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.