played fifteen seasons for the Detroit Tigers
, mostly at catcher. He was the starting catcher on their 1968
World Championship team and was arguably the best non-pitcher in the major leagues that season
. During his career, Bill Freehan won five Gold Gloves and received MVP votes six times, with three top 10 finishes, including back-to-back finishes of 3rd and 2nd in 1967
. He was named to 11 All-Star teams in his 15-year career. This gives him the distinction of the most All-Star appearances for any player who retired before 2000 who is eligible for but not in the Hall of Fame.
Bill Freehan was elected to the Hall of Merit
in his 4th year of eligibility. How does Bill Freehan stack up as a possible Hall-of-Fame candidate when his career is evaluated by Player won-lost records?
The first table below presents Bill Freehan's
career as measured by Player won-lost records.
Basic Player Won-Lost Records
| ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ |
|CAREER (reg. season)|| || |
| || || || ------ || ------ || ------ || || || || ------ || ------ || || || |
|PostSeason (career)|| || |
|1.3||1.1||0.531|| ||0.2||1.0||1.0||0.495|| ||0.1|
| || || || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || || ------ || ------ || ------ || ------ || || ------ |
|COMBINED|| || |
Bill Freehan versus Hall of Fame Catchers
The most straightforward analysis of Bill Freehan's Hall-of-Fame case would seem to be to compare his career record to that of the catchers who are actually in the Hall of Fame. The next table compares Bill Freehan's career Player won-lost record to all of the post-World War II catchers who have been named to the Hall of Fame.
Honestly, that table isn't terribly favorable to Bill Freehan. It's hard to point to a Hall-of-Fame catcher whose career took place mostly in the past seventy years that had a worse career than Bill Freehan. Freehan's case would seem to be less an argument that Bill Freehan is better than some catchers already in the Hall of Fame and more of an argument that there are too few catchers currently in the Hall of Fame.
Bill Freehan: Best Catcher of the 1960's?
Probably the strongest "conventional" argument in favor of putting Bill Freehan in the Hall of Fame is the 11 All-Star teams that he was named to in his 15-year career. Obviously, All-Star team appearances are an imperfect measure of actual quality, but (a) it's hard to make 11 All-Star teams without deserving at least several of them and (b) Bill Freehan did, in fact, deserve to be on the American League all-star team many, probably most, of those seasons.
Building on the implicit argument that comes out of the last section - there are too few catchers in the Hall of Fame - the argument for Bill Freehan can be distilled down to an argument that he was the best catcher in the major leagues between Yogi Berra
- whose last season as a regular catcher was 1959
- and Johnny Bench
- whose first season as a regular catcher was 1968
. Limiting the comparison to the American League, Bill Freehan was (arguably) the best catcher in the American League between Berra and Carlton Fisk
Or, to simplify somewhat for the benefit of pretty round numbers, the Hall-of-Fame case for Bill Freehan is that he was the best catcher in the 1960s.
Is that true? The next table ranks every player who earned at least 50 eWins as a catcher between 1960
, ranked by total pWORL
accumulated in the 1960s.
One might be tempted to point out that the above table actually underrates Bill Freehan, given that he didn't become a regular catcher until 1963
and that he continued to be an above-average major-league player until 1974
. In fact, however, if you push the time frame back to coincide more perfectly with Bill Freehan's career (a) it becomes a lot more obvious cherry-picking and (b) Freehan's career overlaps significantly with Johnny Bench
, who was a much better catcher and baseball player in general.
So, was Bill Freehan the best catcher of the 1960s?
I would say probably not. Based on the above table, that would be Joe Torre
, who added an MVP award in 1971 that I think he probably deserved (as a third baseman). Bill Freehan does have a case as the best catcher in the American League of the 1960s. And if one thinks that the Hall of Fame should be inducting an average of two players per position per decade, then Freehan certainly at least belongs in the conversation for deserving the second slot for the 1960s (see, e.g., his eWOPA and eWORL totals).
Players Most Similar to Bill Freehan
I recently added a tool
to my website that calculates which players are most similar to a particular player in career Player won-lost records. The next table shows the ten most similar players to Bill Freehan in career Player won-lost records.
||Most Similar Players to Bill Freehan in Value
||Wins over Baseline
As Hall-of-Fame arguments go, this one isn't terribly strong. Of the ten players whose careers were most similar to Bill Freehan, exactly zero of them are in either the Hall of Fame or the Hall of Merit. None of them are bad players (of course) and you could perhaps make plausible HOF cases for some of them. But still.
