For B-R's Joe Freiday, a marked mutation

BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -– Long before he was a rock behind the plate for a state championship team, before he was an NCAA Division 1 commit and before he started showing up on the radar of pro scouts, Bridgewater-Raynham’s Joe Freiday was predispositioned to be a catcher.

“Back in little league, you usually throw the short, pudgy kid behind the plate,” Freiday said. “That was me. I was short, I was a little chunkier, and it really just started as I’d play anywhere just to play.”

Added cousin and B-R teammate Jack Connolly through a laugh: “He was always the cousin who wasn’t as athletic.”

Connolly, a junior pitcher with an electric arm, is already committed to pitch at Notre Dame. Connolly’s older brother Mike followed up his career for the Trojans by playing for the University of Maine, and is currently a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants organization after being drafted last spring.

A growth spurt from eighth to ninth grade for Freiday saw him shoot up eight inches in less than a year, meaning he’d never again be referred to as short or pudgy. The physical tools that came with it mean his athleticism would no longer be questioned.

At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Freiday is a lean backstop oozing enough baseball skill that he committed to Virginia Tech last summer, following a breakout spring in which he picked up ESPN All-State honors after hitting .455 with five homers to lead B-R to its first ever MIAA Div. 1 state title.

Even with the physical gifts on the way as he grew, Freiday hardly seemed destined to explode onto the scene last season, after spending much of his sophomore season on the junior varsity squad, only coming up to varsity when an injury to starting catcher Brandon Hoyle created a need for the Trojans.

“He wasn’t a varsity regular or stud as a sophomore,” said B-R coach John Kearney. “With Eddie Campbell, Mike Connolly who we had for a couple of years, Drew Larson I had back six, seven years ago, those kids all played as freshman. Jack Connolly pitched for me as a freshman. They were already as freshman ready to roll. Joe was not. Even as a sophomore, he had a long way to go.”

Added Connolly: “All I remember is him being not the most athletic catcher in the world. He got so much better over the course of a year or two and he grew up, gained some weight and, now he’s a division one guy, maybe getting drafted.”

Total transformation

Developing physically was the first step toward baseball success for Freiday, but becoming a student of the game allowed him to transform into one of the most complete players in the state. A talent who at times shows all five tools a scout looks for in a baseball player (hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and fielding).

The hitting came most naturally for him, but after making mincemeat of fastballs in the early going last year, teams started pitching around Freiday, offering up off-speed pitches out of the strike zone in an effort to get him out.

“He did have to work more at the defensive part, but offensively he’s still had to learn how to be a good hitter,” said Kearney. “His biggest thing last year was that he had to learn how to hit when teams didn’t want to give him anything to hit. It’s a big adjustment. Word got out that you just can’t throw fastballs to this kid, and he saw a lot of junk and a lot of slop, and he had to learn how to pick his spots.”

Growing up, Freiday’s running speed was anything but an asset. “I was pretty slow. I was a lumbering catcher,” he said.

A commitment to offseason workouts, both to strengthen his legs and develop agility, has turned him into an at least average runner, with his 60-yard dash times clocking faster than most catchers.

Freiday’s arm is perhaps his best tool, and the summer after his sophomore year he posted an impressive 1.93 pop time at a Perfect Game showcase -– a number that many big leaguers can’t throw.

“When I threw that 1.93 at the Perfect Game showcase, I was all over the place,” said Freiday. “I had no clue what I was doing. I’ve really focused on getting my feet to be quicker, getting myself in line to make good throws, and getting the most out of my arm strength.

“I really like to watch college and pro catchers and see what they do. I take everything in and see exactly what they’re doing when they make a perfect throw. I watch where their feet are, the arm angle, where their release point is. I just try to get everything down from that point of view."

The resulting pop times have moved south toward 1.8 seconds, occasionally dipping underneath the mark, allowing Freiday to control the running game of many opponents.

“He has absolutely one of the best arms that you’re going to find in the state of Massachusetts for a catcher,” Kearney said. “It’s a cannon. It got to the point last year, and I’d like to see it this year, where teams weren’t running on him very often. They were testing him early, then word got out on him. In the state tournament, we played six games and I would say in those six tournament games he probably had eight to ten attempted steals and he threw out 75 percent of them. Pop time, arm strength -– he’s second to none I think in the state. He doesn’t even have to pop up. From his knees he could throw guys out.”

His defense and receiving skills were the ones not so obviously enhanced when his body type changed, and it’s this part of the game Freiday has had to work hardest at.

“Something he really had to work on was blocking and keeping it in front of him,” Kearney said. “When he was younger, he used to have a lot of balls go off the end of his glove. I think it was a concentration issue. I was pleasantly amazed with how improved he was coming in to last year at that.”

Kearney continued, “It starts from within with him. He’s got to want and be able to accept the challenge from inside himself, and he does that. He embraces it. We were pretty hard on him his sophomore year and the beginning of his junior year. In a very kind and loving way, we were criticizing a lot of the things he had to work on defensively, and he did it. It’s not just with us all year round he’s work with other catchers, college and pro guys. He’s learned from a lot of sources.”

Best yet to come?

Freiday’s game continued to elevate after his breakout junior year and after he’d committed to Virginia Tech. By the end of last summer, he’d caught the attention of enough people in pro baseball to get invited to some elite showcases -- including East Coast Pro, an even featuring many of top high school players in the country. He also made stops at showcases at both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.

The scouts at these events pushed his game to a new a level.

“They all just critiqued me on little, little things to make my game that much better,” said Freiday. “The small parts people don’t usually notice unless you’re a catcher.”

Freiday sponged up everything he could about baseball, about catching, and about the mental game of pitch calling. Like his hero, Jason Varitek, Freiday developed a cerebral approach to catching.

“He studied hitters’ tendencies. He really got to know what guys were trying to do. It’s no wonder he’s caught a record number of no-hitters,” Freiday said. “I tried to do some scouting. I’d go to games of teams I knew were coming up in the future and I tried to get their tendencies down. I watched hitters’ swings. When I went to the pro events this summer, I would sit with pro scouts and scout with them. The next game I caught a combined staff no-hitter with three pitchers at Metropolitan Classic.”

When the summer showcases concluded, Freiday didn’t take for granted that he’d already committed to school, instead pushed himself throughout the offseason. He added nearly 15 pounds of good weight, balancing strength workouts, baseball drills and even averaged a double-double for Trojans hoops team; all with an eye toward continuing his baseball transformation.

“Joey eats, sleeps, drinks baseball. Everything is baseball,” said Connolly. “The kid is in love with baseball. I’ve worked out with him every winter and this year was the hardest we ever worked. Every day, it was just ‘let’s go hit’ or ‘let’s go throw.’ It’s always baseball. Everything he thinks about is baseball, baseball, baseball.”

And it’s because of that that the Trojans’ captain even though he began catching because of his physical stature, Freiday has proven over the last year –- destiny or not -– that he belongs behind the plate.