Author Archive

Using History and Steamer to Predict the Comeback Player of the Year Award

While the race for the Comeback Player of the Year (CPOTY) award is nowhere near as fierce or publicly anticipated as the races for major awards like MVP, Cy Young, or Rookie of the Year, it’s still an award rich with history that recognizes some of MLB’s best bounceback seasons. Here, we’ll look at the history of the award, and use some of the trends in the historical data to identify some candidates for the award this upcoming season.

In 1965, the Sporting News gave out its first set of CPOTY awards to Pirates pitcher Vern Law and Tigers first baseman Norm Cash. The award was created to recognize a player who “re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season,” although this ambiguous definition has led to some questionable selections (notably 2001 Ruben Sierra over Juan Gonzalez) and debate over what it truly means. The award is given annually to one player in each league, and is typically given to either a player returning from injury or one coming off a down season to return to a level of success previously achieved in their career. The award has been given by two bodies throughout its history, as the Sporting News presented it from 1965 to 2006, while MLB has given out the award since 2005. Over the life of the award, 106 total player seasons have been recognized, and a few players have won twice.

Looking at a handful of trends within this sample allows us to identify what characteristics of player seasons correlate with winning the award, and therefore may allow us to formulate decent guesses as to what players might have a strong chance to contend for the award in the coming seasons. Some of the more important characteristics of CPOTY award winners include (but aren’t necessarily limited to) performance (both past and in the winning season), whether the player was injured in the season preceding their comeback, the player’s position, and team success. Let’s dig in and look at these trends to construct an ideal profile for a Comeback Player of the Year favorite, then look at what players might fit the bill in the upcoming season.

Performance

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll divide the performance category into three sections: past success (defined as two seasons prior to the comeback season), down season (defined as the season immediately prior to the comeback year), and the comeback year itself. While this isn’t perfect, this division will allow us to easily view the swings in performance that are associated with the award and look for current players that fit that mold. To examine a player’s performance, I looked at WAR for each of the seasons in question because it is a good general guide for player value and encompasses not only ability but also playing time to a degree, since it is a counting stat. For the purposes of this award, a counting stat like WAR is more important than a rate stat like wRC+ or UZR/150 because some winners won the award following a solid but injury plagued season. Performance was considered both by looking at the dataset for the three season groups (2 years prior, 1 year prior, and year of) as well as for the differences between the 2 years prior performance vs the year prior performance and year prior vs year of performance. Below is a box-and-whisker plot showing the distributions of the three year datasets, with WAR on the Y-axis:

WAR bwp

As might be expected, the comeback season group yielded the most value of the three groups, followed by the past success season and then the down season. For the past success season, the middle 50% of values fell between approximately 0.5 WAR and 3.0 WAR, meaning that these seasons typically produced solid but rarely spectacular results. The middle 50% of values for the down season group fell between about 0 WAR and 1.5 WAR, meaning that most seasons in this group produced relatively middling or less value. It is also notable that the median is much closer to the lower quartile (0 WAR) than the higher quartile, and this skewing is because many of these down seasons saw players miss most or all of their season, leading to a significant number of players accumulating near 0 WAR in their down season. Finally, the middle 50% of bounceback seasons saw WAR values between 2.0 WAR and 5.0 WAR, meaning that most winners produced at least above average if not significantly above average value in their comeback season. The following table also shows the mean and median values for the three datasets (also broken down by certain time periods):

WAR Breakdown 2 YP YP Yof
Average (Total) 2.09 0.78 3.55
Median (Total) 2.05 0.35 3.35
Avg (Since 85) 2.07 0.43 3.56
Med. (Since 85) 2.05 0.10 3.10
Avg (Since 05) 2.31 0.40 3.73
Med. (Since 05) 2.15 0.20 3.65

Another way I evaluated performance was by looking at the differences in performance from year to year between the first two years (past success and down season) and the most recent two years (down season to comeback season). As expected, the first group saw a significant drop in performance while the second group typically saw a significant increase, often larger than the initial decrease. The following box-and-whisker plot shows the distribution of both sets of data, while the data table shows the mean and median values.
war diff bwp

WAR Change Diff.
Mean 2YP to YP -1.33396
Mean YP to Yof 2.822642
Median 2YP to YP -1.05
Median YP to Yof 2.6

So our ideal candidate will have put up at least solid value during their past success season, lost a significant chunk of that value the next season, and then experienced a big bounceback the following season, posting solid to excellent value. According to Steamer’s projections, there are 23 hitters and 12 pitchers (two relievers, 10 starters) expected to follow this pattern with a bounceback 2018.

