Jim Fregosi died last Friday at age 71, after a half-century in major league baseball as a player, manager and front-office adviser. (Read his obituary in the Los Angeles Times and his SABR biography.) Some reflections on Fregosi’s career, and tangential wanderings:

 

Signed by the Red Sox out of high school in 1960, Fregosi played a year in their system, then went to the Angels late in the first expansion draft. Reaching the majors at 19, he became the face of that fledgling franchise, and still holds their career records for Wins Above Replacement and triples. He was the first manager to lead the Angels into postseason play, and his number 11 was retired by the team in 1998.

Starting with his first full season, Fregosi received MVP votes each year from 1963-70, age 21-28. Six times an All-Star in that span, he ranked 7th in total WAR, while leading all shortstops in times on base, RBI, total bases, doubles, triples, extra-base hits, OPS+ and WAR (second in runs, hits and walks).

In 1970, Fregosi set career highs with 22 HRs, 82 RBI and 95 runs, capping an 8-year run of good health averaging 157 games. But the next year he was injured and way off his game. The Mets thought he could bounce back at age 30, sending Nolan Ryan, slugging prospect Leroy Stanton and two others to the Angels to land him. But he would never again play a full season, totaling less than 3 WAR in his last seven campaigns, spent with the Mets, Rangers and Pirates. Starting with ’71, his games played dwindled through 107, 101, 90, 78, 77, 58, 49 and 20.

But he should be remembered as a star player and pennant-winning manager, not as a footnote to a franchise’s futility. Despite a hasty decline from his peak form, Fregosi ranked 15th in WAR among all shortstops when he hung up his spikes in 1978, and still rates #21 on that list.

Fregosi had logged about two-thirds of a Hall of Fame career when the injuries hit. At the least, an annual All-Star who’s tops in his field through most of a decade would have a strong HOF case, if he could muster a normal decline phase. Out of 140 shortstops with at least 4,000 PAs in their first 10 years, Fregosi stands:

  • 13th in OPS+ (better than 14 of the 19 HOF shortstops meeting that standard); and
  • 7th in both WAR and offensive WAR (better than 14/19 and 15/19 HOFers, respectively).

Of the 106 retired non-HOFers in that group, Fregosi was #1 in both WAR and oWAR.

The averages for his 8-year prime might not trumpet greatness at a glance: a .271 batting average, 13 HRs, 80 runs and 61 RBI. But it was a pitchers’ era, and he played all 8 years in pitchers’ parks. The Angels averaged 3.47 runs per game in that span, nearly half a run below the AL mark. Translated to a neutral environment, his peak norms swell to .292 BA, 15 HRs, 95 runs and 72 RBI. (See “Neutralized Batting” on this page.) Placed in the context of Nomar’s prime, Fregosi’s peak figures equate to a .317 BA (with almost 200 hits a year), 116 runs, 88 RBI, 32 doubles, 11 triples and 17 HRs.

Despite what the scoring drought did to his stats, Fregosi’s all-around talent was clear from the start. In 1962, a New York Times reporter gushed upon seeing the 19-year-old in spring training, “The San Francisco Italian colony, incubator of superb baseball talent, seems to have produced another prodigy, James Louis Fregosi, shortstop extraordinaire.”

When Fregosi was 22, en route to his first All-Star nod, Frank Deford wrote that if he played for the Dodgers instead of the Angels, “the city would cast his footprint or his gloveprint or something in cement outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.”

Al Rosen, the star player and general manager, said of Fregosi at 25 (when he won the Gold Glove), “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a shortstop who can do as much.” And Ernie Banks thought Fregosi was “one of the few who might be able to hit .400 some year.”

When he retired, Fregosi’s 151 HRs placed him 3rd among career shortstops, and none then active owned more than 108 taters. He’s now #22 on that list, with nine actives ahead of him.

