An Early Look at Comeback Player of the Year

If it seems as though there are a lot of candidates for Comeback Player of the Year, it’s because there are. I don’t usually get too worked up about awards season, but Comeback Player of the Year always seems so vaguely defined that I thought today we would try to take an objective look at it.

I started by looking at players who compiled less than two WAR last season, and have compiled 2.0 or more WAR this season. Then I cross-referenced to find matches, and then looked at the differences between the two seasons, setting the cut off for the difference at 2.0 WAR or greater. Doing so leaves off a few noteworthy candidates that may garner attention — Bartolo Colon (1.8 WAR better so far this year), Josh Beckett (1.7), Pablo Sandoval (1.6), and Ryan Vogelsong (1.5). That leaves me with the following list:

Player ’10 WAR ’11 WAR Diff
Jacoby Ellsbury -0.1 5.0 5.1
Matt Kemp 0.3 4.7 4.4
Melky Cabrera -1.0 3.2 4.2
Alex Gordon -0.4 3.4 3.8
Casey Kotchman -1.5 2.2 3.7
J. Zimmermann -0.2 3.3 3.5
Carlos Beltran 0.8 3.9 3.1
Carlos Quentin -0.1 2.9 3.0
Asdr. Cabrera 0.7 3.6 2.9
Todd Helton 0.0 2.9 2.9
Jhonny Peralta 0.8 3.5 2.7
Ryan Roberts -0.1 2.6 2.7
Aramis Ramirez 0.3 2.7 2.4
Howie Kendrick 1.8 4.1 2.3
Cameron Maybin 0.7 3.0 2.3
Daniel Murphy DNP 2.3 2.3

From here, we can narrow it even further based on the criteria of the award. Fun fact: in addition to the traditional Comeback Player of the Year awarded by The Sporting News, Major League Baseball now also issues one. TSN says the award is presented to the player who “re-emerged as a star.” MLB is a bit more vague, presenting its award to the player who has “re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season.” Either way, it more or less means that if the player had not done something significant in the Majors prior to his down season, he’s not going to win. As a result, we can knock Roberts, Murphy, Maybin and Zimmermann off of the list.

Kendrick, Peralta and Quentin also get bumped at this juncture, as while they have been better in 2011, their 2010 seasons were not superficially bad enough for them to garner attention. This leaves us with five American League candidates — A. Cabrera, Kotchman, Gordon, M. Cabrera and Ellsbury — and four National League candidates — Kemp, Beltran, Helton and Ramirez.

Big things were expected from Asdrubal Cabrera in 2010, but they never panned out, as he expanded his swing zone, and unfortunately, began making contact far too frequently on balls outside of the zone. Sometimes swinging and missing can be a good thing, as this season instead of making contact 80.2 percent of the time on balls out of the zone (which was nearly 14 percent above league average) he has come back down to 70 percent. As a result, he is handling fastballs better and has nearly tripled his previous career high in home runs.

Entering the season, Casey Kotchman, Alex Gordon and Melky Cabrera were all in their mid-20’s prime years, but at the same time, all were facing career extinction. Kotchman is perhaps the most interesting in that he has gone from borderline All-Star who fronted a blockbuster trade package to spare part, only to re-emerge as a productive player. Gordon and Cabrera on the other hand, could become the first teammates to win the award. With all three performing at least three and a half wins better than they did last year all deserve legitimate consideration.

But at the moment, they all pale against Jacoby Ellsbury, both in terms of story and production. Last year, Ellsbury was forced to move positions. Then rib injuries landed on the disabled list three times. It was safe to say that entering the year, expectations for the Oregon native had dwindled. Projections had him getting back to his 2008-2009 seasons, but that sort of production certainly wasn’t expected. And then Ellsbury went out and smashed those modest forecasts. His production has been such that he should be mentioned in not just Comeback Player of the Year discussions, but also Most Valuable Player discussions.

In the National League, four strong contenders start with Aramis Ramirez. While Ramirez did hit 25 taters a year ago, not much else went right. Ramirez was an All-Star and finished 10th in the MVP race in 2008, and while he missed a bunch of time in 2009, he was productive when healthy, to the tune of a .392 wOBA. Last year, that all collapsed. His K rate was his highest since his rookie year in Pittsburgh, and he stopped hitting line drives or ground balls — more than 56 percent of his balls hit went for fly balls. As a result, he posted his first below average wRC+ in eight seasons. This season, after a slow start, he has been “Aramis Ramirez” again. And while his season overall may not seem that extraordinary, the difference between his 2010 and 2011 seasons, combined with the narrative from his power binge in late June and early July will likely garner him recognition.

As I mentioned in Monday’s Power Rankings, Todd Helton has once again reclaimed the hearts and minds of Rockies fans with another comeback season. Last season, in posting a 0.0 WAR season, he seemed very much finished, but Helton is hitting the ball with much more authority this year — his line drive rate is nearing his peak from the early aught’s.

As good as those two have been though, they are unlikely to garner the attention that Beltran and Kemp will. Beltran has come back from microfracture surgery on his knee in a big way. Given his injury history, the fact that Beltran has only missed five games almost makes him worthy of the award by itself. But Beltran has been dominant as well as healthy — both his wOBA (.394) and wRC+ (154) marks are seventh-best among all qualified outfielders this season. It’s for this reason that Beltran is slated to be moved sometime in the next week (and in case you’re curious, one player — Darren Daulton in 1997 with Philly and Florida — has won the award while playing for more than one team in the same season).

But while Beltran’s 3.1 WAR difference is nice and shiny, it is dwarfed by Matt Kemp’s 4.4 WAR improvement. To say that Kemp has found new discipline in his age-26 season is an understatement. He is displaying career-best BB/K numbers, a career-best stolen-base percentage and near career-high defensive numbers — certainly his defense is leagues better than his atrocious performance last season. Again, Kemp isn’t necessarily the typical comeback candidate, as he did launch 28 bombs last season, and stole 19 bases, but his performance was widely lampooned last year, and his 0.3 WAR speaks for itself. Manager Joe Torre was so frustrated with him that he dropped Kemp to fifth in the order frequently down the stretch, and on several occasions he hit him sixth and seventh. While no one expected Kemp to be as bad as he was last year, the fact that he has so dramatically turned it around is noteworthy, and like Ellsbury, worthy of not just Comeback Player of the Year recognition, but MVP as well.

It’s still a little early to say that Ellsbury and Kemp should definitively be the Comeback Players of the Year, as there is still two months to go in the season. If the Indians hang on to win the division, and Asdrubal Cabrera leads them to it, he could easily take the hardware. Perhaps Helton will lead the Rockies to another Rocktober, or Beltran will do the same for his new team. Or perhaps Vogelsong’s story transcends statistics and should be rewarded as such. But at the moment, Ellsbury and Kemp look to be the most deserving of the awards.



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


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