An Early Look At Comeback Player Of The Year

In each of the past two years, I’ve taken an early look at the Comeback Player of the Year Award candidates in each league. Each time, I was spot on about one player, but didn’t get the other. Here’s hoping for a better show this season.

Just like last year, the criteria is a player who posted 2.5 WAR or less last year, and has posted at least 1.0 WAR this year. Then I cull the list. The general standard is for a player to have roughly 2.0 more WAR this year than last, but this year I’m making an exception for catchers (roughly 1.5 WAR) and relief pitchers (roughly 1.0 WAR), as WAR may not be as fair to them as it is to others.

First, a couple of honorable mentions. Scott Kazmir and Matt Tuiasosopo didn’t play in the majors last year. Actually, for Tuiasosopo it was two years. Chad Gaudin, Michael Young, Jason Giambi and Carl Crawford have been nice stories, but they don’t hit our threshold here — at 1.4 more WAR thus far Crawford is the only one who is all that close.

Next we have to weed out the players that pass the various thresholds but don’t really capture the spirit of the thing. Matt Harvey, Hisashi Iwakuma, Patrick Corbin, Steve Delabar, Jean Segura, Manny Machado, Matt Carpenter, Starling Marte, A.J. Pollock, Yan Gomes, Brian Dozier and Leonys Martin aren’t making comebacks, they’re emerging.

With that out of the way, let’s start with the senior circuit:

Player 12 WAR 13 WAR Diff
Marlon Byrd -1.0 2.7 3.7
Jorge de la Rosa -0.3 2.6 2.9
Jhoulys Chacin 0.5 3.2 2.7
Domonic Brown -0.4 2.2 2.6
Troy Tulowitzki 1.3 3.9 2.6
Carlos Gonzalez 2.5 4.7 2.2
Nick Hundley -0.6 1.5 2.1
Mark Melancon -0.1 1.6 1.7
Russell Martin 2.1 3.6 1.5

It’s not a bird, it’s a Byrd! It’s hard to fathom just how bad Byrd was last season. He washed out of two teams — two bad teams at that — and was tagged with a PED suspension before the end of June. His presence in the Mets’ outfield this spring was more running joke than intriguing development, but he has gone out and shut up all those people who were wondering if the Mets would have a historically pathetic outfield. The Mets place 23rd in outfield WAR at the moment, and much of the credit for that goes to Byrd. Damning with faint praise, I realize, but when it comes to the Mets it’s all we have.

The other thing that jumps out on this chart is that four of the nine guys on it play for the Rockies. If it wasn’t clear as to why Colorado has played better this season, it’s because of the incumbents being healthy/remembering how to play baseball. Carlos Gonzalez is a darkhorse Most Valuable Player Award pick, and if the Rockies weren’t freefalling out of contention, he’d be among the frontrunners. Tulowitzki was right there with him until he landed on the disabled list in mid-June. Chacin and De La Rosa are both right this year, as both were either hurt or recovering from injuries last year.

As compelling as these cases may be though, they lack the sizzle. Domonic Brown held the nation’s attention back in May, and he has retained enough of his gains in the ensuing months that his name will be bandied about. The two catchers — Hundley and Martin — have been great stories as well, particularly Martin, who has helped bring the Pirates into legitimate contention. But the real sexy pick may end up being his teammate, Melancon.

Melancon’s 2012 season started out in disastrous fashion, but he was pretty good afterwards when given the opportunity. Still, he was not only not as good last year as this year, but he also was not tested last year the way he has been this season. Last season, he entered to a situation that on average carried a Leverage Index of 0.74, good for 153rd out of 166 relievers (min. 40 IP). This year, that gmLI has ramped up to 1.60, which ranks 17th out of 94 qualified relievers. Last year he tallied eight shutdowns and four meltdowns, but this year he has already notched a career-best 33 SDs and has just two MDs. And now he’s the closer on the team that’s the best story in baseball. If Jason Grilli does come back, Melancon’s candidacy might suffer, but that’s far from a guarantee, no matter what Grilli has proclaimed.

