Who Will Be the Comeback Players of the Year?

Each year two players, one from the American League and one from the National League, are honored as Comeback Player of the Year.

Whether the player is returning from injury, illness, or ineffectiveness, each winner has overcome a hurdle of some sort and reversed their fortunes from the previous year.

As the season winds down, a few candidates in each league have separated themselves from the pack.

American League

The AL crop of players this year could probably include the entire Boston Red Sox lineup and rotation, but John Lackey, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino have put themselves ahead of the pack.

Former Red Sox Victor Martinez returned to the Tigers after missing all of 2012 – and picked up where he left off with the bat. And of course Mariano Rivera, after missing most of last season, decided to have an elite season on his way into retirement.

After the 2012 season, despite not throwing a single pitch, John Lackey was not a popular man in New England. Saying that Lackey struggled since arriving in Boston (ERAs of 4.40 in 2010 and 6.41 in 2011) would be an understatement. Even factoring in his injury, which ultimately required Tommy John surgery, 2013 was expected to be a return to 2008-2009 Lackey.

That wouldn’t do for the big right hander. Lackey is 9-12 due to bad luck in terms of run support, but his 3.56 ERA is his best mark since 2007. Lackey is striking out batters at a higher rate (7.6 K/9) than any year since 2006 and is issuing walks at the lowest rate (1.9 BB/9) of his career.

Ellsbury entered 2012 with expectations running high. His MVP caliber season the year before looked like his entrance into superstardom. But a fluke shoulder injury resulting from a collision with Reid Brignac altered his season considerably. Even when he took the field, his performance was disappointing.

Turn the calendar to 2013 and Ellsbury was back to his old tricks: he’s leading the league in steals with 52, hitting .299/.355/.424, and playing excellent defense in center field. As a free agent to be, the timing is perfect for him in terms of negotiations. The one thing not going his way: Ellsbury has been sidelined since Sept. 5 with an injured foot.

Shane Victorino looked bad in 2012. His .255/.321/.383 combined performance with the Phillies and Dodgers was the worst of his career. When the Red Sox handed him a 3-year, $39-million deal in the offseason, there were worries that the Sox had signed a free agent after a down year in his early 30s who might not bounce back.

Once again, the Red Sox got everything they expected, and more, from their player. Victorino entered play Tuesday hitting .294/.352/.454 with 21 steals and 14 home runs. He’s missed some time with some small injuries and has been battling a sore hamstring limiting his ability to switch-hit, but it hasn’t slowed him down.

Victor Martinez missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL and with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera already on the team, looked like he might be the odd man out while fighting for playing time because he would essentially be limited to DH. After a big first year with the Tigers in 2011, .330/.380/.470, it was an open question how Martinez would bounce back.

Through May 31 the former catcher had an OPS under .600. It looked like Martinez would be in store for a disappointing season. He had other plans: a .334/.387/.473 line since June 1 would be enough to raise his batting average to .298 entering play on September 17. In May, a .300 batting average for the season looked unlikely, now, it is within reach.

What can you really say about Mariano Rivera? After missing most of the 2012 season he’s come back for a retirement tour pitching better than many ever do at their peak. His 2.30 ERA is the sixth worst of his career. He made his thirteenth All Star Game. And he has 43 saves. It’s like he didn’t miss any time at all.

National League

The NL has fewer major comeback stories. Some that were expected, like the return of Tim Lincecum, didn’t occur as planned, but there are a couple guys who stand out.

Francisco Liriano has had a strange career. He was dominant during his rookie campaign in 2006, teaming up with Johan Santana at the top of the Twins rotation before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Liriano wasn’t himself again until 2010, but then fell apart in 2011 and 2012.

When he joined the Pirates over the winter it looked like a good depth move for a team looking for veteran innings, and a move to the NL can do wonders for a pitcher. Liriano took that as a challenge and has posted the second best ERA of his career, 2.92, has struck out a batter per inning, and after two years of 5.0 BB/9 has scaled that down to a more reasonable 3.6.

Troy Tulowitzki played in just 47 games in 2012 and wasn’t at his best when he was on the field. Losing a player like Tulo is tough for any team, but for the Rockies, losing half of the very productive Tulo-CarGo tandem was brutal.

Healthy again, Tulowitzki has hit .315/.388/.539 entering September 17. While the Rockies are currently in last place, they are part of essentially a three-way tie for third in the NL West with the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants. The speed isn’t there anymore, Tulo has just one steal, 22 home runs by a Gold Glove shortstop is always a nice thing to have.

