A Look at the Comeback Player of the Year Award

In years past, I’ve looked at players who might win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. I don’t know why, but I just like this award. It sort of gets lost in the shuffle of awards season. It’s usually a feel-good story. I’ve felt like it is interesting to put some statistical context to the award. This year is no different. I never did last year’s post, but I did this in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The methodology remains the same as it did in previous iterations. From the 2013 post:

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.

From there, we have to decide who is really making a comeback. Sometimes, guys just make the leap, or were never really good to begin with. But first, some honorable mentions.

As I’m doing this a little later in the year than I have in the past, more players have climbed over the artificial bars to entry than in year’s past — thus this being “a look” instead of “an early look” like it was in years past. Still, not everyone could clear the bar. Ubaldo Jimenez came close to the threshold, as he has been 1.8 WAR better than last year, but given his performance in the second half, that stat may end up going in the wrong direction before the season is over. Carlos Martinez, another of my favorite players, is also at 1.8 WAR, but doesn’t really fit the spirit of the thing, as he wasn’t really coming back from anything. Daniel Hudson didn’t really pile up the WAR, but he finally made it back to the majors, and given his arduous journey back, that is noteworthy in and of itself.

On the position player side, one person who is sure to garner mention is Prince Fielder, who has been 1.7 WAR better than last season. That doesn’t quite meet the threshold. Also, he was coming up from a negative threshold (-0.3 to 1.4), so overall it’s not like he’s been that fabulous. His teammate, Shin-Soo Choo is just behind him, at 1.5 WAR better than last year. Maybe they could lobby to share the award, but on their own, they pale in comparison to other players.

Now for the “not really comeback players” who got axed.

First for the National League:

2015 NL Comeback PoY Cuts
Player 2014 WAR 2015 WAR Difference
Matt Duffy 0.1 3.8 3.7
Joc Pederson 0.1 3.0 2.9
Adeiny Hechavarria 0.2 2.8 2.6
Anthony DeSclafani 0.1 2.6 2.5
Joe Panik 1.6 4.1 2.5
Randal Grichuk 0.6 2.8 2.2
Jake Lamb 0.0 2.1 2.1
DJ LeMahieu 0.7 2.7 2.0
Nick Hundley 0.3 2.3 2.0
Francisco Cervelli 1.3 3.3 2.0
Sergio Romo -0.2 1.7 1.9
Yasmani Grandal 0.9 2.4 1.5
Kevin Siegrist -0.2 1.2 1.4
Trevor Rosenthal 1.1 2.2 1.1
Carter Capps 0.2 1.3 1.1
Pedro Baez 0.1 1.1 1.0

And also for the American League:

2015 AL Comeback PoY Cuts
Player 2014 WAR 2015 WAR Difference
Xander Bogaerts 0.3 3.7 3.4
Ryan Raburn -1.3 1.3 2.6
Mike Moustakas 0.6 3.2 2.6
Mike Pelfrey -0.6 1.7 2.3
Billy Burns -0.2 2.0 2.2
Mookie Betts 1.8 4.0 2.2
Erasmo Ramirez -0.6 1.5 2.1
Kevin Pillar 0.6 2.7 2.1
Trevor May 0.2 2.0 1.8
Shawn Tolleson -0.1 1.1 1.2
Justin Wilson 0.2 1.2 1.0

Again, these are players who for one reason or another (are a rookie or close to it, or just were never good before) didn’t have the sort of previous sustained track record of success from which to comeback. It’s cool that they’re doing better this year, but they’re not really the sort of players we’re thinking of here.

And now for the finalists. We’ll start with the National League.

2015 NL Comeback Player of the Year Candidates
Player 2014 WAR 2015 WAR Difference
Bryce Harper 1.5 8.6 7.1
Joey Votto 1.0 6.7 5.7
Matt Harvey N/A 3.5 3.5
Curtis Granderson 1.2 4.5 3.3
Carlos Gonzalez -0.5 2.8 3.3
Brandon Belt 0.9 3.9 3.0
Yunel Escobar -0.1 2.2 2.3
A.J. Pierzynski -0.6 1.7 2.3
Ryan Braun 0.7 2.7 2.0
Jaime Garcia 0.4 2.3 1.9

Well, that’s pretty stark. If Bryce Harper doesn’t win the NL Most Valuable Player Award, he should at least win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. While it seems like maybe he’s too young to win such an award, Harper was a two-time All-Star heading into last year’s clunker of a season. He didn’t miss the whole season, but he was on the disabled list for 57 games (65 days) with his left-thumb injury. He hit roughly the same before and after his injury, but his 115 wRC+ in 2014 paled in comparison to his 137 wRC+ in 2013, and was even lower than his 121 wRC+ as a rookie. In both of those seasons, he posted 4+ WAR. Last season, well, you saw it above. This season, he is having one of the best non-Barry Bonds seasons with the bat that anyone has ever had.

There’s only one real argument against giving the award to Harper — he was supposed to be doing this. Or, if not supposed to be doing it, expected to be doing it. Joey Votto, on the other hand, we weren’t too sure about. We were hoping he would be back to vintage Joey Votto, but there were definitely doubts. The same can be said for Matt Harvey (and really, anyone coming back from Tommy John surgery). Curtis Granderson and Carlos Gonzalez don’t garner as much attention as the three players above them here, but it is nice to see them come around, especially after some idiot wrote off CarGo earlier this season.