The American League has a boatload of qualified candidates, but the narrative here will also rest on a closer. Namely, Mariano Rivera. The revelry of Rivera’s farewell has been rich and deserved, and he seems to be a shoo-in for the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. But let’s take a look at the candidates real quick just for funsies, because there are a bunch of players having pretty textbook comeback seasons:

Name 12 WAR 13 WAR Diff
Ervin Santana -1.0 2.5 3.5
Ryan Raburn -1.5 2 3.5
Eric Hosmer -1.7 1.6 3.3
Chris Davis 2 5.1 3.1
James Loney -0.4 2.5 2.9
Colby Rasmus 1.1 3.9 2.8
Brett Gardner 0.3 2.8 2.5
Derek Holland 1.7 4.1 2.4
Jacoby Ellsbury 1.4 3.7 2.3
Evan Longoria 2.5 4.8 2.3
Jesse Crain 0.8 2.0 1.2
Joaquin Benoit 0.2 1.3 1.1
Neal Cotts n/a 1.1 1.1
Mariano Rivera 0.4 1.3 0.9

Here we have four players who have been more than three wins better and have pretty good cases as a comeback player. I suppose you could make the case that Davis has been coming back for two years, but his story has certainly been compelling this year, what having been a virtual throw-in to the Koji Uehara trade and only getting into 104 total games across his age-24 and 25 seasons.

The other three have great cases though. The Angels were willing to do whatever it took to get him off the books, first trading him for Carlos Marmol, and then when that fell through for a guy who hasn’t even pitched this year. They figured Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton were better choices for their rotation. That, uh, hasn’t worked out too well for them. And while lots of people blasted Kansas City for the move, they made out like bandits, and if they do sneak into the postseason Santana will be a big reason why. He is rocking the best ERA and second-best FIP of his career, along with a career-low BB%. His performance has been a total surprise.

Also surprising has been the play of his teammate Hosmer. After his strong rookie showing in 2011, Hosmer proceeded to hit .239/.308/.352 for the next eight months of his career, until he finally caught fire this June. He is still in his age-23 season, so he doesn’t have a ton to come back from, but he was so awful last year and the first part of this season that it feels like he’s made a big transformation.

Raburn probably won’t merit consideration, but he is essentially a super-honorable-mention candidate. I was surprised when Raburn landed a job this spring. After posting a .382 wOBA in his age-28 season in 2009, his wOBA steadily dropped — .356, .316 and then all the way down to .216 last year. Of the 347 players who had at least 200 plate appearances last season, only two players had a worse wOBA than did Raburn (FWIW, one of those players is Hundley, who showed up on the NL list). He’s not playing every day now, which is why I doubt he garners much of a groundswell for the award, but he would certainly be deserving given how poorly he played last season.

It doesn’t stop with those four players, though. Loney and Rasmus had settled into lowered expectations before surprising many with their play this season. Ellsbury, Gardner and Longoria are all returning to strong play following injuries that sidelined them last season. Ellsbury has already won this award once, so it would be kind of odd to see him win it again, but he is making a case for sure. And then there are the three relievers — Crain, Benoit and Cotts. I’m not certain that Benoit really fits here. He kind of just had an aberrant bad year in 2012, but I included him anyway. Certainly of the three, Cotts’ comeback is the most heartwarming, but if Raburn faces an uphill battle to recognition, Cotts is climbing a mountain.

Still, the question remains — are any of these cases special enough to make them favored above Rivera? Rivera barely qualifies for our list here, as his WAR has been 0.9 better than it was last season. But like I said earlier, there is the school of thought that WAR isn’t the best way to evaluate relievers. Furthermore, this award isn’t necessarily about a player’s WAR. I’m simply using WAR to help filter out good candidates from bad. After suffering his freak knee injury last season, Rivera has basically been the same guy as he always been. In fact, his 58 FIP- this season is better than some of the best seasons of his illustrious career, and is in the top 20 among relief pitchers this season. That he could be just as good at 43 as he was at 33 is nothing short of remarkable.

In the NL, Byrd is the clear frontrunner from a WAR perspective, but with the Mets being the Mets, the door is open for others, and Melancon (narrative) or CarGo/Tulowitzki (star power) may walk through it. The NL at least is more wide open than in the AL. In the junior circuit, Santana’s story and stats provide a compelling counter argument to Rivera, as does Davis, but in the end this award will likely go to Mo.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. He has also written extensively for ESPN MLB Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

58 Responses to “An Early Look At Comeback Player Of The Year”

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  1. Jeff Chisholm says:

    Wait…..not Franciso Lirano?

