Yesterday we looked at the fourth-ranked Angels acquisition in team history, legendary second baseman Bobby Grich.
Today, we continue to climb the list, up to the top three. Serious stuff now. And at our number-three spot, we find a superhuman player--a hulking presence.
After the 1977 season, the Angels had a problem. They were getting old and not winning--which, of course, wasn't much better than being younger and not winning years before. Gene Autry was visibly frustrated by this, and he knew that he could pull off a ridiculous 3-for-3 with only one other owner in the league: Bill Veeck. When Autry mentioned three names--Thad Bosley, Richard Dotson and Bobby Bonds--he got three in return that, on paper, was a steal. Dave Frost was the first player listed. Second was a player who subsequently became the worst pitcher in franchise history (in terms of ERA+), Chris Knapp. The third player...we called him The Incredible Hulk at one point. He became the face of the team for the next thirteen years, even amidst guys like Carew, Grich, Boone, Lansford, Baylor, Jackson and Joyner. Ladies and gents, Brian Downing!
BRIAN DOWNING, OUTFIELDER/CATCHER
.271/.372/.441, 1588 H, 222 HR, 846 RBI, 889 R, 866 BB, 126 OPS+, 35.3 WAR (2.7 average, 13 seasons)
Those WAR totals are skewed by four injury-shortened seasons, but never mind that. Downing came to the team as a new catcher before Bob Boone rolled into town, at which point the team realized it wiser to preserve his presence and his bat by moving him to the outfield, where he excelled in left field, flanking Fred Lynn in center and Reggie Jackson in right. Like the number-four acquisition Bobby Grich, Downing was a player underappreciated in an era where offensive walks were viewed as unproductive, although common sense nowadays proves that to be nothing but malarkey. As a bat, Downing put up a mediocre debut season in an Angels uniform in 1978, going .255/.345/.342, but 1979 came and Downing blossomed, going .326/.418/.462 with 12 HR and 75 RBI, but more impressively his 77 walks going alongside just 57 strikeouts. Even including his injury shortened seasons, Downing's strikeout totals only ever exceeded his walk totals once.
1980 was a season of potential for Downing, cut short at 30 games due to injuries. 1981 was likewise shortened by the strike, leading to an offensive rebirth for Downing in 1982, when he went .281/.368/.482, with 28 HR, 84 RBI and a 132 OPS+. He largely followed his career averages over the next three seasons before a 1986 where he posted his highest OBP since his breakout Angels performance seven years prior, with a .389 OBP. 1987, though, was his OBP showstopper.
Downing posted career highs in runs scored (110) and home runs (29) that season, but the career high that was more impressive was the one that was also an American League high: Downing drew 106 walks in those 155 games, to go alongside just 85 strikeouts. Downing posted a .400 OBP to go with his .272 batting average, and a career-high .487 slugging percentage. Mind you, Downing was 36 years old by this point in time. Two more career-average seasons followed, until 1990, when, at the age of 39, Downing put up an injury-shortened campaign of just 96 games, but still went .273/.374/.467 with 14 HR and 51 RBI. Age and injuries made it seem almost permissible to release the face of the franchise, until he went to the Rangers (mind you, before the days of Rangers Bandbox in Arlington) and posted two last monster seasons, including his mind-boggling age-41 season where he managed a .407 OBP. Yeah, egg would've been covering my entire face by this point.
Downing was another player underappreciated in an era of benchmarks-or-bust. Maybe not quite a Hall of Fame-caliber player, but he IS in our team hall of fame, and were it not for Pujols already donning his own legendary #5, I'd believe that number would be best respected out there past the right field pavilion, next to Fregosi's 11.
In voting, Downing received one first-place vote, two second-place votes, four third-place votes, five fourth-place votes, two fifth-place votes, two sixth-place votes, two seventh-place votes, and one eighth-place vote, for a total of 131 points.
Thirteen years he gave to us, and for whatever reason we assumed he was out of gas? Never underestimate The Incredible Hulk.