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Fregosi’s big-time career had a bumpy start. He was called up late in ’61 despite 53 errors at triple-A. (He’d been boosted all the way up from class D the year before, and was the youngest position player at that level.) In his debut, he booted the second grounder he saw to let in a run, and tapped back to Jim Kaat in all three at-bats. He erred again in his next start, leading to 2 unearned runs in a 6-4 loss, and was pulled for a pinch-hitter after going 0 for 2. No miscues the next time out, but he fanned in all three trips against Jim Bunning, falling to 0 for 9 at bat as the Angels lost their 6th straight. He finally broke through with a rally-fueling hit off Dave Sisler, and scored the go-ahead run to help snap the skid. In all, he went 6 for 27, all singles, with one walk and two GDPs.

He began ’62 back in the minors, making 22 errors in 54 games, but he came up for good on July 1. In Yankee Stadium that Sunday, his 8th-inning double gave the Angels a lead, which carried them into a tie for 1st place. He hit .291 that year, and the surprising Angels stayed in the race well into September, finishing 3rd at 86-76.

That would be the most wins of any team for which Fregosi played a significant role. The Angels had three more years over .500 during his 11-year tenure, but never came close to the playoffs. The ’72 Mets ran a distant 3rd, then dealt Fregosi halfway through ’73, before starting their kick to the pennant. The Texas team that he joined finished 57-105, then rallied to 84-76 under Billy Martin, but fell back under .500 the next two years. Fregosi played out the string as a Pittsburgh reserve in 1977-78. The ’77 club won 96 but finished 5 games behind the Phillies. On July 8 and 24, he drew game-winning walks as a pinch-hitter — the only such walks for the Bucs, and the only MLB player with two that year.

Fregosi repeated that feat on Opening Day ’78 against Bruce Sutter — the only time that ever happened to the future HOF closer — but he was soon buried deep on the bench, and the Pirates were scuffling under .500. May 31 brought his first start in a month, but after working a walk in his first trip (and committing two errors at 3B), he was pulled from the game. Next day came his release; but it was less a sad ending than the start of a new career: Fregosi returned to the Angels as manager, replacing Dave Garcia.

After seven straight losing seasons, the Angels under Fregosi ran a strong second that year, and the ’79 squad rode an offensive outburst to their first division crown, ending the Royals’ 3-year reign. He would go on to manage 2,122 games (#50 in MLB history) with the Angels, White Sox, Phillies and Blue Jays, taking the ’93 Phils to the World Series.

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A Fork on the Road to Cooperstown

Jim Fregosi totaled 44.8 WAR from age 21-28. How many players with 44+ WAR in any 8-year span failed to make the Hall of Fame? Just nine are no longer on the HOF ballot nor the restricted list:

Through age 28, Fregosi’s 45.0 WAR is 2nd to Vada Pinson among players who’ve fallen off the HOF ballot. And of the 81 players to amass 35 WAR by age 28, few saw their productive years end as abruptly:

40+ WAR in their 20s: Out of 79 retired players meeting that standard, just two tacked on less afterwards than Fregosi’s 2.9 WAR: McGraw, who basically retired at 30 to focus on managing; and Darryl Strawberry, held to 335 games in his 30s by injuries and illness. Five more in this group had less than 6 WAR in their 30s: Nomar Garciaparra, Cedeno, Knoblauch, Andruw Jones and Ralph Kiner. The seven listed here from the All-Star era totaled 37 All-Star nods in their 20s, but just two thereafter.

Through age 30, Fregosi had about the same HOF credentials as Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg or Robinson Cano. Alomar’s age-30 season was so-so (.282 BA, 100 OPS+), and he missed 50 games the year before. Suppose that his cliff-dive had begun then, as he moved from Baltimore to Cleveland, instead of 3 years later with the Mets. Sandberg got hurt at 33 and fell off sharply; suppose that had come 2 or 3 years sooner. Cano is about to become “THE Guy” for the first time, in a park and an organization that have dragged down stars before him. If he should crumble, what will the narrative be?

Or consider Dick Allen, probably the best hitter spanning his 1964 ROY through his 1972 MVP. Through age 30, he had 271 HRs (18th all-time to that point), averaging 30 a year while hitting around .300 in difficult circumstances. What could keep him from Cooperstown? Injuries. Questions of his desire and teamwork. More injuries. After tallying 51.5 WAR through age 30, Allen added just 7.2 more, and never scored 20% on a Hall ballot.

