, Fred Lynn, Elston Howard, and Frank McCormick, all of whom were quality players (and 4 of those 5 had an MVP season), but they're not quite the same total career quality as the ones above.
 
So, I would say Freehan's 11 All-Star selections is a big feather in his cap. He was the de facto AL catcher for a 10-year stretch. It's not everything, but it does say a lot. 
 
Historical Place among Catchers
 
In my recent series of articles on the greatest players of the last 50 years, I didn't include Freehan in the review of catchers because the midpoint of his career was 1968, which was a couple of years before I drew my line. So, where would I place him all-time among catchers?
 
I tend to think of catchers in tiers. There are 3 catchers in my top tier:
 
Josh Gibson
Johnny Bench
Yogi Berra
 
Bench is my #1 catcher whom I have personally observed, but I think Gibson has to rate above him, and Berra has to be up there as well for both his tremendous consistency, his recognition as an elite player (3 MVP's), and contribution to winning teams. I'd put them in that order indicated above - Gibson #1, Bench #2, Berra #3.
 
The next tier for me includes the following (the first 4 are ones who have seen play, the last 5 I didn't):
 
Gary Carter
Ivan Rodriguez
Carlton Fisk
Mike Piazza
Mickey Cochrance
Gabby Hartnett
Biz Mackey
Bill Dickey
Roy Campanella
 
Great players all, with a variety of strengths. To me, there's not a lot that separates them. Still, if I had to put them in some kind of subjective order based on the entirety of evidence, I'd go:
 
#4 - Gary Carter
#5 - Ivan Rodriguez
#6 - Carlton Fisk
#7 - Mike Piazza
#8 - Mickey Cochrane
#9 - Roy Campanella
# 10 - Bill Dickey
#11 - Biz Mackey
#12 - Gabby Hartnett
 
In my mind, that top twelve stands above the rest. Behind them, in my mind there is another distinct tier - some Hall of Famers, some not. Some active, some old-timers. Several won an MVP award. That tier includes:
 
Joe Mauer
Ted Simmons
Thurman Munson
Buck Ewing
Roger Bresnahan
Buster Posey
Yadier Molina
Ernie Lombardi
Joe Torre
Bill Freehan
Jorge Posada
 
Wally Schang, Elston Howard, and Gene Tenace might merit discussion as well. 
 
Excellent players all, but each one with some flaws that I feel puts them behind the top couple of tiers. Mauer and Torre were outstanding (especially on offense), but neither one caught 1,000 games, and each ultimately ended up with more games as a non-catcher than as a catcher, which I think works against them. So, it's a good group, but one that I think is below the others.
 
So, where would I rank Freehan? 
 
Bill James had Freehan #12 in his New Historical Abstract, which is now about 20 years old. Bill did not include the Negro League catchers in the position-by-position rankings, but he clearly would had as the Gibson #1 catcher, as he had Gibson ranked #9 overall, much higher than Berra (41) and Bench (44). He also might have had Louis Santop and Biz Mackey pretty high up too (they were his #2 and #3 Negro League catchers). He also had Rodriguez #13 at catcher, but Pudge was only 28 at the time, so one presumes that he would have been much higher up based on full career (at the very least, likely leapfrogging Freehan). I'm not sure where Bill would have placed Mauer, Posey or Molina. In any case, if we include Negro League players and allow for players & updates covering the past 20 years, I think Bill overall would have had Freehan somewhere in the 15-20 range . 
 
As a quick and dirty comparison, the JAWS catcher ranking has Freehan at 16, but obviously that system wouldn't properly account for the great Negro League stars like Gibson and Mackey, and Campanella (who checks in at 17) had a relatively brief MLB career. Those 3 would have to leapfrog Freehan, I would think.
 
Taking everything into consideration? I'd probably put Freehan right at about #20.
 
Should Freehan be in the Hall of Fame? I think he's got a decent case, but I'm also not holding my breath. In Freehan's lone appearance on a Hall of Fame ballot (1982), he only received 2 votes. Not 2 percent. 2 votes.  I mean, a lot was made of the fact that Ted Simmons was recently elected by a Veterans Committee after receiving very little support on the BBWAA ballot, but even Simmons got 17 votes (3.7%) in his appearance. I believe that would be an unprecedented development if Freehan were to make the Hall after receiving such little initial support.
 
Is Freehan the best catcher not in the Hall? Well, at this point, Mauer's not eligible yet, and Posey and Molina are still active. I think those 3 will likely get in. I don't know if any of them are "locks", I don't know that any of them will be first-ballot types, and I don't know that any of them were truly better than Freehan, but I think they all have cases that will resonate better with voters, and I believe they will all get in at some point.  
 
Among the retired catchers who would currently be eligible for a potential Veteran's Committee ballot, I think the strongest candidates are Freehan, Munson, and Posada. Among those 3, I'd vote for Freehan first, but, again, I'm not holding my breath. 
 
