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Making the cases for the 2018 NL and AL Comeback Player of the Year Awards

Which major-leaguers did the best job of putting themselves back on the map this year?

MLB: NLDS-Atlanta Braves at Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 season is over, and that means the debates for some of Major League Baseball’s prestigious regular-season awards — the Most Valuable Player, the Cy Young, the Gold Glove, the Silver Slugger, the Manager of the Year, and the Comeback Player of the Year — are about to begin.

In this series, we are going to make cases for those players and managers who are in the running for these awards to come away with the hardware in their respective leagues. We will continue our series by examining the candidates for both the American League and National League Comeback Player of the Year Awards.

The CPOY Award is arguably the most confusing of baseball’s officially-recognized postseason awards, as it’s supposed to go to the player who best “re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season.” Despite that criteria, it often ends up going to players who simply broke out and were never that good beforehand, or ones who were always good and simply got a little bit better without actually enduring any significant struggles.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: The Sporting News has named a Comeback Player of the Year in each league on an annual basis since 1965, based on a player vote. Major League Baseball got in on the action in 2005, utilizing a vote by a panel of beat writers, and since then there have only been four instances in which the winners haven’t been the same in both votes. This sure feels like a year in which the results could be different, though; Matt Kemp, who has not posted a below-league-average park-adjusted OPS since his rookie season in 2006 and played in more than 115 games for a fifth straight season this year, won the Sporting News NL CPOY. He certainly opened eyes with a spectacular first half — and it’s easy to see how that could shape the opinions of players who aren’t closely examining league-wide stats on a daily basis — but in reality, his season really wasn’t terribly different from what he’s done in the recent past. His finished with a 121 OPS+, one point lower than his career 122 mark in that category, and while it was 20 points better than the OPS+ he posted last year, it wasn’t necessarily elite from an offensive standpoint. He finished with 21 homers, only two more than the 19 he hit with the Braves in 31 fewer games last year, and his -1.7 defensive WAR was only slightly better than the -2.2 mark he accumulated in 2017. So, essentially, the players are rewarding Kemp — who has always been good offensively, has struggled defensively for this entire decade, and hasn’t been kept off the field by a significant injury since 2013 — as a “Comeback Player” because he joined a new team and was slightly better than he’s been over the last few seasons. While Kemp’s strong season in his return to original club was inspiring, no doubt, you’d like to think the writers will be a bit more meticulous in their analysis and reward a player who made a more legitimate comeback.

Meanwhile, David Price won the SN version of the AL CPOY and seems to be the most popular candidate to win the MLB-sanctioned version of the award, even if he’s not absolutely the most deserving recipient. More on that below, but for now, here are the five most deserving candidates for the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award:

Derek Holland, LHP, Giants

Though he was once a key member of the rotation for two pennant-winning Rangers clubs, the 31-year-old Holland’s stock was in the cellar heading into the offseason. After battling injuries (microfracture knee surgery and recurring shoulder pain) and being limited to 35 starts over three seasons with Texas from 2014-16, he signed with the White Sox for the 2017 campaign and had a career-worst season, posting a 6.20 ERA and 1.71 WHIP with 104 strikeouts and 75 walks in 135 innings, getting demoted to the bullpen in August and then outright released on September 5.

The Giants signed Holland to a no-risk minor-league deal in February, but heading into spring training it looked like his roster odds were slim, as San Francisco began camp with a projected rotation of Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Chris Stratton, and Ty Blach. Perhaps he’d have a chance to pitch himself into a bullpen role, but even that looked unlikely. However, thanks to Holland’s encouraging spring training and injuries to both Bumgarner and Samardzija before Opening Day, Holland ended up starting the Giants’ third game of the season. While he may not have been the most durable starter in the world — he didn’t make a seven-inning start all season — Holland was more effective than the Giants ever could have expected a non-roster invitee to be. He made a team-high 30 starts and was also very effective when pressed into duty out of the bullpen — first for a week in mid-July and then again during the last weekend of the season — posting a 1.86 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP over 9.2 innings of relief. He didn’t allow more than four earned runs in a start all year (and gave up four only five times in those 30 starts). He had a 2.83 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 15 appearances (12 starts) after the All-Star break, and his overall 3.57 ERA for the season ranked 15th among qualified National League starters. His 8.88 strikeouts per nine innings were also a career high. He appeared for the most part to be a positive presence both on and off the field for the Giants, and it’d seem to be a good fit for both sides if he re-signs there on a more lucrative deal this offseason.