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    • kevin james says:

      How is it not LIRIANO?

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    • Cybo says:

      When I read the title of this article that was the first name that came to my mind. Good read and thanks.

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    • snowmanrye says:

      He’s had a 3.0 improvement if you use rWAR rather than fWAR. He definitely has to be up there.

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    • Paul Swydan says:

      Thanks for all the comments everybody. I whiffed on Lackey. I’m not sure why. That’s my fault. He’s a good candidate no doubt, probably one of the top three or four along with Santana and Rivera.

      As for Liriano, as someone else mentioned, he is only 0.7 WAR better than last year, so he didn’t meet even the RP threshold. That is mostly due to his not playing the whole season. I think that should count for something, but I should have at least mentioned him. That is what I get for rushing through the list last night. I didn’t double check it for exceptions like lack of playing time like I should have.

      I noticed someone else mentioned McCann. That is another hasn’t played the whole year guy who I probably should have mentioned and will likely garner a lot of support as well.

      So, that’s three big omissions. So not a great job by me. Thanks for keeping me on my toes. One of these years I will hit on everyone!

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      • jirish says:

        That’s okay. John Lackey isn’t a very likable sort. In fact, he’s the sort you’d LIKE to forget.

        But he’s due consideration for comeback player of the year. It pains me to say it.

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  2. treemeister says:

    John Lackey?

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    • Chief Keef says:

      Lackey would be my pick to win. The media loves a story, and other than Beckett, Lackey was the posterboy for what was wrong with the Red Sox.

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      • Jeff Chisholm says:

        So the consensus is that the 2 guys that should win (Liriano and Lackey) are not even MENTIONED in this article. Wow….pretty poorly written article.

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        • RPMcSweeney says:

          I don’t think it’s bad, it just suggests that we need to think more about what “comeback” means before deciding who the comebackiest is (somewhat similar to the debates about “value” in MVP, which I often find more interesting than the actual vote).

          For instance, aside from Liriano and Lackey’s exclusion, Domonic Brown wasn’t good last year, but neither was he a full-time player—he got called up on July 31st. So even though he’s improved, has he comeback from anything?

          This isn’t intended as a criticism. I think it’s actually a very useful exercise to run analysis to see if your intuition is supported by data. If not (as seems to be the case here), the next step is to either refine the analysis or update your intuition. That’s progress.

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        • TKDC says:

          This is either bad (read: not funny) sarcasm or you have no idea what consensus means.

          Rivera will win no question. Anyone with half a brain knows that. I think he unquestionably deserves it because he came back at such an old age. This award is not and should not be just about how much better you were than the year before.

          The NL candidates are weak. The only one that is something of a known name that is really coming back are Byrd and Tulo, and Byrd’s comeback is tied to a PED suspension. Assuming he stays healthy the rest of the year, I think Tulo will win it, and he’ll probably have the greatest improvement in WAR of anyone on the list, so that can’t be a bad pick, right?

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        • Eric Feczko says:


          Determining the consensus is an exercise in futility. Determining the players that have bounced back is not.

          Liriano is pitching in the NL this year. He’s a good candidate, though he hasn’t been mentioned much by the media.

          Lackey has been mentioned as comeback player before the season even started, and his pitching to-date has only cemented his status in the east-coast biased media. The fact that the red sox are a better bet to make the playoffs makes him a better target than Mariano; Lackey is pitching like an ace this year, and if it wasn’t for him, the red sox would not be a contender.

          All this being said, the fact that both names are not mentioned on a saber-oriented site suggests a fundamental flaw in the method used. The method employed here excluded players who didn’t play last year, perhaps the method should be revised. Players who did not play last year could be given a 0.0 WAR, they could use their prior year’s WAR, or take a two year weighted average.

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        • Trotter76 says:

          I’d say the criteria, if WAR is used, should determine a previous high WAR (say 2010 or 2011) followed by a significant drop in 2012, and then a jump back up. I don’t think Dom Brown is a candidate because he never posted a good season, so he’s not “coming back” he’s coming up. Big difference. I put Hosmer, Davis and Chacin in that same category. It should be about previously good players coming back from major injury or major loss of skills (“rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated”).

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    • RPMcSweeney says:

      I thought of Lackey, too. Maybe Paul’s method didn’t pick him up since he didn’t post any WAR last year.