In summary, I think he's a borderline candidate, which is not meant to be a disparaging characterization. A "borderline" Hall of Fame is still an outstanding player. I'd love to see him recognized, but I don't think his chances are very good. 
 
In any case, Mr. Freehan, you had a damn fine career, and you made an impression on me.
 
Thank you for reading.
 
Dan
 
 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

bhalbleib
"Primarily because it immortalize Mayo Smith for the gutsiest off-the-wall-out-of-the-box decision to play Mickey Stanley at short, providing Kaline his opportunity.It was a far greater gamble than Connie Mack starting Howard Ehmke against the Cubs in Game 1 of the 1929 World Series."

I would add Bucky Harris in 1924 WS and Dick Howser in 1985 ALCS to that list with very unorthodox pitching choices that effectively neutralized Bill Terry and Al Oliver respectively (and outwitted HOF managers John McGraw and Bobby Cox in the process)
10:56 AM Sep 1st
 
paulw112
Really enjoyed the article Dan. I looked up the play at the plate with Lou Brock and found it on YouTube. Here it is just for grins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wr4J3gLhL0k

12:07 PM Aug 31st
 
MWeddell
I requested a copy of Behind the Mask from my library yesterday.

It's not clear that Freehan's block and tag out of Lou Brock in game 5 of the World Series was the key play of that series. Horton had an excellent throw on the same play. The play clearly saved one run but it is unclear whether it saved more than one run and the Tigers won the game by two runs. Other important plays in the series are Kaline's two-run single in Game 5 and Curt Flood breaking the wrong way in game 7 and what became a three-run triple in a 4-1 game 7 victory.

Perhaps of some historical interest is that before Mayo Smith converted Mickey Stanley to shortstop late in the 1968 regular season, the Detroit papers speculated that the Tigers would move Al Kaline to third base. Dan's article points out that third base also was a real weakness for the Tigers.
8:53 AM Aug 31st
 
FrankD
I agree with Villageelliot in that a borderline HOF player also needs a HOF moment. Freehan's play at the plate - maybe. Its not Kirby PuKay jumping high against the plexiglass to reelin an XB hit in a tight World Series. But it was a key defensive play and needs to be remembered and added to Freehan's resume.
12:31 AM Aug 31st
 
FrankD
Great article. Of course, I was a real Twins fan back then (little kid) and great to see the names - I hoped Earl Battey would get more mention, but that is the Minnesota kid in me. Denny McClain has to be anointed as better than Freehan in '68, even though Freehan not only hit well, he caught Denny too. I wonder if the time between Yankee dynasty and Oriole dynasty, '65-'68 made people forget about Twins, Tigers, BoSox players (except Yaz). Twins win pennant in '65, all three teams could have easily won in '67, and then the Tigers in '68. Although they played great baseball throughout that time, they were perceived as one-hit wonders, and now nobody even remembers their top song.
12:19 AM Aug 31st
 
villageelliott
Excellent article:

As a Cardinals fan at a time I only saw American Leaguers play in was in the World Series or All Star Game (when the NL owned the AL), despite his All Star appearances, the only time I remember seeing Bill Freehan play was the 1968 World Series. I was a Tim McCarver fan, and had no reason to think Freehan his equal until...

The fifth inning of Game 5 of the 1968 World Series: By standing his ground stoically waiting for Willie Horton's greatest throw, Freehan mind-phucked Lou Brock, who was rounding third and heading for home at ramming speed, into trying to run him over rather than slide around him. At the time this high school senior was pissed at Brock for not knocking Freehan on his ass.

([URL]https://retrosimba.com/2018/11/08/bill-freehan-lou-brock-and-a-world-series-controversy/[/URL]

Although I didn't think of it as his career's signature moment at the time, when the Tigers came back to win the game, I had a vague sense that had Brock scored the Cardinals would have repeated as World Champions with a 4-1 stomping of the Tigers. It wasn't until a few days later, a few innings after Flood freezing just long enough that I realized the Tiger's celebrating with "Gibson and Champagne, huh!" .was the direct result of Freehan's play reversing the Mojo of the 1968 World Series.

Over time, having studied the history of Baseball in less provincial terms, I still didn't like it, but I realized that within Historical Context The Tigers well-deserved Championship for several reason:

1) I was feeling smugly magnanimous after rhe Cardinals upset the Tigers in 2006.

2) Payback for their uber-contentious 1934 loss to the Gas House Gang, (The Royals in 1985 buried whatever residue remained.)

3) To reward Al Kaline with the ring he deserved for his MVP-caliber effort in his only World Series' appearance (Like Walter Johnson in 1924.)

4) Primarily because it immortalize Mayo Smith for the gutsiest off-the-wall-out-of-the-box decision to play Mickey Stanley at short, providing Kaline his opportunity.It was a far greater gamble than Connie Mack starting Howard Ehmke against the Cubs in Game 1 of the 1929 World Series.