Jeremy Jeffress, RHP, Brewers

Jeffress’ ineffectiveness has been one of the biggest stories of this postseason, but he was one of baseball’s most dominant relievers during the regular season. His resurgence was a pleasant surprise considering that he was dealt for a relatively anonymous prospect in a “change of scenery” deal last summer and was widely believed to be a non-tender candidate last offseason.

The 31-year-old had been a dominant force for the Brewers in the not-too-distant past, posting ERAs under 3.00 for Milwaukee each year from 2014-16, culminating with an ascension into the closer’s role and a 27-save campaign in ’16. But he was traded to Texas in five-player deal at the deadline that year, and his career quickly took a turn in the wrong direction. Shortly after joining the Rangers, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated, and since he was placed on the restricted list as MLB investigated the incident, he ended up missing roughly a month down the stretch. Though he pitched decently for Texas over 12 appearances that year, he came back and struggled mightily in 2017, posting a 5.31 ERA and 1.67 WHIP over 40.2 innings for the Rangers, and as a result, the Rangers and Brewers made a deadline trade involving Jeffress for the second straight year, with the struggling right-hander going back to Milwaukee in exchange for 25-year-old relief prospect Tayler Scott — a low-cost, low-risk acquisition the Brewers made in hopes that he could rediscover his form in a comfortable environment. He didn’t exactly do that over 22 appearances down the stretch for Milwaukee in ’17, posting a 3.65 ERA and a concerning 1.58 WHIP over 24.2 innings, and there were plenty of experts who thought the Brewers would let him go following the season rather than paying him in his second year of arbitration eligibility. Instead, they signed him to a club-friendly deal with team options for 2019-20.

He’s rewarded them for that faith this year (playoff struggles aside), throwing for a ridiculous 1.29 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP over 73 appearances, tied for eight-most in the NL, and 76.2 innings, alone for eighth in the league. He stepped back into the closer’s role late in the season and collected 15 saves, helping the Brewers to the NL Central title.

At least in terms of on-the-field stuff, Jeffress didn’t face quite as much adversity over the past couple years as other guys on this list did, and it’s unlikely that the voters would give the award to a player bouncing back from off-the-field struggles. With that said, he had a fantastic 2018 season and has managed to work his way back into the elite class of relievers after looking like he was on the verge of being out of the league last year.

Wade Miley, RHP, Brewers

The 31-year-old Miley was arguably the worst pitcher in the majors last year, posting a 5.61 ERA (second-worst among pitchers who threw at least 150 innings) while ranking worst among that group in WHIP (1.73) and walks per nine (5.32) over 32 starts (157.1 innings) for the Orioles. He understandably remained unsigned deep into the offseason, and when the Brewers finally signed him to a minor-league deal on February 16 — making him an option in an unheralded starting rotation — they were skewered in some circles for adding him rather than one of the more prominent, still-available starters such as Alex Cobb or Jake Arrieta. After an up-and-down spring training that ended with a groin injury, it looked like the 2012 NL All-Star’s time in a Brewers uniform might be extremely brief. But Milwaukee’s front office was encouraged enough by his spring performance to allow him to stick around, and Miley didn’t exercise the opt-out he had in his contract at the end of the spring, so he rehabbed and made his official Brewers debut on May 2.

Unfortunately, after he allowed one run over six innings in that start, he exited his second start after just 19 pitches due to a right oblique strain, and that injury kept him out of big-league action until July 12. Since returning from the oblique strain, though, he’s been fantastic — he’s pretty clearly been Milwaukee’s most effective starter, and his 2.32 ERA ranks fourth among all NL starters with at least 70 innings pitched and seventh among all major-league starters with that many innings. Like Holland, he doesn’t get past the fifth inning too much, but he was consistently solid in the opportunities that he was given — he didn’t allow more than three earned runs in a start over any of his 15 starts this season. While it shouldn’t factor into the vote, Miley has also built upon his resurgent 2018 season during the Brewers’ playoff run and has arguably been their most trustworthy starter, shutting out opponents over 10.1 postseason innings. Considering the two injuries that held him back this year, Miley probably doesn’t have enough of a regular-season body of work to win the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award, but the success that he’s found after such a rough 2017 season is admirable.

