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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.