Determining the catcher on our all-time Detroit Tigers team is a fascinating exercise. It might surprise you to know there are no less than five worthy candidates.
Four should immediately come to mind, each associated with an American League championship squad — and in three of those cases, a World Series winner.
Bill Freehan was the catcher on the 1968 champs. He was a defensive stalwart whose most famous play was blocking the plate to prevent Lou Brock from scoring — the single moment that turned around the World Series. He could also hit quite well, especially for that era when pitchers were so dominant. Born in Royal Oak and a graduate of the University of Michigan, where after his retirement he was head coach of the Wolverines. Freehan was one of the local heroes who made that 1968 team so compelling. His entire career of 13 full seasons and parts of two others was spent in Detroit, and he hit a very solid .262/.340/.412. He was an 11-time All-Star and won five Gold Gloves and three times finished in the top seven in MVP voting, topped by his second-place finish in ’68 behind battery mate and thirty-one-game winner Denny McLain. At the time of his retirement he was the all-time MLB leader in putouts and fielding percentage for a catcher. You could make a credible argument that Freehan was the best catcher in baseball in the 1960s and the most important fixture on those great Tiger teams of his era. Baseball Reference awards him a 44.7 career WAR. He threw out an outstanding 37 percent of opposing base runners.
Lance Parrish followed right in Freehan’s footsteps as a dependable long-term backstop for a championship squad. Their careers are quite similar, the big difference being that Parrish played only 10 seasons in Detroit (including his rookie year late-season call-up) and finished his career with nine seasons elsewhere. As a Tiger, he hit .252/.313/.440 — incredibly his OPS of .753 is almost identical to Freehan’s .752. His WAR for his Detroit years was 29.9 — like Freehan, he was essentially a three-win player, and he was one of the better catchers in baseball for a long time. As a Tiger, he was a six-time All-Star, won three Gold Gloves, and netted five Silver Sluggers. And for his entire MLB career, he threw out 39 percent of base stealers.
Parrish and Freehan are such similar players they are almost clones — and either would be a fine catcher on the Tigers’ all-time team.
But wait! There’s much more to explore at this rich position for the Tigers. Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane spent four seasons as a Tiger player at the close of his 13-year MLB career, hitting 313/.444/.430 as a Tiger. He was the MVP in 1934 (as well as in 1928 in Philadelphia. Black Mike threw out 39 percent of base stealers in his career. As a manager in Detroit, Cochrane made a difference immediately — his teams won the AL title twice and the World Series once, finished second in his other three years, and had a .582 winning percentage. And he has a street named after him that now serves as the main access point to the grounds at Michigan and Trumbull.
Pudge Rodriguez is much like Cochrane, spending almost five seasons with the Tigers as part of his 21-year career. He will also be enshrined in Cooperstown some day. By many metrics, he is arguably the best catcher in MLB history, with 2,427 games caught and 2,637 hits, more than any other backstop, and a 46 percent caught stealing rate — a combination of offensive and defensive performance that is hard to beat. He had a 68.3 career WAR and a .296/334/.464 career batting line. Pudge was a perennial All-Star and Gold Glover and was the league MVP with Texas in 1999. In his Tigers years, he was in his early to mid-thirties and had already started his long, slow decline. Yet he still hit .298/.328/.449.
You’ve probably never heard of Johnny Bassler. Neither had I until recently. But he spent seven seasons as the Tiger catcher in the 1920s, is fourth on the team’s all-time list of games played at the position (with 729, behind only Freehan, the very weak-hitting Oscar Stanage of the early 1900s, and Parrish) and batted .308/.420/.367—no power, but he was an on-base machine. He walked almost six times as often (422) as he struck out (seventy-three). And he threw out an astounding, Pudge-like 47 percent of opposing base stealers. He finished in the top seven in MVP voting three straight seasons. But he wore down quickly, retiring at age thirty-two.
What an embarrassment of riches! You couldn’t go wrong with any of these five — all were outstanding backstops in their Tiger years. Two are Hall of Famers who spent most of their careers with other teams: Cochrane is the best offensive player of the five and Pudge the best all-around. But in the end Freehan earns the honor by a whisker for his longevity, his stalwart defense, and his dependability — not to mention that big toe that nudged Brock off home plate.