Jim Fregosi was the best shortstop in baseball during the 1960s. (Walter Iooss Jr./SI)
For baseball fans of the last four decades, Jim Fregosi was best known for two things: being the player the Mets received from the Angels in December 1971 in exchange for four players, one of whom was Nolan Ryan, and for a managerial career that peaked when he led the Phillies to the 1993 World Series. Fregosi, though, who died Friday morning after suffering multiple strokes on a Major League Baseball alumni cruise, actually made his greatest mark on baseball as the Angels' shortstop in the 1960s.
From 1963 to 1970, Fregosi hit .271/.341/.409 as California's everyday shortstop, numbers that may not look all that special today, but that translated during that pitching-dominated era to a 119 OPS+. Converted to a neutral run-scoring environment, that line equates to .292/.365/.441, which is roughly equivalent to Dustin Pedroia's neutralized career line. Fregosi made six All-Star teams in those eight seasons, starting for the American League in 1964 and '68, and he picked up MVP votes every year, topping out with a seventh-place finish in 1967, when he also won the Gold Glove.
Even that undersells just how good Fregosi was during those years, his age-21 to -28 seasons. An outstanding fielder with on-base skills and pop in his bat (he hit a career-high 22 home runs in 1970 and led the AL with 13 triples in 1968), Fregosi was the most valuable shortstop of the 1960s according to Baseball-Reference.com's wins above replacement, despite not becoming a full-timer until '63. Among those who played more than half of their games at shortstop from 1960-69, Fregosi's 37.3 bWAR was the best, out-pacing Dodgers All-Star Maury Wills (36.7) and Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio (34.5), both of whom were full-timers in all 10 of those seasons. As such, Fregosi may be one of the most underappreciated players of all time, a result of his early decline and what turned out to be a disastrous trade for the Mets.
Fregosi's career began to sag in 1971, when a tumor was found in his right foot. He played in just 107 games that year and hit a miserable .233/.317/.326. Expecting a rebound in 1972, his age-30 season, the Mets acquired him and moved him to third base, but Fregosi hurt his thumb in spring training, struggled with his new position and failed to improve upon his hitting or his attendance from the previous year. Coming into camp in 1973, Fregosi admitted that he had let himself get out of shape during the preceding seasons, but his renewed dedication (and sobriety) in '73 did not yield better results, and he was sold to the Rangers in July. Fregosi's bat recovered in Texas as he posted a 111 OPS+ for the Rangers, but he was never again a full-time player and, after three starts at the position in late 1973, never again a shortstop.
Fregosi was riding the bench for Pittsburgh in 1978 when Angels owner Gene Autrey, who had long seen Fregosi as a managerial prospect, asked the Pirates to release him so that the Angels could hire him as their manager. The Bucs agreed and two days later, on June 2, 1978 Fregosi was back in the dugout as California's skipper.
Fregosi's first season as Angels manager was marred by the tragic death of outfielder Lyman Bostock, but he rallied his team the next year and led the Halos to their first postseason appearance. The '79 Angels, who still boasted Ryan in their rotation and had since added free agents Bobby Grich and Don Baylor in 1977 and Rod Carew for the '79 season, broke the Royals' three-year hold on the American League West but lost to the Orioles in the Championship Series.
Fregosi would go on to manage parts of 15 seasons for the Angels, White Sox, Phillies and Blue Jays, guiding Philadelphia to the pennant in 1993, his only World Series appearance as a player or manager. He would also serve in the front office for the Giants (in 1997 and '98). After his last stint as skipper ended with Toronto in 2000, he spent the last 13 seasons as a special assistant to the general manager for the Braves. Altogether, he spent 51 of his 71 years in professional baseball, including all but two years from 1960, when he was an 18-year-old Red Sox minor leaguer (the Angels acquired him in that December's expansion draft) to his death on Friday morning.
Fregosi, whose number 11 was retired by the Angels in 1988, was a true baseball lifer. As such, it was easy to take for granted his value to the game, though few who knew him personally ever did. The greatest injustice ever done to his standing in baseball however, was his legacy as the booby prize for a 25-year-old fireballer who couldn't throw strikes. The Mets targeted Fregosi in that trade because, for eight years, he was the best shortstop in baseball.
In fact, had his 30s been half as good as his 20s, Jim Fregosi would have been a Hall of Famer. Given his combined contributions to the game over more than half a century, its tempting to say he should be anyway.