2015 AL Comeback Player of the Year Candidates
Player 2014 WAR 2015 WAR Difference
Logan Forsythe -0.4 4.2 4.6
Jason Kipnis 0.7 4.9 4.2
Kendrys Morales -1.8 1.6 3.4
Chris Davis 0.8 4.1 3.3
Manny Machado 2.3 5.6 3.3
Mitch Moreland -0.6 2.1 2.7
Alex Rodriguez N/A 2.6 2.6
Carlos Beltran -0.6 1.4 2.0
Franklin Gutierrez N/A 2.0 2.0
Mark Teixeira 1.0 2.9 1.9
Jose Iglesias N/A 1.8 1.8

The American League doesn’t seem as clear cut as the NL. On the one hand, it would be great to recognize Logan Forsythe for his excellent season. On the other hand, he’s not really coming back from anything. I probably should have cut him and listed him in the table above, but since he’s number one by my methodology here, that seemed too convenient. Any recognition for him will probably be limited to this article, and that may actually not be better than nothing, but it’s the best I can do.

Moving down the list, Kipnis is an easy candidate to like for this award. He and Harper went down around the same time, and while Kipnis wasn’t out as long as Harper was — he came back a month earlier — he may have done himself a disservice by coming back from his oblique injury too soon. When he went down, he was rocking a 117 wRC+. From his return at the end of May until the end of the season, Kipnis posted just a 75 wRC+, nowhere near his previous level of play. His power was way down. Basically, not a lot went right for the 2013 All-Star in the 2014 season. This season, he’s back on track. His 4.9 WAR is second on the Indians only to Corey Kluber, and he once again looks like who earned a six-year extension at the beginning of last season.

Of the remaining contenders, Kendrys Morales makes a strong case, but they may all fall in the shadow of Alex Rodriguez. What Rodriguez has done perhaps isn’t as impressive as his peers, but considering his circumstances — having a whole year off and then coming back at age 39 — what he’s done is pretty remarkable. He’s just one of three 39-year-old (or older) position players in the game this season, to give you a little context. To add even more context, he has become just one of six players ever to hit 30+ home runs at age 39 or older. In terms of wRC+, he is tied for 11th, and could end up in the top 10. That’s, um, good and stuff.

Bryce Harper and Alex Rodriguez are at the opposite ends of the age spectrum. But after not playing up to snuff/not playing at all in 2014, they have been back in the saddle in a big way in 2015, and may just take home some Comeback Player of the Year Award hardware.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Mike B.
7 years ago

Joey Votto and A-Rod seem like the likeliest candidates to win. As for players aged 39+ who hit 30+ home runs, let’s not forget –that would make Aaron and Bonds the only players 39 and over to hit 40+ HRs in a season. (Aaron didn’t show up in your query because his 465 PA were below the “Qualified” threshold.)

Mike B.
7 years ago
Reply to  Mike B.

Whoops, somehow screwed up the HTML tag. I wrote: “…let’s not forget Hank Aaron’s 1973 season in which he hit 40 HRs at age 39”

7 years ago
Reply to  Mike B.

Arod won’t win no matter how much (if) he deserves it. Harper won’t either. For Arod, it’s because people hate him. For Harper, it’s because he didn’t really “come back,” he more like exploded. The difference between his 2014 season and his 2012-13 seasons is nothing compared to the difference between this year and what he’s done before.

The winners will be either Votto, Harvey, Granderson, or CarGo in the NL and either Teixeira or Kipnis in the AL. I’ll say Votto and Kipnis.

Guys under 30 don’t win this award unless they were out for most/all of the year before. It’s usually a veteran who wasn’t good and got hurt the year before and has had a nice bounce-back season.

7 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

I think you are fooling yourself if you think that “hating A-Rod” is still an actual thing, let alone still a common narrative.

Also, it is interesting you chose Kipnis… he was projected for a higher wRC+ (105) than both Tex (102) and A-Rod (92) and has an ACTUAL wRC+ which is WORSE than both Tex and ARod.

I’d also argue that some (probably you) had expectations that A-Rod would be an unmitigated disaster, so to put up a well-above average season and provide much more production than anyone expected is probably in the truest spirit of the award.

7 years ago
Reply to  ReuschelCakes

The BBWAA is not going to give a guy an award for “coming back” from being suspended (they will also conveniently ignore his injury plagued 2013 season). I’m not talking about what’s fair. And yes, I thought Arod would be terrible like everyone else but no his is not the prototype season for this award.

Ullu ka Patta
7 years ago
Reply to  ReuschelCakes

I likewise think you are fooling yourself if you think that A-Rod carries little or no baggage anymore. I bet if you took a poll you’d find the majority of people still think he’s in the Lance Armstrong, Roger Clemens pantheon of ‘people who cheated and by all accounts are colossal jerks as well’. And I don’t think many outside NY would consider him eligible for a comeback award considering what he’s coming back from….Yankees fans have to admit they too would still be pillorying this guy (like they were as little as 6 months ago) if he hadn’t hit 30 hr for them.

7 years ago
Reply to  ReuschelCakes

Have you listened to any away game played by the Yankees, in any stadium? You always know when ARod is stepping out of the warmup circle before he’s even announced because the booing from the crowd precedes him.

I’m used to hearing it in Seattle because of his particular history there (I’m not sure if spectators still shower him with fake money) but I was surprised to hear it on a Blue Jays broadcast. And an Orioles broadcast. And an Angels broadcast. And several more.

7 years ago
Reply to  ReuschelCakes

It’s not because I hate A-Rod, but I really don’t want to see him win this award. It just doesn’t fit the spirit of the award to give it to a guy coming back from a long suspension. It’s his own fault he had to sit out last year, not because of a down year or an injury.