In the big picture, few have kept to the Cooperstown path through their 20s, only to be sidetracked. Those who have, such as Fregosi, serve to remind us fans not to look too far ahead. You never know what might happen next year.

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Games, Stats & Stuff

– Fregosi twice hit for the cycle. That dual feat is shared by 21 others since 1916, but no other Angels. The only others to repeat as a shortstop were Arky Vaughan and Joe Cronin; from 1951-70, Fregosi was the only SS with even one cycle. In both cycles, he got the single last. The first one came against the ’64 Yankees, while the second was a ’68 game-winner. No other Angel cycled until Disco Dan Ford in 1979, with Fregosi managing, and none had one in regulation innings until Dave Winfield in 1991.

– On June 10, 1964, Fregosi drove in 6 runs in a 7-4 win, tied for the most RBI by a SS from 1957-79. Three days later came his first 2-HR game.

– He’s one of nine players with three “walk-off” walks since 1950; only Ron Swoboda had four. Fregosi did not excel as a pinch-hitter (.205 with 2 HRs in 112 ABs), but all three game-winning walks came in that role. The last such pinch-hit event in MLB came in 2009.

– In 1963, Fregosi grounded into 3 DPs in a game, an Angels record that he held alone for 30 years, and now shares with three others (including this recent doozy by Josh Hamilton).

– Fregosi stole home in 1965, after going 1st-to-3rd on a flyout. But the Orioles rallied to give Don Larsen his last big-league victory.

– He avenged Kaat’s debut dominance by hitting .316 across their 42 game meetings, stroking the last of his 78 triples in their final face-off. Fregosi had the last of the 4,291 hits off Early Wynn, and the first of the 699 doubles against Tommy John. He faced Ryan just once, drawing one of four walks he issued in a 9-run 2nd inning. In all, Fregosi faced 25 pitchers who finished with 200+ wins, 12 with 250+, and six with 300+ wins. Against the 200-game winners, he batted .264 and slugged .405, about the same as his career stats.

– He turned a 6-4-3 DP to wrap up Clyde Wright’s 1970 no-hitter. Wright won 22 that year, still an Angels record (now shared by Ryan). Wright and Fregosi were teammates for five seasons in Anaheim, and again with the ’75 Rangers. But in between, Fregosi rudely handled the erstwhile ace, going 7 for 14 with 3 HRs.

– Fregosi had a hand in two notable near-misses by Dean Chance:

  • On Sept. 10, 1962, with the Angels still in the race, Fregosi had his first home run and 3 RBI, while Chance chugged into the 8th with a no-no, bidding to match the Cinco de Mayo feat of his rollicking roommate, Bo Belinsky. But with one out, Zoilo Versalles grounded to the left side and beat it out. The play was scored “single+E6,” and the lone game write-up I’ve found doesn’t mention a tough scoring call, so I’ll guess it was a clean hit, with the error coming on a desperation throw. (Five years later, Versalles was a defensive-replacement SS in the 9th when Chance nailed down his Twins no-hitter with three groundouts that involved every infielder except Zoilo.)
  • And on June 6, 1964, with Fregosi missing his 15th straight start due to injury, Chance stoned the Yankees through 14 innings, but got no decision. Fregosi pinch-hit with 2 outs in the 13th and the winning run on 2nd, but bounced out to Clete Boyer, and New York won in the 15th with 2 runs charged to the two-way phenom Wonderful Willie Smith. Chance’s 14 goose eggs are a stand-alone club record, while just two other games since 1948 had a scoreless stint of 14+ innings and no decision.

– Fregosi’s second career walk-off hit gave Lew Burdette the last of his 203 wins, and his 38th in a relief role. Burdette’s 253 relief outings are 6th among 200-game winners, trailing Charlie Hough, Jack Quinn, Charlie Root, Kenny Rogers and Jim Kaat.

– Fregosi’s first pro team, the 1960 Alpine Cowboys, won the class-D Sophomore League race at 76-52, but none of his teammates reached the majors. Other future notables in that league were Jesus Alou and the All-Stars Dick Dietz and Jose Santiago. The league folded after 1961, and the minors were reorganized after 1962, eliminating all letter classifications below “A.”

