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An Early Look At Comeback Player Of The Year

Subjective questions swirl around most awards discussions — should a pitcher win MVP, should the Rookie of the Year be the best player that season or the one with the brightest future, does the Manager of the Year and/or MVP need to come from a playoff team, etc. But Comeback Player of the Year may be the most loosely defined award. As I detailed in this exercise last season, the only criteria is that a player “re-emerged,” which is very much open to interpretation. So, let’s try to take an objective look.

Last year, I hit on Jacoby Ellsbury taking Comeback honors in the American League, but I whiffed on Lance Berkman in the National League. By looking at players who had compiled less than 2.0 WAR in 2010, I excluded Berkman, who had put up 2.1 WAR in his time with the Astros and Yankees (well, okay, just the Astros). So this season, I widened my search. I cross-referenced who posted a WAR of 2.5 or less in 2011 and at least 1.0 so far this season. Doing so did help me catch some players that I wouldn’t have last year, so I’ve got that going for me.

The other subjective factor with the Comeback Player of the Year is determining what exactly from the player is coming back. There is a big difference between a young player breaking out and a veteran rebounding from a dismal season. Ruminate on that as we move forward.

Like last year, let’s take a look at the players with a 2.0 WAR difference between this year and last. We’ll start with the AL (all numbers current as of Thursday):

Player 11 WAR 12 WAR Diff
Adam Dunn -2.9 1.7 4.6
Alex Rios -0.7 3.3 4.0
Chris Sale 1.4 4 2.6
Raul Ibanez -1.3 1 2.3
Josh Reddick 1.9 4.1 2.2
A.J. Pierzynski 1.4 3.5 2.1
Joe Mauer 1.6 3.7 2.1
Edwin Encarnacion 1.5 3.6 2.1
Mike Moustakas 0.7 2.8 2.1
Fernando Rodney -0.2 1.8 2.0
Kyle Seager 0.5 2.5 2.0

Now, right away, we can cut a few of these guys, under the breakout vs. re-emerge theory. Sale, Reddick, Moustakas, Seager, and probably even Encarnacion, aren’t guys that you think of as established stars that were bad last season. They’re guys who are taking the next step. So if we dip down a little further on the list, we see guys like Brandon Inge (1.9 WAR difference), Jason Hammel (1.8), Kevin Millwood (1.7), Justin Morneau (1.7), Cody Ross (1.6) and Colby Rasmus (1.6). All would be deserving of mention, and Hammel in particular may have been a chief candidate had he not been felled by a right-knee injury that required surgery. But there’s still one name that we’re not seeing — one Austin Jarriel Jackson.

Jackson has been lauded as a player who has completely turned around his career, and with just cause. After finishing second place for the 2010 AL ROY Award, Jackson had a sobering year in ’11, at least offensively. And there is the rub. Jackson has scored well in advanced defensive metrics like UZR and DRS in all three of his major league seasons, and last year his UZR was a large factor in his entirely respectable 2.8 WAR. Jackson is undoubtedly having a much better season this year — his 4.8 WAR is already 2.0 better than last year — so whether or not you think he deserves this award essentially boils down to how you feel about his defensive contributions.

In the end though, it may not matter. Dunn, an All-Star, MVP candidate and prodigious producer of power before 2011, has come back in a big way this season. The White Sox’s only path to contention this season was for him and Rios to rebound from their dismal ’11 seasons, and that is exactly what has happened. Along with career years from Pierzynski and Sale, Dunn and Rios have done their part to put Chicago back in contention. Dunn hasn’t been the best of the bunch — in fact, he’s been worth less than the other three — but considering how bad he was last year, he’s had the largest transformation in the game, one that helped him net an All-Star berth this season.

Now for the Senior Circuit:

Player 11 WAR 12 WAR Diff
David Wright 1.9 5.9 4.0
Buster Posey 1.7 5 3.3
Wade Miley 0.1 3.3 3.2
Bronson Arroyo -1.3 1.7 3.0
Jason Heyward 2.2 5.1 2.9
Pedro Alvarez -0.8 2 2.8
Aroldis Chapman 0.6 3.2 2.6
A.J. Ellis 0.7 3.3 2.6
Aaron Hill 0.8 3.4 2.6
Adam LaRoche -0.2 2.3 2.5
Martin Prado 1.6 4.1 2.5
Tyler Colvin -1 1.4 2.4
Jose Altuve 0.3 2.6 2.3
Paul Goldschmidt 0.6 2.9 2.3
Jed Lowrie 0.3 2.5 2.2
Ian Desmond 1.4 3.6 2.2
Chris Johnson -0.8 1.2 2.0
Josh Johnson 1.7 3.6 1.9

You’ll notice I broke my own 2.0 WAR rule in that chart, but Josh Johnson is the type of guy that this award is made for, and he should get over the threshold soon enough, assuming he stays healthy. The list does exclude Alfonso Soriano (1.8 difference), Juan Pierre (1.6), Joe Blanton (1.3), and if you dig a little deeper, Hanley Ramirez (0.8), Chad Billingsley (0.8), Chipper Jones (0.8) and A.J. Burnett (0.7). Jones in particular figures to be an interesting name to consider here. If he doesn’t factor into the MVP vote — and honestly, he very well could — there may be a push to give the soon-to-be-retired Jones *some* kind of award, and this one would fit.

But, while there has been a whole lotta revival going on in the NL this year, this should basically be a two-man race. If we knock out Miley on the grounds that he wasn’t really even an established player last year, the two by themselves at the top of this list are Wright and Posey. If the Mets were still in the playoff chase, Wright would be a no-doubter. Combine the stress fracture in his lower back that he sustained last season with the fact that he entered 2012 a full three years removed from his last seven-win season, and it was fair to wonder if the notion of “David Wright, superstar” had run its course. But he has rung the bell in resounding fashion this season, putting up a season commensurate with his 2007-08 peak.

Of course, Posey is not going to go quietly, and with the Giants in the playoff hunt, and since his injury was front-page news nationally moreso than was Wright’s, Posey may take the Comeback honors himself. He is undoubtedly having his best season, and we are probably in store for many more of these seasons. I would dock him slightly for the award on the subjective basis that his injury was a freak thing, whereas Wright’s was borne out of wear and tear, but that’s a minor thing. Outside of those two and Jones, Chapman, Arroyo, Heyward and Alvarez could get playoff-push bumps, though to me Chapman is more “most-improved” than “comeback.”

Comeback Player of the Year is a totally subjective award, and ultimately, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. No one is bringing up Comeback Player of the Year in arbitration hearings, and I’ve never heard of a bonus incentive tied to it either. Still, that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Multiple players can make compelling arguments in each league, but at this juncture of the season, it looks like Adam Dunn, Alex Rios (and maybe Austin Jackson), David Wright and Buster Posey are the front runners, with Dunn and Wright having separated from the pack.