Anibal Sanchez, RHP, Braves

Coming into this season, who had 34-year-old Anibal Sanchez being arguably the most consistent starter on a division-winning playoff team? Maybe his close friends and family, but even that’s probably being optimistic. The longtime Marlins and Tigers starter, who finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2013, had trended downward for each of the past four seasons, posting ERAs in every year since 2014, getting demoted to the bullpen for stretches in both 2016 and 2017, and accepting a nearly-month-long optional assignment to Triple-A Toledo last summer. Seeing as he had experienced such a drop-off and had already earned over $95 million throughout his career, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see him retire after last season. He kept grinding, though, taking a non-guaranteed deal with the Twins in late February. After allowing six runs over four spring innings, he was released and promptly signed a minor-league deal with the Braves. Though he didn’t make the Opening Day roster, he was quickly called up to the majors, and in one of the most surprising developments of the season, he rediscovered his form as a shutdown starter. Though he spent nearly six weeks on the DL near the beginning of the season due to a hamstring strain, he was consistently effective whenever he was on the mound, posting a 2.83 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 25 appearances (24 starts), striking out 135 and walking 42 over 136.2 innings.

It’s mystifying, quite frankly, that Sanchez was not among the leading vote-getters for Sporting News’ NL CPOY — perhaps it’s because he had so much competition on his own team, with reliever Jonny Venters returning from three-and-a-half Tommy John surgeries and 34-year-old outfielder Nick Markakis having his best season of this decade. Sanchez’s resurgence was the most pronounced of those three, though, and hopefully the writers will give him the recognition he deserves.

Will Smith, LHP, Giants

Recovered Tommy John surgery recipients are perhaps a bit cliché when it comes to Comeback Player of the Year candidates, thanks to the relative harmlessness of the procedure and the frequency with which its recipients fully recover. Smith, who underwent Tommy John in March of 2017, is the token TJ recipient among this year’s NL candidates, as he enjoyed a career-best season after returning to the majors on May 2. Thanks to a disastrous final outing during which he allowed four earned runs on four hits and two walks over an inning, he finished with a 2.55 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP. Prior to his last appearance of the season, however, Smith boasted a 1.90 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP, and a .179 opponent batting average. He still finished the year with elite peripheral numbers — he ranked fifth among NL relievers with at least 50 innings pitched in strikeouts per nine innings (12.06), 14th among that group in walks per nine (2.55), and eighth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.73). His ERA and opponent batting average were both career bests. Though he didn’t receive nearly as much attention — that can probably be blamed partially on reliever fatigue among baseball fans and partially on the existence of Josh Hader — Smith had numbers roughly equivalent to the 2017 version of Andrew Miller prior to his horrific final appearance. The way one appearance watered down his final baseball-card numbers, combined with the fact that he was a reliever on a bad team, likely takes him out of the running for NL CPOY. But Hader was the only lefty reliever in the majors that was head-and-shoulders better than Smith this year, and the fact that the 29-year-old not only bounced back from Tommy John, but came back as a better pitcher than ever before, deserves recognition.

Because he went from being a guy who was pitching his way out of the major leagues to arguably the most consistent starter on a division winner, I’ll pick Sanchez as my NL Comeback Player of the Year.

And now for the five most deserving AL Comeback Player of the Year candidates:

Matt Duffy, 3B, Rays

Duffy’s career seemed to be in rather serious jeopardy as last season came to a close. He suffered an Achilles injury while with the Giants in mid-June of 2016 that effectively ended his tenure in San Francisco, as he remained on the DL until he was traded to the Rays on August 1. Though he got back on the field down the stretch that year and played in 21 games for Tampa Bay, he was shut down after September 5 and underwent surgery to repair the nagging injury. It was initially believed that he’d be good to go for spring training, but the pain persisted, and aside from a trio of appearances in minor-league rehab games, he missed the entire 2017 season.

Though Duffy had an opportunity to earn playing time at his most comfortable position of third base this spring following the trade of Evan Longoria to the Giants, there wasn’t a totally clear spot for him in the Rays’ plans, as prospects Willy Adames, Christian Arroyo, and Daniel Robertson as well as veterans Brad Miller and Adeiny Hechavarria appeared primed to contribute in the infield. With a strong spring training, however, Duffy earned the job as the Rays’ primary third baseman, and he certainly made the most of the opportunity. While he didn’t flash the power-hitting skills that most other third baseman have today, he finished 12th among qualifying AL hitters in batting average (.294), 14th in OBP (.361), tied for 19th in steals (12), and 23rd-lowest in strikeout rate (16.6%). He finished second only to Matt Chapman among qualifying AL third basemen in UZR/150 (5.8), an impressive feat for a guy playing his home games on artificial turf and coming off of Achilles surgery.

