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At first glance, the 1976 Pepe Frias baseball card appears to show the Montreal Expos infielder standing off-balance with his hands thrust into the air, together, at the left side of his head. They hold nothing except a round hunk of wood or maybe a miniature baseball.
And if you were a baseball fan in the 1970s or 1980s, or if you remember Pepe Frias at all, this seems about right.
Before Cal Ripken came along to make it OK for shortstops to be not short and to hit with power, and before Ryne Sandberg and Lou Whitaker helped to turn second base into at least a potential offensive position, the middle of the infield was a black hole when it made its way into the batting lineup.
The most you could hope for, usually, was to find a guy who could field flawlessly, make the occasional impossible play, and hit marginally better than your pitcher.
There was even a term for these types of players … good-field, no-hit.
Pepe Frias and his stat lines looked like a prototype for the model …
He was diminutive at 5’10” and 159 pounds.
He played in the middle infield, reaching a career high of 137 games at shortstop for the 1979 Atlanta Braves.
And he couldn’t hit worth a lick — his career numbers included a .240 average with one homer and 108 RBI over nine seasons.
But the story was even worse for Frias than that baseline implies.
See, most of the “good-field, no-hit” guys were pesky at the plate. They drew walks, stole bases, scored gobs of runs, and sprinkled in a decent mix of doubles and triples.
Not Pepe, though.
He drew a grand total of 49 walks while striking out 136 times, scored 132 runs, and banged out just 49 doubles … for his career. He also stole 12 bases against eight times caught stealing.
So the notion of Frias appearing on his 1976 Topps baseball card without a bat makes perfect sense and would have been perfectly honest.
Of course, if you look a bit closer, you can see that the bat really is there, just pushed into the plane of the card. Maybe this was serendipity, or maybe Topps was having a bit of fun with the light-hitting Frias and with collectors.
I sort of prefer the latter option, but who knows?
But the truth of that Bicentennial card, featuring a smiling Frias decked in red, white, and blue, extends well beyond his phantom bat.
For, with his hands thusly occupied in supporting the weight of a bat knob in the air for the Topps photographer to see, they had no opportunity to wear a glove or field a baseball.
And that was probably the best case scenario for the Montreal Expos in 1976, or the Braves, Texas Rangers, and Los Angeles Dodgers later on.
Because, while Frias fit the mold of “good-field, no-hit,” he couldn’t quite pull off the act when it came time for cowhide to meet horsehide.
The first clue we have about Frias’ ability in the field comes from his career line, which shows just 724 games played in those nine seasons. That’s less than half a full slate each year.
We know his bat wouldn’t have kept him in the lineup, but remember — hitting wasn’t really the main responsibility for middle infielders during the 1970s.
It was all about the leather, baby.
And therein lies our second clue about Pepe’s fielding prowess — his actual fielding stats.
Most seasons, Frias’ fielding percentage fell below the league average at shortstop and second base. Ditto for his range.
On the plus side, he did outpace the league in fielding percentage at third in 57 career games.
When you add it all up, Baseball Reference credits Frias with 0.1 WAR (bWAR) on defense, with 0.9 of that coming during his rookie season of 1974. For most of his career, it seems, Pepe was somewhat of a sink in the field.
And at the plate.
His overall bWAR comes in at -4.6, which is remarkable in the fact that teams kept letting him go out there and hack away — at bat and in the field — on a somewhat regular basis.
How did he manage to stick around for so long?
Well, for one thing, it was an era when a lot of baseball decisions were made on perception and tradition. Frias looked the part of a Major League middle infielder, and so that’s what he was.
He was also quite versatile, appearing at every position on the diamond except catcher, pitcher, and umpire.
And then we have to think about his teams.
The Expos winked into existence in 1969 and spent most of the seventies trying to figure stuff out. They had plenty of filler and not many wins, so Frias fit right in.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1979, the first season after Pepe left Montreal, that the Expos posted their first winning season.
Topps — All-Hit, All-Field, All-Wax, All-Gum, All-Everything
None of this is to say that Pepe Frias wasn’t a decent baseball player. He certainly had his moments, such as the one that Topps called out on the back of his 1976 card:
Pepe’s Double defeated Bucs, 7-4-74.
(Note the date symmetry and proper use of the proper noun, “Double.”)
And more than anything, Pepe Frias was a product of his time — he looked the part, so he got the part.
No, what this post is really about is pointing out another classic Topps card that is spot-on, even if you have to dig a bit to discover all of its pointed relevance.
In many ways, these old Topps cards are like episodes of The Simpsons or even more “innocent” fare like The Flintstones.
You enjoyed them as a kid, and you can still enjoy them the same way.
But if you tilt them a little to the side and squint, you just might find out that Barney is Lisa, or that Pepe Frias is holding … nothing.
(Check out our other player card posts here.)