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The 2012 Fantasy Zombie Award

Thanks to the Melky Cabrera saga, the 3.1 PAs per team game a player needs to qualify for the batting title is firmly ingrained in our collective conscious. I’ll admit, I had to look up the qualification for the ERA title — 1 IP per team game, for those who also didn’t know — and while it isn’t as easy to parrot on command, it makes sense even if it’s a bit arbitrary. Rookie of the Year criteria are a little odd as well, but again, more or less make sense, but what about Comeback Player of The Year?

It’s never really been clear whether a player has to actually come back from something specific or if being rotten one year and then excellent the next qualifies as a comeback. The introductory press release offers no help, stating only that “This exciting new MLB-sanctioned award, which will be presented annually to one player each from the American and National Leagues, will recognize those players who have re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season.” The Sporting News, who present the more well-known version of the same award, seems to have similar criteria for their prize.

For fantasy players, these players represent a huge amount of value. Players who were drafted late, or even went undrafted, because of their rotten 2011 numbers but came through with excellent production in 2012 are the type of roster filler that can make up for an early round mistake. Since we already have a pair of Comeback Player Of The Year awards, rather than add a third, I present to you my candidates for the 2012 Fantasy Zombie: What once was dead is alive again! Just like the real Comeback Player awards, these will be presented to one position player and one pitcher; today is just the hitters and the pitchers will follow later in the week.

Joe Mauer 

2011: 333 PA, .287/.360/.368, 3 HR

2012: 606 PA, .322/.415/.456, 10 HR

Like a character in a soap opera, Mauer has been believed to be dead many a time, but he always seems to find his way back into the cast. The more we learn about Mauer’s issues in 2011, the better his 333 slightly below average PAs look, but it doesn’t do much to help owners who took Mauer high in 2011 drafts. His ADP went from 30 in 2011 down to 89 in 2012, but those who gambled on him were rewarded with the high average and/or OBP owners expect when they draft Mauer.

Power just isn’t part of Mauer’s game, but his 10 home runs mark his third most ever and his most since 2009; the eight steals he contributed were a career second best as well. Mauer was the fifth catcher taken in most drafts, but will finish just behind Buster Posey in overall fantasy contribution. I suspect Mauer’s stock will never be higher than it was on draft day 2010, but he’s a much hotter commodity as the 2012 season comes to a close than he was on Opening Day.

Aaron Hill 

2011: .246/.299/.356, 8 HR, 21 SB

2012: .301/.361/.518, 24 HR, 14 SB

Unlike Mauer, who came back from a litany of ailments that cost him half of the 2011 season, Hill is one who isn’t so much coming back from anything specific. His resurrection from the fantasy netherworld actually began after his move out of Toronto last season, but wasn’t complete until he could prove that his 142 decent PAs weren’t a fluke, which he more than did this season. He actually stole fewer bases this year, but I’m sure owners are willing to trade the seven missing steals for an increase of 50 points in batting average and sixteen more home runs. He was only drafted in 74 percent of Yahoo! leagues and was almost an afterthought with an ADP of 255.

Prior to this season, HIll’s best full season was 2009 and he was 14 percent above league average in overall offensive production, but he blew that mark away this year. The desert air must being doing Hill a world of good since he was 34 percent above average after his move last year and 30 percent better this year. He’ll be 31 next season, but is under contract to remain with the Diamondbacks, so perhaps he’ll manage back-to-back effective seasons for the first time in his career.

Alex Rios 

2011: .227/.265/.348, 13 HR, 11 SB

2012: .299/.330/.513, 24 HR, 23 SB

2010 was Rios’ first full season with the White Sox and while it wasn’t a season that anyone will recall wistfully, it wasn’t bad. He had a wRC+ of 110 to go with decent defense, which left him with 3.6 WAR or 4.3 WAR better than his 2011 mark. 2011 was nothing short of a crisis in plaid for Rios, who had a higher ADP (62) than wRC+ (58); he added nothing to any team and cost a top 100 pick to boot.

Still, Rios was drafted in 99 percent of leagues with an ADP of 222, so at least one owner per league believed in his potential. For their trouble, they were rewarded with a 20/20 season and a near-.300 batting average as part of Rios’ best offensive season ever. Yahoo! ranks him as the sixth best outfielder this season, which is simply shocking given just how vile, how flat out putrid his 2011 was.

Adam LaRoche 

2011: 177 PA, .172/.288/.258, 3 HR

2012: 614 PA, .269/.340/.509, 32 HR

A candidate in the more traditional sense of the term “comeback player” LaRoche was barely on the radar of most fantasy players after missing nearly all of 2011 due to a torn labrum. It’s hard to blame anyone for forgetting about LaRoche, Michael Morse did a bang-up job in his stead for the Nationals and shoulder injuries can be just as problematic for hitters — especially power hitters — as they are for pitchers. There was no guarantee LaRoche was going to be even remotely effective this season and owners were rightly nervous, taking him in just 4 percent of leagues.

Fortune favors the bold, however, and LaRoche not only regained the form he once showed with the Pirates, he reached all the way back to his Braves days and broke 30 home runs for the first time since 2006. LaRoche hit the 100 RBI mark just once in his career, 2010 with Arizona, and has never gotten higher than the bare triple-digit minimum, but he’s currently sitting on 98 RBI and has nine games left to set a new career high.

Adam Dunn 

2011: 496 PA, .159/.292/.277, 11 HR

2012: 614 PA, .210/.339/.489, 41 HR

Once you get past the gaudy home run total, Dunn’s actual production may not look that impressive, but owners knew what to expect when they took him: Home runs, strikeouts by the boatload, and a far better OBP than average. The problem with Dunn’s 2011 wasn’t his abysmal average, though .159 is reprehensible even by Dunn’s standards, it was that there was no upside. His 11 home runs in 2011 tied him with such sluggers as Jason Varitek, Scott Sizemore, and Casper Wells, all of whom finished with better production than Dunn. In fact, Dunn’s .569 OPS was the lowest mark recorded by anyone who hit 11 home runs that season! His poor season was made all the more galling by the fact that expectations for him were sky high because of his move to hitter-friendly US Cellular Field. 60 home run predictions weren’t outlandish and it showed in his ADP of 41.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of UTL only guys generally speaking, so I’ve got to say that my heart isn’t really in the fight for Dunn, especially when he’s not actually coming back from anything except overly optimistic expectations and an unbelievable record of failure against lefties — .064/.235/.074 in 115 PAs for those who had repressed it. There’s no doubt that Dunn’s resurgence has been a boon to the White Sox, but if we’re picking a winner, he isn’t even the biggest fantasy zombie on his own team, since Rios came from deeper depths and moved to higher heights. Still, there was nonzero chatter that Dunn was finished and he has certainly proven that to be incorrect this season. It’s a safe bet to suggest his 2013 ADP will be much higher than his 225 in 2012.

Honorable Mention: Justin Morneau, Kendrys Morales, Allen Craig, Carlos Gomez

If we simply look at the difference between WAR or wRC+ values, it’s hard to look past Rios as the 2012 Fantasy Zombie, but I just can’t vote that way. Like Rios, LaRoche went from a negative WAR in 2011 to a distinctly positive one in 2012, but with the injury added into the equation, LaRoche just feels more like a comeback case instead of a victim of huge year-to-year swings. I’m willing to hear reasonable arguments for any of the guys I’ve listed above or if you think I’ve left someone out, just leave your thoughts in the comments.