Duffy probably wasn’t well-known enough before his injury layoff — and probably didn’t have a memorable-enough season — to garner serious consideration for the AL CPOY. But when faced with an improbable task — returning from an injury that cost him over a year and trying to replace the most popular player in franchise history at third base — Duffy certainly delivered.

Nathan Eovaldi, RHP, Red Sox

After suffering a rather horrific arm injury with the Yankees on August 10, 2016, tearing both his UCL and his flexor tendon, Eovaldi had Tommy John surgery and began a 22-month stretch of uncertainty. New York designated him for assignment and later released him in November of that year, and after spending the entire offseason as a free agent, Eovaldi signed a rather unprecedented deal with the division-rival Rays as spring training began, receiving $2 million to rehab on Tampa’s dime in 2017, then another $2 million — hopefully to pitch — in 2018. It was a sensible gamble for the penny-pinching Rays, as they wouldn’t be giving up a ton of money in the event that Eovaldi wasn’t able to make a full recovery, but they’d get him at an extremely cheap rate if he ended up being healthy. As it turns out, he more than held up his end of the bargain, returning on May 30 of this year and thriving immediately, throwing six no-hit innings in his first start of the year. He was somewhat inconsistent over the next two months, but over 10 starts, he had a pair of seven-inning scoreless starts, threw six shutout innings another time, and allowed just one run over six starts another time. Though he finished July with a pedestrian 3.80 ERA, he had a stellar 0.94 WHIP at that point. Tampa turned their buy-low gamble on Eovaldi into a rather impressive return on July 25, sending Eovaldi to the Red Sox (his third straight AL East team) in exchange for 25-year-old starting pitching prospect Jalen Beeks.

Eovaldi was once again somewhat up and down with the Red Sox, but his highs were very impressive, most notably his August 4 start, during which he allowed just three hits and a walk in eight shutout innings against the Yankees. He finished the regular season with a 3.81 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP, 101 strikeouts, and just 20 walks over 111 innings — perfectly acceptable for a guy making his return from Tommy John in the AL East — along with an extremely impressive 97.1 MPH average velocity on his fastball.

Much like with Miley, his October performance isn’t going to help his candidacy at all, but Eovaldi has certainly provided further evidence that his comeback isn’t a fluke this month, posting a 1.88 ERA with a 0.98 WHIP while accomplishing the seemingly impossible task this postseason — going seven innings in his first start, then six in his second. Since he missed the first two months of the season, he was probably too late to the game to seriously contend for the award, but his comeback has been truly impressive and will make him an attractive free-agent rotation upgrade for quite a few clubs this offseason.

Edwin Jackson, RHP, Athletics

Heading into the 2018 season, Jackson’s act seemed to be a bit played out — the then-34-year-old had posted ERAs over 5.00 in each of the past two years, and while plenty of fans hoped to see him keep pitching so that he could tie the record for most teams ever played for (13), Jackson quashed that possibility for the time being over the winter by re-upping with the Nationals — who he had already pitched with in both 2012 and 2017 — on a minor-league deal. He didn’t make Washington’s big-league club out of spring training, though, and after two solid months at Triple-A Syracuse, he exercised his opt-out clause on June 1 and signed a minor-league deal with the Athletics later that week. While he didn’t exactly wow anyone during a brief stint at Triple-A Nashville, Jackson was called up to the majors in late June as Oakland dealt with a severe lack of starting rotation depth. Aside from just tying Octavio Dotel’s record by suiting up for his third major-league team — an accomplishment that would have been impressive enough for a 34-year-old in today’s game — Jackson also experienced a major resurgence, having his best season as a starter since 2009. He was a significant force in keeping the A’s above water as they won 97 games and made the playoffs despite injuries throughout the year to starters Jharel Cotton, Kendall Graveman, Paul Blackburn, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Sean Manaea. Though a couple less-than-stellar starts in September raised Jackson’s ERA above 3.00, he still finished the year with some pretty impressive numbers: a 3.33 ERA and a .221 opponent batting average over 17 starts. Jackson probably won’t finish with many (if any) CPOY votes because he hadn’t had success in such a long while and pitched in the majors for just a bit over half the season. But it was heartwarming to see him rediscover just a bit more of the magic that propelled him to an All-Star appearance in 2009, a 149-pitch no-hitter in 2010, and a World Series victory in 2011.

