Despite what the baseball card of Clem Freeman in the featured photo for this article might suggest at first glance, Freeman is actually a pitcher. But when looking for images of minor league players from 1981 there aren’t exactly many to choose from. Freeman was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1981 out of the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota. The Reds still go to campus to find talent down there, recently selecting both Brantley Bell and Mitch Piatnik from the school in 2015. Former Red Tom Hume also played there in the early 70’s.
After being signed midseason following the draft, Clem Freeman was assigned to the Tampa Tarpons. The Florida State League has long been one of the most pitcher friendly leagues in Minor League Baseball. That was true in 1981, just as it’s true today. But let’s give the league some context, too. In 1981 the league ERA was 3.60. The best in the league, from a team standpoint, came from the Fort Lauderdale Yankees who led the way with a 2.62 ERA. No other team was below 3.00, and two teams – the Vero Beach Dodgers and the Miami Orioles – were both over the 4.00 mark. The Tarpons were second best in the league with a 3.09 ERA as a team.
One of the reasons that the Tarpons had a low ERA that season was because of Clem Freeman. He only threw 43.0 innings that season since he joined the team after the draft, but he was dominant. How dominant you ask? Well let’s get into the stats and see. He pitched in 25 games and didn’t allow a home run. In those 25 games he didn’t hit a single batter with a pitch. Freeman walked nine batters in his 43.0 innings and nearly half of them – four – were intentional walks. And in an era where strikeouts weren’t high, he fanned 38 batters.
Oh yeah, we forgot about that whole big question of how many runs did he allow didn’t we? Well, the answer was two. And both of them were unearned. That’s correct. In 1981 Clem Freeman threw 43.0 innings in the Florida State League without allowing a single earned run. For those of you who made it past third grade, you know that gives him an ERA of 0.00. He also allowed just 26 hits, giving him a WHIP of 0.82. And that WHIP was only that high because his manager asked him to intentionally walk four players.
Among pitchers that also threw at least 43.0 innings in the league that season, the next best ERA was 1.27 by future Major Leaguer Jeff Heathcock. The next lowest WHIP in the league was 1.03 by Larry Williams, followed again by Heathcock and future big leaguer Stefan Wever. It’s tough to really put into context how good that season was for Clem Freeman, even if it amounted to just half of a season.
Stacking up with the contenders
If you’ve been following along this series you’ve probably noticed that it’s been a theme that I’ve discounted guys from rookie ball from winning the top nod. And the reason there is that the competition level factors into what I use in the math in my head as to how good a season was – and then there’s the fact that they only play half of a season and that just holds things back a little bit. Freeman didn’t play in a full season, and that worked against him. But he did play in a full-season league and that helped. But having a 0.00 ERA over “only” 43.0 innings – it’s just tough to be better than that.
Clem Freeman may have gotten the top nod, but he wasn’t the only pitcher who dominated out of a bullpen in the Reds farm system in the 1980’s. Let’s look at how some of the other guys performed.
Jeff Montgomery had the best big league career of anyone on the list. The right-handed reliever posted 20.5 WAR in his 13-year big league career that saw him make multiple All-Star teams and pick up 304 career saves – leading the league with 45 of them in 1993. But before he reached the Majors he was completely embarrassing hitters for the Billings Mustangs the year that he was drafted.
Back in 1983 he posted a 2.42 ERA – an ERA that sticks out as being much worse than anyone else on the above list. But look at what he did that year. He threw 44.2 innings with 13 walks and 90 strikeouts. That’s more than two strikeouts per inning. If that happened today it would be an insane number. That it happened in 1983 is absolutely bonkers. Despite being a full-time reliever, Montgomery finished 4th in the league in strikeouts. As you likely guessed, he led the league in strikeouts per 9-innings pitched.
A few years later Rob Lopez was dominating out of the Mustangs bullpen and rotation. He saw split action in 1985 for Billings, making eight starts and eight relief appearances. The undrafted free agent was 22-years-old, so he was a bit older for the league – but he got the job done and then some. He posted a 1.32 ERA that season across 75.0 innings with just one home run allowed, eight walks, and he struck out 78 batters. Among pitchers with at least 45 innings pitched he led the league by more than half of a run in ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9.75 also led the league, with the next closest pitcher coming in at 5.00. Fun fact: His middle name is reportedly Falcon.
Both Barry Fick and Steve Foster had ERA+ marks over 400 for Billings – but neither topped the 50-inning mark that many other relievers did in the 80’s at the minor league level. Fick only pitched one more season in the minors before his career came to an end. Foster would go on to pitch in parts of three seasons with the Reds from 1991-1993 where he posted a career 2.41 ERA in 89.2 innings.
Scott Jeffery was absolutely lights out for Greensboro back in 1988. The then 22-year-old right-handed reliever pitched in 38 games that season, throwing 90.0 innings with six saves and a 1.30 ERA. He allowed just 55 hits – and no home runs – while striking out 70 batters with 32 walks (six were intentional). He only pitched in four seasons professionally with 1990 being his last. For his minor league career his ERA was 2.81, and even in his last season that was split between A ball and Double-A he posted a 2.89 ERA in 161.2 innings.
Here are the other winners for Season of the Decade:
|2010’s||Devin Mesoraco||Tony Cingrani||Donnie Joseph|
|2000’s||Adam Dunn||Travis Wood||Robert Manuel|
|1990’s||Jason LaRue||Curt Lyons||Victor Garcia|
|1980’s||Danny Tartabull||Mike Dowless||Clem Freeman|
|1970’s||Gary Redus||Keefe Cato|