But as much as I didn't like it at the time or begin to accept it until thirty eight years later, it has taken me half of that time, only fifteen seasons that I can sincerely smile and salute the 1968 World Champion Detroit Tigers...


I am aware that the Hall of Fame's guidelines specifically state players should not be inducted on the basis of one signature moment (See Don Larsen, Harvey Haddix, Bucky Dent, Kirk Gibson, et al) However. while I have always considered the legacy of Bill's Freehan's signature play to provide the over-the-hump evidential preponderance to what i thought was his borderline resume. I did not realize how qualified he was without it.

And I credit it to you and your article convincing me that the Legacy of Freehan's signature moment unquestionably tips Freehan into the Hall.

10:46 PM Aug 30th
 
MWeddell
Thanks, Dan, for the responses.
8:35 PM Aug 30th
 
DMBBHF
Thanks for all the comments, guys....

Bruce,

Yes, nice points you made on the WAA by position topic. Thanks for drilling down deeper into it.

bhalbleib,

Yes, I probably should have given a nod to Perez while I was mentioning the other active catchers. We'll have to keep an eye on him, especially with the year he's having.

MWeddell,

I guess I didn't write that as carefully or clearly as I intended to. I didn't mean to imply that being 3rd in the AL implied that he was a top-5 hitter on that basis alone. I was actually looking broader than that, as Freehan was top 5 (or 6 or 7) in many key hitting categories across the board, such as OBP (6th), HR (tie for 5th), RBI (6th, 1 RBI out of 5th), and OPS+ (tie for 6th). He was tied for 2nd in Times On Base. He was 5th in Rbat.

My point was not solely dependent on oWAR. oWAR was simply the leadoff comment into his overall offensive performance, but the "top 5" conclusion was based on his placement across a broader set of hitting categories.

My top 5 AL hitters for that year, without regard to position, would be Yaz, Howard, Horton, Harrelson, and Freehan. I'm not sure who else I would put above him that would cause him to drop out of the top 5. THAT'S what I was trying to say.

Thanks,
Dan


8:16 PM Aug 30th
 
MWeddell
Who knew there were that many fun things to write about Bill Freehan? Thanks, Dan.

Rick Ferrell never received more than 1 vote in any BBWAA Hall of Fame election but was eventually inducted by a veterans committee. By modern standards, Ferrell would have been dropped from the ballot after receiving zero votes. Of course, Ferrell is regarded as one of the worst selections, so that's not a very desirable precedent for Freehan.

I've got to take issue with this paragraph:
Freehan's oWAR in 1968 was third in the AL among all position players, behind Carl Yastrzemski (7.6) and Frank Howard (7.0). Again, while 25/84/.263 looks modest in most years, in 1968 that was a very valuable performance. I have no doubt Freehan was, at worst, a top-5 AL hitter that year.
As we discussed in a recent Readers Post thread, oWAR includes the position adjustment, so one can't use it to compare offensive production between players that played different positions.
7:25 PM Aug 30th
 
evanecurb
Wonderful! With respect to the 1968 Tigers’ Wins Above Average by position, the team charts from BBRef understate Freehan’s contribution unless you dig into the individual numbers.

The Tigers had 3.2 WAA by catchers, but Freehan had 4.7 WAA by himself. Backup Jim Price appeared in 42 games (Freehan 138) and was below average (-0.9). So Freehan was worth 4.1 WAA as a catcher. Since he had 4.7 WAA on the year, I’m going to assign him with 0.6 WAA as a first baseman (21 games). Cash was worth
only 1.9 of the team’s league-leading total of 2.8 WAA. Kaline (2.0 WAA including 22 games at first and 74 in the outfield) was likely responsible for the difference.

Summary: In 1968, Freehan was worth more wins above average as a catcher than any TEAM (including the Tigers) position in the league that year. And he also contributed to the Tigers’ league leading position value at first when he wasn’t catching.
11:34 AM Aug 30th
 
hotstatrat
Thanks, Dan the Man -
Tigers fan here - precisely since Lolich and Freehan were rookies, but I didn't know until now that they have the record for most games as battery-mates.

10:35 AM Aug 30th
 
bhalbleib
"The catcher on that team would have to be Johnny Bench, with Bill Dickey and Roy Campanella vying for primary backups. Freehan isn't far behind, though, in a group with Thurman Munson, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Jorge Posada, and Yadier Molina. I believe that, among players who were primarily catchers, Molina leads the way with 18 seasons (and counting), Bench, Dickey, and Posada had 17, and then Freehan, Mauer, and Jason Varitek check in at 15."

If Salvador Perez keeps homering every game (probably unlikely) and if he stays in KC the rest of his career (much more likely), you might have to move him into this list.
9:35 AM Aug 30th
 
 
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