Injury

The next key component of the award is the player’s injury status during the season immediately preceding his comeback. While comebacks from injury have become more prevalent over the life of the award, injury comebacks were hardly recognized early on. The two following graphs will show the number of injury comebacks vs non-injury comebacks over time along with the difference between the two categories and the percent of injured winners over time. (Disclaimer: a good portion of this injury data did come from Wikipedia because I couldn’t find much historical injury info elsewhere, so some of it may be a little inaccurate but should not be so much so that the trends change.)
Inj data

As you can see, the percentage of total winners of the award coming off injury has increased significantly as time has passed, with now nearly half of the award winners coming off injury. The difference has shrunk from a peak of 32 in 1989 to only 12 following 2017’s winners. The trend is even more stark when looking at the data broken up into specific time frames:

Injury Breakdown Yes No
Total 47 61
Since 1985 41 25
Since 2005 19 7

Since MLB took over the award in 2005, the trend has flipped entirely, with injury comebacks making up 73% percent of winners in that span. While there could be other complicating factors at play here, such as increased DL placements since the early days of the award, it still seems clear that suffering an injury during the preceding year has a strong tie to winning the award.

Position

The next characteristic of CPOTY winners is position. For whatever reason, certain positions are disproportionately represented amongst award winners. Here is a breakdown of the winners by position, in table and pie chart form:
Injury

As you can see, the award is most frequently given to starting pitchers, followed by first basemen and designated hitters. Middle infielders and catchers have rarely won the award, while outfielders, third basemen and (especially recently) relievers have received their share. Besides the dominance of starting pitchers, the most striking stat is the prevalence of designated hitters winning the award. While they make up only 11.32% of total winners, it is important to keep in mind that DHs have only been eligible to win 45 potential awards (the number of awards given in the American League since the establishment of the DH rule), so they have won 26.67% of the awards for which they have been eligible, a shocking number for players that only add value on one side of the ball.

Possible explanations for the dominance of certain positions may lie in other factors. Since the award has typically been given based on offensive production without as much regard for defensive value, it makes sense that players at bat-first positions would win the award more frequently than those at defensively oriented positions. Additionally, catchers typically accrue fewer plate appearances than players at other positions, and therefore have less opportunity to accumulate shiny counting stats than designated hitters. Another possible explanation may lie in the fact that a history of prior success is typically a prerequisite to win the award, and that older players are more likely to have an extensive track record of success. Since the award leans toward older, more experienced players, the award is more often given to players at less valuable defensive positions because players tend to move down the defensive spectrum as they age, so more older players are occupying less valuable positions while younger guys handle the tougher assignments. There are certainly other possible explanations for this trend, but some combination of these factors may play a part in the trend of bat-first players winning the award.

It may be tougher to explain the dominance of starting pitchers winning the award. It’s possible that pitcher success may be more subject to season-to-season volatility than hitters (while I haven’t been able to find any statistical studies proving this, it may be an interesting area of future research I’m considering pursuing). Another explanation might lie in the fact that every team typically rosters five starting pitchers and only one starter at each offensive position, but the difference seems stark enough at positions like catcher and shortstop that this seems unlikely. Maybe more pitchers suffer major injuries, causing them to miss significant time? There seems to be some credence to this theory, as only 13.11% of hitters played between 0 and 10 games in their down season, while 20.51% of starters pitched 5 or less games. It’s also possible that the sample still isn’t big enough and that this positional skewing is largely due to random variation. Whatever the case, it seems fair enough to weigh this trend at least a little bit going forward, so in predicting possible 2018 winners we’ll give the edge to starting pitchers, first basemen, and designated hitters.

Team Success

A final factor that has seemingly been of some importance in winning the award has been team success. While nothing about the award necessitates that the player plays on a good team, CPOTY winners have disproportionately come from winning teams. The following table displays some important statistics in terms of team success for award winners, most notably the mean and median team winning percentage, along with the percent of award winners playing on teams with certain win benchmarks. A .615 WP is roughly 100 wins over 162 games, .585 is 95, .555 is 90, .525 is 85, and 81 is .500.

Team Success
Mean WP 0.537594
Median WP 0.552
% over .615 6.60%
% over .585 16.98%
% over .555 50.00%
% over .525 68.87%
% over .500 78.30%

As you can see, both the mean and median winning percentages for teams featuring a comeback player significantly exceed .500 and exceed it by enough that this difference can’t simply be attributed to the contributions of the comeback player in most cases. Even more strikingly, nearly 80% of winners played for teams that finished over .500, and nearly 70% of winners played for borderline playoff contenders or better (85+ wins). The histogram below illustrates the distribution of team winning percentage for players winning the award since its inception:
Team Success

The data is fairly skewed left, with very few award winners playing on truly terrible teams and a very large portion of CPOTY winners playing for teams in the 89 to 94 win range. While it is true that there aren’t necessarily a ton of winners on elite teams, I think it might be fair to chalk that up to the fact that are simply less elite teams than just good teams, so it isn’t that players on elite teams are less likely to win, just that there are less elite teams than good ones historically.