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      • treemeister says:

        Cotts has a “n/a” for his last year WAR

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      • PAR says:

        He had a -1.9 WAR in 2011, none in 2012 and 2.5 so far this year. He would get my vote but he won’t win it.

        As for not meeting the criteria because he didn’t play las year, that’s kind of ridiculous considering Rivera only played 9 games last year and everybody knows he will win it.

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  3. Pirates Hurdles says:

    This award has very nearly always went to a guy coming back from a serious injury. The exceptions would seem to be very large unexpected breakout years like Rodney last year, Carlos Pena a while back. I think that pretty much disqualifies anyone like CarGo or Longoria (even Tulo since he played 1/2 of 2012 at a high level). I think Mariano and Liriano (for lack of a big injury return in the NL) have to be the favorites

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  4. Robbie G. says:

    Nice work.

    Why give the award to Mariano Rivera? Is anyone who votes for him surprised that he has recovered from an injury that he was expected to recover from and resumed being himself, i.e., the greatest closer in MLB history? Shouldn’t it go to somebody who had been pretty much written off? Seems like a forced narrative.

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    • Sleight of Hand Pro says:

      what does surprise have to do with it? should pujols not have won those MVPs because everyone expected him to be awesome? should kershaw not win the cy?

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      • Robbie G. says:

        So was Ted Williams the Comeback Player of the Year when he resumed playing after coming home from the war?

        The element of surprise seems crucial with this award. And obviously is irrelevant in determining who the best player and/or pitcher is. A comeback means that you have beat the odds, that you have done something incredible by becoming a good major league ballplayer again. It’s impressive that Mariano Rivera came back from his injury but is it incredible? No.

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    • Josh M says:

      For Rivera I think it has more to do with the age at which he is doing it than the fact that he is doing it. I was naturally inclined to think his comeback was overrated but the fact that he is 43 has swayed me, it’s a shame though because Ervin Santana has been incredible for the royals.

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  5. rustydude says:

    What about ARod? He’s due to comeback on Monday and I’m sure he’ll post some amazing #’s before the end of the year.

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  6. Bill says:

    Rivera will get it in the AL, but it has to be Liriano in the NL. He has the name recognition and clearly has the numbers for it. I’m not sure why this system didn’t pick him up.

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  7. jg941 says:

    Most folks have already been handing that designation to Liriano in the NL this year, so I though it was odd that he wasn’t even on this list – just a miss on the stats?

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  8. olethros says:

    Calling Rasmus a comeback player is hilarious. He’s just finally coming after years of jerking off.

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  9. brett says:

    A couple notes:

    1) I think guys should get a “bonus” for being worse in 2012. In other words going from 0 to 2 WAR is worth more than going from 2 to 4. I think that captures the essence of the award more.

    2) With only a quick glance at the stats, is anyone as surprised as I am that Lirano’s WAR this year (2.16 ERA) is only .7 better than last year (5.34 ERA)?

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  10. JT says:

    I think players like Domonic Brown shouldn’t be considered because he was never awesome to begin with. He’s having a great season this year….but shouldn’t he of had at least ONE before this season to qualify as being a comeback player.

    My nomination would be Brian McCann. He missed most of last season with a torn labrum in his shoulder and his stats showed it. He had offseason surgery and missed the first month of this year. Last year his WAR was 1.7. This year (even though he missed the first month) it is at 2.8 already. He was a great player, had a terrible injury, came back and is awesome again. That’s what makes a true comeback player.

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  11. ZenMadman says:

    I’m not sure how Domonic Brown could be considered a comeback player when he’s never produced a positive WAR season before. I’d put him in the emerging category, despite the fact that he’s been around the league for a few years. This is a breakout season for him, not a comeback one.

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  12. Transmission says:

    Angels tried to trade Haren for Marmol, fwiw.

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  13. Cool Lester Smooth says:

    It’s not just that WAR isn’t a good way to measure relievers. It’s also that fWAR has proven not to be a valid measure of Rivera.

    His bWAR is 1.3 higher than it was last year.

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  14. Radivel says:

    Dustin McGowan has made it into a number of games this year (and performed very well even!), which is pretty much a comeback. He’s finally come back from 2008 or whatever it is since he’s last been healthy. Too bad he won’t win this award, but maybe they can name the award after him or something, since it’s all he’s ever done for pretty much his entire career.