2014

Looking forward, who might headline this list next year?

Could it be a pair of Angels, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and a third baseman looking to rebuild his value on a one-year deal in Chase Headley? Will an offseason cure C.C. Sabathia of his troubles this season?

It’s tough to predict MVPs ahead of time but Comeback Player of the Year might be just as tough, even with the head start of knowing who performed poorly.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Don’t Blame the Game, Blame the Player(s)

The 2011 season is the low-point for the John Henry-owned Red Sox. Not since 2003 has Red Sox Nation faced such a tragedy. This year, however, there was no Aaron Boone moment to provide a quick death to Boston’s World Series ambitions. This was a death by a thousand paper cuts. Eight-year manager Terry Francona and the Red Sox have already parted ways, on somewhat mutual terms, and general manager Theo Epstein may be next to go. The training staff and pitching coach Curt Young may need to dust off their resumes as well.

Managers do have a limited shelf life (see Joe Torre’s tenure in New York) Tito should not be targeted as the bad guy here. Perhaps Epstein and Red Sox ownership wanted to bring in a different manager didn’t want to change horses in midstream. After all, why mess with success? Theo Epstein, while he shares some responsibility as GM, is likewise not the villain here. On the balance, his moves have been successful, and without injuries to key players, have built another strong core of talent in Boston. Ultimately, the blame for missing the playoffs lies with the players.

Hall Pass

Even among the 25 men who entered the season as the team to beat, there are a few players who get an immediate pass. Jacoby Ellsbury, Marco Scutaro, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon formed the core of a team that looked unstoppable for four months. At one point Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz, and Gonzalez were all in contention for MVP honors, and at the end of the season Ellsbury packed his bags with a better than even shot of walking away with the award himself. We have to wait a few weeks to find out if he’s the MVP, but it’s safe to say his injury-plagued 2010 campaign is in the past for the franchise, the player, and the fans.

While he was on the mound for unlikely comebacks fueled by Orioles’ utility infielder Robert Andino, Jonathan Papelbon’s failing is a product of circumstance. The hard-throwing closer put up his best season since 2007 with rebounds in WHIP, strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout to walk ratio. Whatever the righty had been lacking the past few seasons seemed to have returned. Whether it was mental, physical, or free agent year magic, Papelbon was once again a force to be reckoned with. The truth about relief pitchers, closers especially, is that outside of Mariano Rivera there is no such thing as a guarantee. Even Rivera isn’t perfect, but he sets unrealistic expectations for every other pitcher. If Carl Crawford makes a play that one of the best outfielders in baseball is expected to make, Papelbon gets out of the inning. In the big picture, Papelbon may have been on the mound when the season ended, but he performed as a top tier closer this season.

Without question, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz are absolved from the collapse due to injury. Buchholz’s absence was probably the single largest factor in the Red Sox disappointing finish as his replacements, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, and Kyle Weiland, all failed to perform at his level, but the circumstances regarding his availability were out of his control. Thankfully his back should be fully healed and ready to go in spring training.

Rocks and Hard Places

While Carl Crawford was certainly the most disappointing player on the Red Sox in 2011 (2010: .307/.356/.495 with 19 HR and 46 SB, 2011: .255/.289/.405 with 11 HR and 18 SB), the Red Sox still lead the league in runs, hits, doubles, on-base percentage, and slugging while taking second place in walks and third place in home runs and triples. Don’t let sports radio fool you: this was one of the best teams ever and Carl Crawford’s down year was nothing compared to Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, or Vernon Wells. People are looking to blame beer, conditioning, computers, the manager, pitching coach, and more for the Red Sox bloated payroll and lack of playoff wins since the 2008 ALCS. Those people are wrong. The blame for missing the playoffs (aside from Clay Buchholz’s aforementioned back) rests solely on the pitching staff. Primarily on three men: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and of course, John Lackey.

Don’t misunderstand, Lester and Beckett were valuable contributors this season. Lester made 31 starts, threw 191 innings and struck out almost a batter per nine innings. Beckett enjoyed a tremendous bounce-back season after a very disappointing 2010 and ended the year with an ERA under three for the first time in his career while cutting his walk rate by nearly one per nine innings. Both had terrific seasons.

The problem? Josh Beckett made four starts in September. In back-to-back outings against the Baltimore Orioles he allowed 6 runs. Beckett allowed more than three runs in a start just six times this season: three times against Baltimore and once each against the Yankees, Phillies, and Mariners.

