It is Brian Downing Week here at Crashing the Pearly Gates! After a week off last week for the Winter Meetings, (We hoped there would be more news at the meetings, sorry) we are back at the countdown!
Before Pujols, before Mathis, before that one time Bengie Molina wore it, Brian Downing wore the number 5 proudly for the Angels from 1978-1990. (Except for 1980 and 1981 when he wore another number). While he did not quite make it to the number 5 spot on this list, he is certainly well remembered by older fans of the team.
Downing didn’t start his career with the Angels. This is despite the fact he played high school in Anaheim. Hell, he didn’t even get drafted at all and signed with the White Sox as an undrafted free agent in 1969. It would take nearly a decade until he came to the Angels in the Bobby Bonds trade after the 1977 season.
At that point he was a Catcher first. Brain did play in the Outfield and at DH from time to time though. As a young player something was already obvious, he had a great eye, and a sore body from the HBP. He had a slugging over .400 only once, in 1977, which was good enough for a 121 OPS+.
All Star Catcher
When he came to California, Brian Downing was made the starting catcher. He made 257 starts behind the plate in 1978 and 1979. 1978 was a good start for Brian Downing’s Angel career, posting an OPS+ of 98 and a Baseball Reference WAR of 2.8. Not bad for a catcher. However, 1979 was something else.
Brian Downing in 1979 was remarkable. An All Star reserve, an .880 OPS with a 142 OPS+, 5.6 Baseball Reference WAR, it was the greatest single season by a catcher in Angels history. That season got him MVP votes. His 6.4 offensive Baseball Reference WAR is tied for the 10th highest in Angels history. Seriously, only fish (Trout and Salmon) have a higher offensive Baseball Reference WAR.
Did you catch that? Downing didn’t, as his defensive behind the plate cost him in overall value. While they did not have the defensive metrics at the time we do now, it was obvious to the team that his bat was much better than his glove. A sort of, Mike Napoli situation. Unlike that Angel though, Brian Downing did move off catcher.
The Incredible Hulk
Freed from the knee pain that it entails, Brian Downing was able to hulk out in the 80’s, posting a dominant run for the Halos in the outfield. From 1980-1990, Brian Downing never once had an OPS+ under 100, averaging 126 and peaking at 137.
This was not just singles either, but power. 203 home runs, 214 doubles, an OPS of .816, for over a decade, and without his best season. Brian Downing was a steady force as a power leadoff hitter in the Angels lineup. Number 5 in the 80’s was a lot like the number 5 in the 2010’s, but able to run and age like an elite athlete.
It is his longevity that places him so far up here on the list. He is third on the list for games played, just behind Salmon and Anderson. 4th in home runs, 3rd in doubles, and 3rd in hits. He was the force of the team in the 80’s and even at the age of 39 and only as a DH, he still put up great numbers. An OPS of .841 and an OPS+ of 138 at that age is almost unheard of.
But this hulk was not just for smash, but made for walking too. Despite playing well into his 30’s Brian Downing has the 6th best OBP of any Angel. He is still second in walks only to Tim Salmon. While he could not steal well, his 19 triples in his final 9 seasons showed he could still run when need be.
Place in Angels history
Seriously, comparing the Angels seasons between Pujols and Downing, the production is stunningly similar in all but two aspects. Pujols was more clutch, hitting more home runs and gaining more RBI. Meanwhile Downing would work a walk and hit triples. I do not know about you but I would prefer a bit less power if it meant 50 more points in on base.
Brian Downing was a constant power hitter of the second most successful stretch of Angels history. He played in the first 3 Angels postseason teams, he was patient at the plate, and he took one for the team, or rather 105 ones, the most HBP in Angels history, 6 seasons with at least 10 HBP!
I wasn’t around to see him, and unfortunately, the archives didn’t care much for Angels highlights from that time. The only ones really available online are not flattering. Like the time he hit a cameraman with a foul ball. Or when he was thrown out at the plate in the 1979 All Star game. And the time before every home game where he collided into the wall.
Whatever place he is for you, Brian Downing is a massive part of Angels history. For older fans, he will always be #5.
“A sort of, Mike Napoli situation. Unlike that Angel though, Brian Downing did move off catcher.”
Nap was actually the Angels 2010 first baseman, getting the lions share of the starts there after Morales got hurt. Texas then used him as a catcher first for two seasons. He didn’t become a full time 1B/DH until 2013 with Boston.
But back on topic – Downing was a favorite of mine for a long time – I loved the open batting stance and the pedal to the medal style of play.
How can anyone not believe Downing being one of our greatest ever. My memory is a HR with arms that looked like Popeye with sleeves cut short. Which HR do I recall, none but all.
Downing broke his ankle on April 20th, 1980, and when he returned from his injury that’s when he started his transition from catcher to outfielder. When I was a kid, Downing came to a trading card shop in my hometown where I got my first autograph. He had one of the funnest batting stances to imitate.
Downing also has a great cameo in The Jeffersons.
Wheezy is trying to sneak in the Angels clubhouse to meet Reggie Jackson, and she ends up talking to a shirtless (and flexing) Brian Downing. Mike Witt also gets laughs by flashing Wheezy in the shower.
Unfortunately, Sony has pulled the clips from YouTube. If you can find it, it’s epic.
I was at the 1982 game where Lynn and Downing nearly broke the left field wall. I was sitting in the front row of the upper deck about halfway down the line, so I had a great view of the play. The game is tied 1-1 and Kansas City has a runner at first with two outs. If the ball drops, KC takes the lead. Lynn snags it and the threat is over. The Angels win it in the bottom of the 9th when Boone knocks in Gary Pettis.
Beyond that play, it was a pivotal series for the Angels. They were battling Kansas City for the AL West, and the Angels were tied with KC at the start of the three-game series with 13 games left in the season, including six against KC.
The Angels swept the series from KC and were three games up. That series sewed up the 1982 AL West for the Angels.
When #5 first came over to the Halos I didn’t think too much of him, just another player. One particular play changed my mind permanently. Don’t even remember who we were playing, Sunday road game on Channel 5. Ball gets popped back to the screen. Downing charges up the screen and the ball just ticks the chain link right above his glove. There was a camera behind home plate capturing the look of total determination on Brian’s face. That moment I knew this was a special player.
There is one play in his career that stands out to me. It has nothing to do with stats. It’s just one play that epitomizes his giving it all.
In that 1986 ALCS game…you know the one….we’d given up the lead in the 9th but tied it in the bottom half so we went to extra innings. Boston put men on base in the 11th and scored on a sac fly. Still, they were threatening to get more. I forget which player it was but one of those Boston dudes smacked a ball that should have scored two. Somehow Downing ran a long way and, as I recall, caught the ball as he slammed into the wall.
It stayed at 7-6 and gave us some hope. It was one of, dare I say it? I don’t want to be mocked for this but it was one of the grittiest plays I’ve ever seen. It was Asgaardian. It was Thor and Odin fending off the end of the world even though it might be inevitable.
Seconded, no wait, fifth’d.