Downing transformed himself, through hard work, weight training (before it was common), and experimentation, from an inconsistent, weak-hitting catcher to a reliable clutch-hitting slugger who set the AL record for consecutive errorless games by an outfielder (244 games, from May 25, 1981 through July 21, 1983, second game).
Downing showed the intensity that would characterize his play throughout his career literally from the first pitch of his first game. Playing third base, he raced after a short foul pop-up that was apparently out of reach. He dived and caught it, but bruised his leg so severely that he was out for nearly six weeks. In his second day after coming back, he got his first ML hit, an inside-the-park HR off Mickey Lolich. In his first full season, 1974, Downing showed good power with 10 HR in 293 at-bats, but hit only .225. The White Sox’ number-one catcher in 1975, he hit .240 with seven HR in 420 at-bats. Traded with two pitchers to California after the 1977 season in return for Bobby Bonds, Rich Dotson, and Thad Bosley, he was their regular catcher for the next two seasons. In 1978 he set the club mark for fielding average by a catcher, .993. After the season he had bone chips removed from his right elbow. He made the All-Star team in 1979, hitting a career-high .326 with 12 HR and 75 RBI as the Angels won their first division title.
After missing most of 1980 with a broken ankle, he spent most of 1981 in the outfield and never caught again after that season. He began his errorless streak in the OF, but did not compile it at the expense of his aggressive style of play, which compensated for his below-average speed. His 330 errorless chances in 1982 set the AL mark for most chances in an errorless season. Downing hit 28 HR, 16 better than his previous high, and scored 109 runs while driving in 84. Manager Gene Mauch used him as both a leadoff hitter for his ability to get on base (86 walks), and as a cleanup hitter for his power and clutch hitting. The Angels won another division title, but once again Downing hit poorly in the LCS. He missed five weeks in 1983 with a broken left wrist, but otherwise continued his consistent production. Although he is a streaky hitter within each season, at the end of the year he has posted his usual 20 HR, 85 RBI and runs, and .275 BA. His career-high 95 RBI in 1986 helped the Angels to another division title, and although he hit only .222 in the LCS, he drove in seven runs to lead both teams. He utilized another of his talents, getting hit by a Calvin Schiraldi pitch with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of Game Four to send the contest into extra innings. His intense play and his unusually wide, open batting stance, as well as his clutch performance, finally gained him national notice. Angels owner Gene Autry earlier in the year had, as part of California’s 25th anniversary, named Downing the left fielder on the franchise’s all-time team.
Downing switched to DH in 1987 to lessen the wear on his body. He had his best season, reaching career highs with 29 HR, 110 runs, and 106 walks (tied for the AL lead). He spent three weeks on the DL near the start of the 1988 season and hit just .242, his lowest average since 1975, although he hit 25 HR in 484 at-bats. He recovered in 1989 and completed his domination of the Angels’ all-time offense totals, ranking as the franchise’s career leader in home runs, RBI, runs, extra base hits, total bases, hits, doubles, games, and at-bats.