Thursday, May 19, 2011

#162 - Bill Freehan

Before a couple guys named Thurman and Carlton showed up in the early '70s, this guy was the premier All-Star catcher in the AL. Bill Freehan could hit for power, get on base, and had almost no defensive peer during his most productive seasons. He was an excellent handler of pitchers. Here he squats in a kind-of-smiling, kind-of-squinting way in Detroit. Bill came out of the gate fast in '73 and was still hitting above .300 by early June while getting the lion's share of starts behind the plate. But he also only posted eleven RBI's through then on zero homers. From that point on, though, his average began a season-long slump and though his power revived a bit he would pretty much split starts with Duke Sims. But he was named an All-Star for his tenth consecutive season, led AL catchers in fielding for the third time, and he would get a nice bounce in '74

Bill Freehan, like his pal and teammate, Willie Horton, was a product of Detroit. Bill, though, moved to Florida where in high school he was all-state in both football and baseball. College was a toss-up between Western Michigan and Michigan, but the former had no football program, so Bill opted to be a Wolverine. As a sophomore he hit .585 to lead Michigan to the Big Ten title. He was also stellar as an end and linebacker and would have loved to put in four years in Ann Arbor, but the Tigers stepped things up huge by offering Bill $150,000 to sign that spring of '61. His dad kept the money; Bill would only get it if he finished his degree at Michigan. Normally that amount got one in bonus baby territory but that summer he split time between C and Single A ball, hitting well at both stops. In September he came up to Detroit just as they ran out of gas chasing the Yankees. He got into a couple games and got a bunch of tutoring from Gus Triandos. '62 was spent at Triple A with no call-up since that season his team was in the finals. Bill again hit well - a .283 average with another high OBA (he would finish in the minors at .294 and .380, respectively). It would be his last season in the minors.

Freehan made the Tigers in spring training of '63 for good and midway through the year he took over as the number one catcher from Triandos. Shades of things to come, he shone defensively as he picked off 44% of guys trying to steal, a significant premium to the AL average. In '64 he became the first Tiger catcher to hit .300 since Mickey Cochrane 30 years earlier in what would be one of his best power seasons and his first All-Star year. It was also the first of three years he would lead the AL in getting hit by pitches. In '65 he hurt his back in spring training and his hand later in the season, resulting in some downtime and a significant discount to his offense. But he would add the first of five consecutive Gold Gloves to his award tally while leading the AL in catcher putouts the first of five consecutive seasons as well. In '66 it was the same story offensively but he won his first fielding title. Then in '67 he moved closer to the plate in the batter's box and saw huge improvement in his numbers, including a career-best .389 OBA. In '68 he came in second to his battery-mate Denny McLain in MVP voting as his average saw only a token decline and he added to his power stats. He only hit .083 in the post-season that year, but he did team with Willie Horton in nailing Lou Brock at the plate in what was deemed the turnaround play of the Series. But both '69 and '70 saw compression in his offensive numbers and that second season he had fusion surgery to remediate his continued back pain. While the surgery compromised his mobility a bit, it allowed him to post improved numbers in '71. In '72 he missed some time to a broken thumb and in '73 he experienced that slump that contributed to the platoon work he shared with Sims, of which Bill was not a fan. But in '74 the architect of that system, Billy Martin, was gone, Bill stepped up his playing time, and he had another nice revival, with a .297/18/60 season. Ironically he was not an All-Star that year - probably because he also spent a bunch of time at first base - but he would be again in '75, his final season as a starter. In '76 he split time with John Wockenfuss and Bruce Kimm, who was Mark Fidrych's personal catcher. That would be Bill's final season. He would hit .262 with 200 homers and 758 RBIs and a .340 OBA for his career. In the post-season he hit .139 with five RBI's in his ten games. He is 11th all-time in putouts as a catcher and tied with Elston Howard for best fielding percentage for catchers that played as many games as those two did.

So Freehan did get his bonus money, finishing his degree at Michigan during the '66 season. During his last couple seasons as a player, Bill started a automotive manufacturing rep business in the Detroit area in which he has been a principal ever since. In the early '90s he took some time off to assume head baseball coaching duties for his alma mater for five years after the previous coach left during an NCAA investigation. Bill restored the program and then returned to his business.

As noted above, Bill also led the AL in fielding percentage three times. The game from the cartoon was in '68 as well. That year he led the league in HBP with 24. Bill has a SABR bio.

This is as appropriate a place as any to name the Tigers' contribution to the centennial I have discussed on a couple posts. In '76 Detroit offered as its finest historical moment the '68 Series victory over the Cards.

This will be quicker than I thought:

1. Freehan and Ron LeFlore '74 to '76 Tigers;
2. LeFlore and Steve Rogers '80 Expos;
3. Rogers and Ray Burris '81 to '83 Expos.

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