Stephen Piscotty, OF, Athletics

Piscotty was seemingly on track to become a great major-leaguer heading into the 2017 season, as he signed a six-year, $33.5 million contract extension with the Cardinals on April 3, rewarding him for a first full major-league season in which he posted a .273/.343/.457 slash line with 22 homers and a 3.0 bWAR. Immediately after that, though, he was dealt a multitude of extremely unfortunate occurrences. After hitting .229 in April, he went on the DL with a strained right hamstring in early May, and shortly after returning from that injury near the end of the month, he spent roughly a week away from the team for undisclosed reasons. In a heartbreaking twist, he announced upon his return that his mother, Gretchen, had been diagnosed with ALS. He posted an .829 OPS with four homers in June, but he went into a tailspin afterward. Whether or not his mother’s condition was wearing on him mentally, the fact of the matter was that he struggled, posting a disastrous .416 OPS in July before going on the DL with a groin strain midway through the month. He was optioned to Triple-A at the beginning of August, and though he returned late in the month and finished out the season in the majors, he ended up posting a disappointing .235/.342/.367 line with nine homers in 401 plate appearances.

Due to a variety of factors — the Cardinals’ need to shake things up after missing the playoffs for two straight seasons, the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna (who ostensibly took Piscotty’s starting spot), and the front office’s desire to get Piscotty closer to his mother — the 27-year-old outfielder was traded to his hometown A’s for infielders Yairo Muñoz and Max Schrock on the final day of the Winter Meetings. The move gave Piscotty a fresh, new opportunity on the field and gave him a chance to spend valuable time with his mother as her condition deteriorated.

She ended up passing away early in the season, succumbing to ALS less than a year after her diagnosis was announced, but Piscotty persevered over the remainder of the 2018 season and delivered a spectacular tribute to the woman who taught him to play baseball. He finished with a .267/.331/.491 slash line and a career-high 27 home runs as the Athletics reached the playoffs for the first time since 2014. After dealing with a pair of disabled-list stints, a demotion to the minors, a crushing family issue, and a trade over a one-year period, Piscotty rebounded about as well as can be expected. He might not be fully appreciated as a “Comeback Player” because he wasn’t exactly an established star prior to his struggles in 2017, but his redemption story was certainly one of the best in the majors this year.

David Price, LHP, Red Sox

Price was named the Sporting News AL Comeback Player of the Year, so clearly there’s some appetite for him to win baseball’s version of the award. It’s safe to say the five-time All-Star and 2012 AL Cy Young winner didn’t have to climb out of an exceptionally deep valley in order to achieve success this year — despite spending all but six months of his major-league career in the AL East, the 33-year-old hasn’t posted an ERA over 4.00 since his rookie season, and 2018 marked the 10th straight year in which he started double-digit games.

On the other hand, Price has faced some obstacles in recent years that haven’t been totally insignificant. He’s had a contentious relationship with the Boston media since signing a seven-year deal with the Red Sox prior to the 2016 season, and after reaching the All-Star Game and posting a AL-best 2.45 ERA in 2015, he’s been a bit more inconsistent in Boston, posting ERAs in the threes each year (though he did lead the majors in starts and innings pitched in ’16). After a pair of disabled-list stints due to left elbow discomfort last year, there was some thought that he might need Tommy John surgery, and he was limited to 11 starts, plus five appearances out of the bullpen in September. While his numbers weren’t much different than they were in 2017 (3.38 ERA, 1.19 WHIP), Price was once again effective in 2018 over a larger sample size, throwing for a 3.58 ERA and 1.14 WHIP while striking out 117 and walking 50 over 176 innings. After questions arose last year about his durability and long-term outlook, he quieted those concerns and re-established himself as an effective front-of-the-rotation starter. Price might not be the most deserving recipient, but he’s overcome adversity over the last year, and the fact that he pitched for the team with the best regular-season record in the majors should help his cause.

Because of the massive adversity he’s overcome in the last 18 months — most notably the illness and death of his mother, but also being benched, optioned to the minors, and traded mere months after being identified as a franchise cornerstone — Piscotty’s redemption story is the most inspirational in my mind, and he’d get my vote if I had one.