With Reckling, past showcases future
Angels' stellar prospect draws rave comparison to Downing
ANAHEIM -- When Angels scouting director Eddie Bane was describing premium pitching prospect Trevor Reckling recently, it sounded for all the world as if he had another lefty from another time in mind.
Trevor, meet Al Downing. He's someone you really ought to know.
The parallels are striking, and Bane was quick to catch on when it was brought to his attention.
"I know Al, and I can see that," Bane said. "I just hope our guy is as good, or close to as good, as Al was."
Downing is a left-hander who played in the 1960s and '70s, mostly with the Yankees and Dodgers and is most famous for allowing Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run. Like Downing, Reckling, 20, -- the premier pitching prospect in the Angels' farm system -- hails from New Jersey.
Reckling's mound resume reads very much like Downing's. Reckling throws hard, getting into the mid-90s without much strain, and he has a killer curve to go with a changeup of rare quality for so young a man.
Once he masters the strike zone, a final step in the process for any young pitcher with premium stuff, he has limitless potential.
At the urging of area scout Greg Morhardt, the Angels made this left-hander from Newark one of the steals of the 2007 Draft in the eighth round out of St. Benedict's Prep School, where he was an all-around athlete.
With good size (6-2, 205 pounds) and crackling good stuff, Reckling has raced through the system and figures to open 2010 at Triple-A Salt Lake.
Dividing '09 between Class A Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Arkansas, Reckling was a combined 9-9 with a 2.68 ERA, striking out 122, walking 78 and yielding 127 hits in 154 1/3 innings.
The Organization Pitcher of the Year, he was a Texas League All-Star, a Futures Game Team USA choice and pitched for the Team USA World Cup squad, completing a busy season.
"He had a good year, but not great," Bane said. "There's a lot more in his tank. It's another case of a Northeast kid not getting enough exposure. He should have been a first-rounder; we're fortunate Greg Morhardt saw his potential.
"He's got an unusual delivery that makes him uncomfortable to hit against. There's going to come a day when he's going to dominate left-handed hitters. He can touch 95 [mph] and hits 92, 93 comfortably, with a natural changeup and big curveball.
"I'd assume he's going to be at Triple-A. He's got to get better command, and he knows that. I'm sure his experience on the U.S. team helped him, being around other guys with great stuff and command. He could be contending for a rotation spot before long if he continues to develop and improves his command."
A wonderful pitcher with a calm demeanor and the keen intellect that defines the true craftsman, Downing would represent an ideal role model for Reckling.
"I'm going to be keeping my eye on young Mr. Reckling," Downing, a Trenton native, said by phone when he was informed of their geographical and athletic bond. "I suspect his background is similar to mine, in some ways.
"I grew up in an environment where I always played against older ballplayers. I think that helped when I got to the big leagues fast, in '61, when I was 20 years old. I went back to Triple-A, but by the time I got back to the Yankees in '63, I was ready."
Indeed he was. Downing launched a 17-year career with those Yankees of Mantle, Berra and Ford, going 13-5 with a 2.56 ERA in 22 starts in '63, striking out 171 while yielding just 114 hits in 175 2/3 innings.
"When they'd tell me a guy was a fastball hitter," Downing said, "I'd say, `OK, where do I throw it? '"
A 20-game winner with the 1971 Dodgers, throwing a career-high 262 1/3 innings with 12 complete games, Downing also pitched briefly for Oakland and Milwaukee in 1970. In 2,268 1/3 Major League innings, he was 123-107 with a 3.22 ERA, striking out 1,639 men.
Only in his final season, an abbreviated one with the '77 Dodgers, did Downing yield more hits than innings pitched.
"That was one of my goals -- to give up fewer hits than innings pitched," Downing recalled. "When I was young, before I hurt my arm in '67, I threw in the mid- to upper-90s, even though they didn't have radar readings back then.
"I've always believed that it's all about throwing your fastball in good spots. You never want to fall in love with other pitches and get away from your fastball. That's your best pitch. Find your best release point and stick with it. Don't change our arm slot.
"The curveball and changeup work off your fastball. I learned very quickly that hitters don't like to look bad, and few guys look bad on curveballs. They look bad when they can't catch up to your fastball.
"Move it around the strike zone. If you're a lefty, like myself and Reckling, you usually have natural movement on your fastball -- and that's what makes hitters look bad."
Downing developed a superior changeup and a quality curveball, but in the beginning, when he was a phenom, he threw almost exclusively heaters.
A basketball player at Muhlenberg College in eastern Pennsylvania, Downing also shares athleticism with Reckling, who played high school hoops.
Downing had a relaxed manner -- he was known to nap before starts -- that made no moment seem especially troubling. Reckling also has that trait.
Known, unfortunately, for one fastball to Aaron in Atlanta in 1974, Downing by then had been a superb, respected craftsman for more than a decade.
"I'll be pulling for this Reckling kid," Downing said.
Jersey guys tend to stick together -- especially when they own the same tools and dreams, even if they're separated by a generation or two.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.