There’s no way to definitively answer why the award voting swings so heavily towards players on winning teams, but the data shows that this is indeed the case. Maybe voters believe that playing on a good team is part of a good comeback. It’s possible that players having bounceback seasons on winning teams are just more visible than those playing on teams going nowhere and therefore unfairly benefit in the voting. Another possibility is that voters are still relying on team-dependent stats like runs scored, runs batted in, pitcher wins, and saves, and guys on worse teams have less opportunity to rack up these stats. Perhaps there’s another driving reason, but clearly the award has historically favored guys playing on winning teams.

After combing through the data, a few characteristics of CPOTY winners have stuck out. A pattern of solid value->drop in value->return to solid-to-excellent-value stands out, as does the recent trend of awarding the CPOTY award to a player returning from injury. An ideal CPOTY candidate would also play on a projected contender and be a starting pitcher, first baseman, or designated hitter. While a player doesn’t necessarily need to meet all of these criteria to win the award and there are some good candidates who don’t (Greg Bird, Mark Trumbo, Dansby Swanson, Alex Reyes, Carlos Gonzalez, etc.), these characteristics have certainly been favored in the voting. Now it’s time to delve into the question of what players might have a good shot at taking home a comeback player of the year award next year.

After looking through the aforementioned group of 23 hitters and 12 pitchers, I decided to cut the sample down some by removing guys that aren’t really ticketed for regular duty next year, don’t project especially well, or never really broke out in the first place. This removed an additional six hitters, leaving 17 hitters and 12 pitchers. The following table further details each player’s candidacy in each of the criteria discussed earlier, sorted by position (Team W% is projected for 2018):
2018 Hitters
2018 Pitchers

Just looking at the two lists, they seem like pretty good groups of names for CPOTY contenders. Davis, Cabrera, Machado, Ramos, Hernandez, and Price especially stick out in the AL, while Eaton, Syndergaard, Cueto, Bumgarner and Cespedes seem like good bets in the NL. Personally, I’d lean towards Syndergaard in the NL and Machado (or Cabrera if Machado is dealt to the NL) in the AL. It’s certainly possible that the award winners this year don’t come from these lists, but based on historical trends, these 29 players seem like solid favorites to take home the Comeback Player of the Year award in 2018.

FanGraphs leaderboards and player stats, Baseball Reference Player Pages, and Wikipedia for injury new were heavily used to do research for this post.


On Drew Smyly, Michael Pineda, and the History of Signing Injured Free-Agent Pitchers

About 12 hours apart, news of two very similar moves broke out of Chicago and Minnesota, as the Cubs agreed to terms with Drew Smyly while the Twins signed Michael Pineda. Both pitchers inked two-year deals with $10-million guarantees and additional incentives based on innings pitched, but the two deals shared an even more important similarity: both pitchers underwent Tommy John surgery this summer and seem unlikely to contribute significantly during the 2017 campaign. Both clubs are clearly betting on a return to health and productivity in 2019 for the two still relatively young pitchers, as evidenced by the financial distribution of the contracts. Pineda is only owed $2 million for the upcoming season but will receive $8 million in 2019, while Smyly will be paid $3 million next year but will pull in $7 million the following year. Since both pitchers underwent surgery around the same time, during the middle of the summer, it seems unlikely that either will throw pitch in the coming season.

While uncommon, these types of deals certainly aren’t entirely unprecedented. The Kansas City Royals have inked three pitchers with similar situations over the past few years, with varying degrees of success. These contracts, given to Luke Hochevar and Kris Medlen in 2015 and Mike Minor the following season, seem to represent the most relevant examples of such a deal. While Minor was non-tendered by the Braves following repeated shoulder issues, both Medlen and Hochevar underwent Tommy John surgery the previous year. All three pitchers would appear for the Royals in the major leagues over the life of their deals, albeit with differing results. Hochevar would appear in 89 games for the Royals, and accumulate only marginal value, as he posted a FIP around 4.00 and tallied only 0.3 WAR combined before succumbing to thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. Kansas City declined their option over Hochevar last winter, who became a free agent and sat out 2017 recovering.