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As if by fate, Nolan Ryan got the start in Fregosi’s first game at the helm. He was roughed up that night, in the midst of a mediocre year. After a Jekyll-and-Hyde ’79 — 17 complete games with a 13-4, 1.44 mark, but 3-10 with an 8.05 ERA in his other 17 starts, averaging 4-1/3 IP — and with four years elapsed since his last no-hitter, the club let him go as a free agent. Leaving behind a 2-year record of 26-27 with a 3.66 ERA, and turning 33 before he threw a pitch for the Astros, Ryan would go on to pitch just as much and as well thereafter as he had to that point, piling up more strikeouts from age 33 onward than all but 12 other pitchers had for their whole careers at the time he retired.

One of Fregosi’s first moves as skipper was to make Brian Downing his full-time catcher. Downing, in his first year with the Angels and no dandy on defense, had started just 21 of 46 games under Garcia, but Fregosi wrote him into 102 of the last 116 contests. In the ’79 pennant run, Downing had one of the best hitting years by a catcher that decade (and by far the best of any Angels backstop), batting .326 with a .418 OBP, 87 runs and 6.4 offensive WAR. That helped them lead the majors in scoring and set a club record that would last 30 years, despite a home park that skewed sharply towards pitchers. Their 458 runs on the road were the most since 1957, and were surpassed just once before 1996.

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The Mets-laid Plans…

Just what the Mets had in mind when they dealt for Fregosi is hard to gauge from this distance. Incumbent shortstop Bud Harrelson wasn’t much with the stick, but a legitimate Gold Glover wasn’t going anywhere. Instead, Fregosi would take over third base from young Wayne Garrett, who had followed a strong sophomore year with a lost ’71, missing half to military service and hitting .213 with 1 homer when he returned. Garrett, who came through the minors as a middle infielder, would share 2B duties with Ken Boswell, although both hit left-handed and Boswell had been a solid player in the last three years.

Whatever the exact plan was, it worked like a charm for a month. On May 19, Fregosi was hitting .304 and slugging .500, and the Mets were in a win streak that would leave them at 25-7, six games clear of the field. But Fregosi and the rest of the infield fell into a slump that lasted all summer; Pittsburgh overtook the Mets on July 2 and pulled away.

Midway through ’73, Fregosi was hitting .234 without a home run, while the Mets were 12 games under .500 and 12 back in the race. So when Harrelson returned from injury, relieving him of his temp-SS duty, Fregosi was sold to Texas. (Four days later, to underscore how badly the deal had turned out for New York, Ryan hurled his second no-hitter of the season.) Garrett, now restored to his accustomed third base without rival, rebounded to lead the club in WAR/pos, as the Mets gradually turned it around and caught fire in September, clinching the division on the final day and fighting through to the 7th game of the World Series.

Fregosi’s batting revived as soon as he left the Mets. He was 3 for 3 with a HR in his Texas debut, and posted a 112 OPS+ for the rest of his career. But he was no longer a shortstop, nor an every-day player, so his Flushing flop came to stand as an ending. And perhaps the Mets’ success after letting him go, coupled with Ryan’s rapid rise, clipped Fregosi’s national reputation before it really had time to sink in.

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Finally, a random day encountered in this research:

On Sept. 5, 1961 — a week before Fregosi’s debut — rookie first-sacker Lee Thomas notched the Angels’ first 5-hit game in a twin-bill opener, then slammed 3 HRs for 8 RBI in the nightcap. Thomas hit a tying solo in the 3rd, a tying grand slam in the 6th, and with the Angels down by 2 in the 8th, a go-ahead 3-run shot. But with 2 outs in the 9th, after a single by Leo Posada (Jorge’s uncle) and a pinch-flyout by pitcher Joe Nuxhall (5 for 20 with 6 walks as a PH that year), Bobby Del Greco’s 2-run clout produced the only walk-off RBI of his 9-year career.

Thomas’s 8 RBI tied the searchable record for a losing effort (shared by three others). His 0.864 WPA is 6th-best in a regulation loss for the searchable era … and a little more than half a Shamsky.

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