Appreciating Bill Freehan

Yesterday, I was doing some All-Star Game research. In doing so, I came across the name of Bill Freehan, and was surprised to find that he started for the American League at catcher for seven straight years. Doing some more digging, I realized he was essentially the best catcher of whom I had never heard. The classic “whole is greater than the sum of his parts” player, there wasn’t anything that Freehan did poorly.

Back in the days before the draft, the rules for players signing was a bit looser than it was today, and that allowed Freehan to get both a taste of the college life and start his career early. He went to the University of Michigan for one year, where he played both baseball and football. However, when the Tigers offered him a $100,000 signing bonus to join the pro ranks, he took it — even though his father allegedly wouldn’t let him have it until after he graduated college in 1966. Freehan actually worked his way into four games as a 19-year-old, though he would spend his age-20 season in Triple-A. That would be it for his minor league career however, as he worked into a platoon role in ’63 at the tender age of 21, and when the Tigers traded former Orioles stalwart Gus Triandos to the Phillies following the season, Freehan seized control of the job, and didn’t let it go for 12 seasons.

During that time, Freehan was pretty durable. From 1964-1975, only Joe Torre donned the tools of ignorance more frequently than did Freehan. He got things started with a bang in ’64, when he hit .300/.350/.462, with 18 homers, 14 doubles and amazingly, eight triples. Since 1947, only six catchers have hit more triples in a season than Freehan did in ’64. He would never hit more than five in any successive season, but he did chip in a few each season, and since 1947 only 16 catchers have more career triples than Freehan’s 35. For his troubles in ’64, he made the American League All-Star team as the only reserve catcher, and also placed seventh in the Most Valuable Player Award voting. In other words, he had arrived.

While he regressed a great deal of the plate in 1965, his defense was recognized, as Freehan would win the first of his five consecutive Gold Gloves. When he was awarded his fourth following the 1968 season, it moved him past Sherm Lollar for the all-time lead at the catching position, and no one would pass him until Jim Sundberg took home his sixth in 1981. To this day, only four players have more Gold Gloves as a catcher — Ivan Rodriguez, Johnny Bench, Bob Boone and Sundberg — although there’s a good chance that Yadier Molina also passes him in the next year or two.

His offense didn’t pick up any in ’66, but he did most of his damage in the first half, and was the AL’s starter at catcher in the All-Star Game for the first time. He would hold this honor for seven straight seasons until some guy named Carlton Fisk wrestled the honor away from him in ’73. This might not sound like much, but it’s pretty rare for a player to start the All-Star Game at the same position for the same league in a number of consecutive seasons. Only 30 players have ever done this in five or more consecutive years, and only eight players have done so more than Freehan. Now, it might have been a touch easier for Freehan to pull this off thanks to the general dearth of good catchers throughout the history of the game, but Freehan was also very clearly the best catcher in the AL during that period of time:

Player WAR
Bill Freehan 28.4
Thurman Munson 12.5
Duke Sims 11.3

Part of Freehan’s effectiveness was that he did most everything well. In nearly every season of his career, he had above-average walk and strikeout rates. The same is true from a power standpoint, as his ISO was nearly always better than the league average — particularly in 1968, when he posted a .191 ISO compared to a .104 league average. You might remember ’68 as the year of the pitcher, but Freehan was not intimidated. That season he posted his career bests in homers, ISO and wRC+, and along with Denny McLain, Jim Northrup and Willie Horton helped lead the Tigers to their third World Series triumph. Freehan actually just edged McLain for the team lead in WAR.

Freehan was an asset behind the plate as well. Defensive metrics for catchers are tricky, but using what we have compared to the other catchers of his era, we see that Freehan ranks among the best. Looking at the ‘60’s and ‘70’s (1960-1979 to be precise), we find 108 qualified catchers. Among them, Freehan’s 27 Fld ranks 14th. And while most catchers are a blight on the bases, Freehan was never a lead weight himself. His -1.2 BsR ranks 107th out of 334 qualified catchers since 1947. Not great mind you, but certainly not awful.

Overall, Freehan posted 44.8 WAR in his career. That’s good enough for 16th all-time among catchers, and 14th all-time on the Tigers overall (best among Tigers’ catchers, 10th-best among Tigers’ position players). Freehan also penned a book on catching entitled “Behind The Mask,” and tutored at least two future big league catchers in Lance Parrish and Mike Matheny, the latter of whom he molded while coaching Michigan’s baseball team. That’s not just a heck of a career, that’s a heck of a life. Freehan may not warrant mention when discussions turn to who was the greatest catcher of all-time, but he was certainly very good for a very long time.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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Matt in Toledo
Guest

I always thought the Tigers should’ve given him a statue at Comerica. He fits all the apparent criteria – local kid, career Tiger, best Tiger at his position – except for the Hall of Fame. Then again, Willie Horton has one and he didn’t make the Hall either. I wouldn’t be surprised if when the decision was being made, the final statue came down to Horton and Freehan and the Tigers decided Detroit should give a nod to the city’s African American heritage.

Detroit Michael
Guest
Detroit Michael

Horton also played an iconic role during the 1967 riots and has been tangentially involved in the Tigers’ front office under Mike Ilitch’s ownership.