Medlen would also return to pitch in 2015, making eight starts and seven relief appearances for Kansas City. He saw an uptick in walks and a downturn in strikeouts compared to his previous work, but overall pitched his way to a 4.01 ERA with similar peripherals and rang up half a win of value. 2016, however, would not be so kind to Medlen, as he was shelled to the tune of a 7.77 ERA while walking more batters than he struck out and battling a shoulder injury. He would sign a minor-league deal with the Braves after the season, but would not return to the majors. Although he did not appear with the Royals in 2016 after struggling in AAA, Minor marks the largest success story of the three. Over 65 relief appearances, Minor registered a 2.62 FIP and was worth 2.1 WAR out of the bullpen. He recently signed a three-year contract with the Rangers to return to a starting role.

In total, the Royals invested $25.75 million in the three pitchers and saw them accumulate a grand total of 2.9 WAR, with most it coming from Minor. This works out to a $/WAR figure of $8.88 million per win, which is slightly higher than the $8 million per win value assumed of the free-agent market. Based on these three deals, it would appear that this type of signing is not a bargain, but rather an overpay on average. However, it isn’t fair to make such an assumption without looking at a larger sample of data. If we classify a similar deal as one in which a team signed a pitcher that was injured at the time of the signing and expected to miss at least part of the following season and either signed a major-league deal or a two-year minor-league pact, that leaves us with 18 similar signings since 2007. One of these signings, Nate Eovaldi, has yet to return from his injury but should in 2018, so we won’t include him in the sample.

These 17 signings correlate to 25 player seasons following injury, with 24 of those representing guaranteed contract years, as well as one option year (Joakim Soria, 2015). The breakdown of these player seasons by games, innings pitched, strikeouts, walks, earned runs, and WAR are presented in the table below:

G IP K BB ER WAR
Total 447 725.2 606 246 347 6.9
Mean 18 29 24 10 14 0.27
Median 7 20 15 6 10 0

Altogether, when on a big-league mound, the group pitched to a 4.30 ERA to go along with a 7.52 K/9 and a 3.05 BB/9, numbers not entirely dissimilar from, say, Dustin McGowan or Sal Romano in 2017. So even the healthy group put together fairly middling results, but it’s also important to remember that eight of these player seasons wouldn’t see the player throw a single big-league pitch, and therefore provided no value to the club. Let’s plot the distribution of value produced by WAR:

INJ FA Pit WAR

That 2.1 WAR recorded by Minor last season was the highest figure of any player season in the sample, and besides Mike Pelfrey’s 2013 season, no other player season really comes close. Of the 10 player seasons recorded by primarily starting pitchers, only Pelfrey’s season even came close to average production, as every other starter either wasn’t durable or good enough to rack up any significant value. On the relief side, Minor and 2014 Joakim Soria both excelled, but no other relief season (out of the 15 in the sample) even crossed the 0.5 win threshold. As with the Royals pitchers earlier, it is important to look at these deals from a value standpoint. We can do this by calculating $ per WAR for the whole sample to find a mean, and for each deal to find a median, and visually represent the distribution. Overall, teams invested a total of $78 million in these 25 player seasons, with $71 coming in guaranteed money and $7 million in Joakim Soria’s club option. All minor-league deals to MLB veterans were assigned a dollar value of $333,333 for ease of calculation. Bonuses and incentives were ignored from this figure, as it is very difficult to find these details of the player contracts and few of these seasons would reach such incentives. As we saw above, the sample produced a total WAR of 6.9. This means that on average, teams paid $11.3 million per win when committing money to injured pitchers in hopes of a bounceback, well above the market rate of $8 million per win in free agency. Based on some quick calculations, teams paid that $78 million for production worth $55.2 million, for a net loss of $22.8 million. Let’s now look at the value gained/lost for each contract (in millions of $):

INJ FA Pit Val

As you can see, only five such contracts actually generated positive (above market value of $8 million per win), while the remaining 12 contracts provided their team with below-market value. The mean loss per contract is $1.34 million, while the median is represented by the Phillies’ $700k loss on Chad Billingsley. While neither number is outrageously high, both figures only serve to reinforce the fact that teams have generally lost more often than they have benefited from inking an injured pitcher.

None of this is necessarily to say that the Pineda, Smyly, and Eovaldi contracts are doomed or that no team should ever make this type of investment, but simply to look at how similar deals have worked out in the past. Admittedly, the sample is hardly big enough to make any sort of definitive conclusion, but the overall trend on these “bargain” signings isn’t pretty. Both Smyly and Pineda are better pitchers than most in the sample, so it is entirely possible that they (along with Eovaldi) could significantly shift the outlook on these types of deals in the future. Whether this trio of pitchers can buck the trend or will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors will certainly be an interesting, if minor (pun intended) storyline to watch over the next few seasons.

FanGraphs.com leaderboards, Baseball-Reference transaction data, and MLBReports Tommy John surgery database were all used extensively for this research.