Brian Downing is remembered for the radical transformation he went through during his career. When he broke into the Majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1973, he was a bespectacled catcher with a soft body and an unimpressive hitter. Later, he got into weight lifting, stopped wearing glasses, adopted and strange wide open batting stance and morphed into a muscular power hitting left fielder and DH.
Downing suddenly turned into one of the best hitting catcher in the game with the Angels in 1979. He batted .326 with 12 homers and a .418 on base percentage. In 1982, he became the Angel’s every day left fielder and responded with 28 homers – 16 better than his previous high. He had several good seasons after that. His most productive year came in 1987. Moving into the DH spot for the Angels, he blasted 29 homers, walked 106 times and posted a .400 OBP.
Downing retired as a Texas Rangers in 1992 with 275 homers and a .370 career OBP. His mid-career transformation took baseball by surprise, but was it in any way foreseeable? On thing is certain: in the first part of his career with the White Sox, Downing already demonstrated good control of the strike zone. He walked a lot and his OBP was noticeably higher than league average as soon as he became a regular. In 1977, he played only 69 games, but showed promise by hitting .284 and posting a .402 OBP. The White Sox didn’t notice and traded him to the Angels after the season.
In California, his ability to get on base didn’t go unnoticed. Angels Manager Gene Mauch frequently used him in the leadoff spot despite his lack of speed.