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  15. hittfamily says:

    It has to be Longoria, Elsbury or Rivera. All the others were marginal players. These were elite talents before injuries that have returned to being elite talents. That is the spirit of the award to me. What’s Raburn coming back from? Being a marginal platoon player?

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  16. el ossa verde says:

    Do not have WAR improvement handy, but Chris Johnson has been invaluable to the Braves in solidifying post-Chipper 3b postion. Has to be in the discussion, especially if he wins batting title (as such is still valued by “mainstream” media ala Miggy ’12 MVP award)

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  17. Robert G says:

    Does Kazmir really not qualify just because he didn’t play last year? His success is even more impressive to me BECAUSE of that.

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  18. James says:

    Scott Kazmir or Lackey. Neither pitched last year and the years before then they were awful. The spirit of the award is a player who has looked done in the sport of baseball but comes back to perform at previous levels. Kazmir’s put was deeper than Lackey but Lackey’s comeback is greater. None of the players on the list bottomed out quite the same as these two.

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  19. rbt says:

    Kazmir for me. I mean, the guy was in indy ball last year. Everybody wrote him off, said he was toast, he’d lost it. I find his return amazing and remarkable. Just because he didn’t play last year shouldn’t disqualify him – he should actually get extra points for being out of baseball.

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  20. anonymous says:

    In comparing 2012 WAR to 2013 WAR it seems like you’re only getting half of the picture. Maybe you would be better served by adding career high WAR from a previous season.

    That should filter out the guys like Davis who are just emerging and leave you with guys like Ellsbury and Longoria who were great, then terrible (either due to injury or just suckage), then great again.

    That’s my opinion of what this award is about.

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  21. Bartolo Colon says:

    Can I weigh in with my two cents?

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  22. Paul B. says:

    I have to think Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar get some consideration as well.

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  23. Mikniks says:

    To me this just illustrates the fact that it’s difficult to quantify a “comeback player.” I think the human element is too deeply ingrained in the spirit of this award to ignore it

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  24. JuanPierreDoesSteroids says:

    Personally, when I think Comeback Player of the Year, I don’t think of guys that had a bad season at the MLB level and then bounced back the next year. I tend to think about guys that actually left and then came back. Whether they were injured for a while, or decided to come out of retirement, or did so bad that they were washed out of the league for a while.

    That being said, I think Scott Kazmir should win it in the AL. Its just amazing what he has been able to do.

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  25. MrKnowNothing says:

    Tulo came back. Awesome player who gets injured and he came back to be … awesome player who gets injured. Dude could theoretically win the award every year.

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  26. Luke says:

    In line with the other comments, there are some adjustments I would make to improve this interesting analysis:

    1. Make sure the player is actually making a comeback.

    This can be accomplished by filtering for players who have had a WAR of at least 2.0 better than the previous year for some year earlier in their career (at least for position players; 1.5 for catchers; 1.0 for relievers)

    2. Make sure the player has actually been good at some point.

    This is mostly taken care of by suggestion 1 unless the previous WAR’s year is negative. In that case filter that the have at least 2.0 WAR at some point in the career

    3. Extra credit should probably be given to: (as mentioned in earlier posts)

    a. former stars (3.0 or 4.0 WAR at some point), or
    b. players coming back from an injury year (50 games or less), or
    c. a really terrible year as preceded by a good year.

    4. Extrapolate projected WAR for the rest of the year.

    So we could see how the differences will increase. This will give more credit to those who are posting good years as opposed to just players who had a very terrible years before.

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  27. Alexander Nevermind says:

    Great to see Cotts mentioned. He was stellar in 2005, helping the White Sox to a WS title, then struggled for four consecutive years at replacement-level, followed by a three year exile from the majors. And now at age 33, he is having the best year of his career (15SD to 2MD; RE24 approaching 15).

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  28. Bob Kusz says:

    I’m surprised absolutely no mention of Victor Martinez. Sure, he’s a DH but he didn’t play a single game last year. After starting very slow he may very well end up with 100 RBI’s by year end. Definitely not more deserving than Rivera but deserving of at least a mention.

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  29. GLoyd72 says:

    Adam Wainwright?

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    • GLoyd72 says:

      Nevermind. I was using Baseball-Reference WAR which was 1.1 last year to his 5.1 this year. Forgot this was Fangraphs.

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