The top two players on Freehan's most-similar list strike me as really good comps.
Bill Freehan vs. Darrell Porter
The closest statistical comp to Bill Freehan, based on career Player won-lost records, was former Brewers
, and Cardinals
catcher Darrell Porter
. Freehan played one more game than Porter in their respective careers (note: I only count games where a player actually appears in the game, not games where he may be announced as a pinch-hitter who is then pinch-hit for before appearing in the game). Both Freehan and Porter were good hitters - not merely good hitters "for a catcher" - with above-average OBP and SLG (.354/.409 for Porter vs. park-adjusted league-averages of .329/.388
; .340/.412 for Freehan vs. .325/.382
Freehan was perhaps more celebrated defensively in his time, leading Porter 5-0 in Gold Gloves but in terms of value on the field, they were very close. Freehan threw out 37%
of would-be basestealers for this career; Porter threw out 38%
They were also both the regular catcher for one World Series winner - the 1982 Cardinals
for Porter - although Porter also played for two other pennant winners
Overall, very similar players statistically. To some extent, the biggest difference between the two is that Porter shared a league with better opposition catchers: most notably Hall-of-Famers Carlton Fisk
and Gary Carter
. This shows up in one of the bigger differences in their conventional records: Bill Freehan was named to 11 All-Star teams; Darrell Porter was named to 4.
Bill Freehan vs. Lance Parrish
Although Darrell Porter
is a slightly better statistical match to Freehan, Lance Parrish
might be a better anecdotal match.
Bill Freehan played for the Detroit Tigers
for 15 seasons, during which time he made 11 All-Star teams, won 5 Gold Gloves, and received MVP votes 6 times. He was the starting catcher for a World Series winning Tigers team in 1968
Lance Parrish played for the Detroit Tigers
for 10 seasons (and then hung around with other teams for nine more seasons), during which time he made 6 All-Star teams (plus two more after leaving Detroit), won 3 Gold Gloves, and received MVP votes 3 times. He was the starting catcher for a World Series winning Tigers team in 1984
Bill Freehan is just a bit before my time as a fan and my image of him - formed as much by his stat line as anything else - is as a defense-first catcher. Lance Parrish, on the other hand, was the starting catcher for a divisional rival of my favorite team
during my age-10 through age-17 seasons. My image of Parrish is of a muscle-bound slugger; I remember Sparky Anderson giving him a hard time about lifting weights in the offseason. The image of Lance Parrish in my mind is of an offense-first home run hitting catcher.
Parrish probably had a bit more power than Freehan, having hit 30 home runs twice and 20 five other times, but Freehan hit as many as 25 home runs in a season in a much tougher offensive context (1968
) and hit 20 home runs two other times. He also hit for a higher career batting average (.262) and on-base percentage (.340) than Parrish (.252, .313) despite playing his career in a lower offensive context on average. The result, as shown in the similar-player table above, is that Freehan was the better offensive player for his career than Parrish. But Parrish measures as the better defensive catcher of the two according to Player won-lost records. It's an interesting lesson in how perceptions can be affected by context
or anecdotes that don't necessarily hold up to closer inspection.
So, do I think that Bill Freehan belongs in the Hall of Fame or not? I have mentioned in other articles that I think of myself as being a fairly big-Hall guy and that I prefer to evaluate players based on their strongest argument. If you can make a Hall-of-Fame case for a player that's stronger than "eh, if you tilt your head this way and ignore these three countervailing arguments, I guess I can see it", I'm inclined to support guys for the Hall of Fame.
Does Bill Freehan have such a case?
I think that he probably does. He really was the best catcher in the American League for a period of time that probably approaches a decade (at least 1964 - 1971) and was no worse than the second-best catcher in MLB over that time period. Based on context-neutral wins
over positional average
, I rank Bill Freehan as the best catcher in the major leagues at least three times - 1964
, with an argument for a fourth (1971
) - and in the conversation as the best catcher in the American League at least one more time (1969
). There are players in general and probably catchers in particular that I would be inclined to put in my personal Hall of Fame before I got around to inducting Bill Freehan. But he had a solid major-league career and the Hall of Fame could do a lot worse than inducting Bill Freehan.
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