Lester similarly hit a rough stretch at the end of the year. Fresh off a decent outing against the Yankees where he allowed one run over five innings on September 1st and a dominant 7-inning, 11 strikeout, 3 hit, zero run performance against the Blue Jays five days later, a series of bad starts came as a surprise. In his next two starts Lester faced off against the Tampa Bay Rays. He allowed four runs in four innings and four runs in seven innings in Tropicana Field and Fenway Park respectively. He also allowed as many walks as strikeouts (7) over the two losses. Lester would then face the Yankees in a 2.2 inning, 8 run disaster. The Sox lefty did recover somewhat in Game 162, allowing just two runs in six difficult innings, while pitching on three days rest. Although the bullpen would eventually cost Lester the win, this is not the type of game that brings down teams – a few such losses every season are impossible to prevent.

The bigger issue facing Terry Francona heading in to the season finale: with a seriously depleted back end of the the rotation, why couldn’t his aces come through with just one more win? Both starters entering slumps as the season drew to a close left Francona with little ability to right the ship. But two pitchers do not a rotation make. There was another veteran pitcher on the staff. A “bulldog” on the mound who took the ball every five days and liked to see every game through to the finish. A prized free agent acquisition. This was of course, John Lackey.

A New World of Trouble

When the John Lackey deal was first announced the biggest question it raised was “what does this mean for Josh Beckett?” Entering his last season before free agency, Beckett, somewhat replaced by Jon Lester for the title of staff ace since the 2007 season concluded, seemed sure to depart once Lackey was in the fold. Rumors about a bidding war with the Yankees were aleady swirling. The former Angel was no longer at his best, but with Lester ascending to the top of the rotation, Lackey surely could handle the duties of a number two or three starter with Clay Buchholz emerging and Daisuke Matsuzaka still attempting to harness the great stuff he showed in Japan where he was nothing short of dominant.

After the Red Sox extended Josh Beckett, expectations for the starting staff were nothing short of historic. The Red Sox entered the 2010 season with what some termed as one of the deepest, best starting rotations ever assembled (of course, this was before the four-headed monster in Philadelphia). By the end of the opening weekend in 2010, Lackey was not being asked to anchor the staff for years to come, merely to fill a role doing what he did best: eat innings with gusto and give his team a chance to win every time he took the mound. Today, he is possibly the worst pitcher in baseball.

After a disappointing first season in Boston which saw Lackey go 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA, a career worst 1.419 WHIP and the second lowest K/9 of his career it didn’t seem like things could get much worse. He dealt with some off-field issues during the season and was pitching in the AL East rather than the AL West for the first time in his career. A new team, new park, and a new division generate a good amount of slack for a struggling athlete. Lackey entered 2011 with muted expectations.

What happened this season cannot be described as less than disaster. Lackey, a competitor on the mound, had become a shell of himself. This much is not new. What is: after his final appearance of the season, Lackey was 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA. Yes, John Lackey was a .500 pitcher this season. Pitcher wins measure something, but more of them doesn’t necessarily indicate value.

For reference, a quality start consists of six innings of work in which the starting pitcher allows three runs or fewer. In other words, a pitcher who always turned in quality starts would have an ERA of 4.50 at the strictest definition. On June 5th, Lackey’s ERA stood at a whopping 8.01 before his start against the Oakland A’s. The remainder of his season would consist of violent swings – positive and negative outings – but his ERA did trend downwards through the end of August. Although four earned runs in seven innings is not exactly a stellar outing, even against the Yankees.

Again, Lackey is one of the veterans on the pitching staff. He has won a World Series. He has been to the playoffs. Before arriving in Boston, Lackey was in the top few tiers of starting pitchers. As we now know, the Red Sox needed just two more wins (or Tampa Bay losses) in September to have reached the playoffs, one to have forced a 163rd game against the Rays. Oddly enough Lackey would have been in line to pitch that game. In his first three September starts, Lackey faced Texas, Tampa, and Toronto. He allowed six, five, and two runs as the Red Sox lost all three matchups. Against Toronto, while he only allowed two earned runs, Lackey lasted just 5.1 innings.

His next start was against those increasingly pesky Baltimore Orioles. Four and a third innings and eight runs later Lackey was gone. The Orioles lost 93 games this year. Their fourth straight last place finish. The Red Sox offence picked up Lackey by scoring 18 runs that day. When the Red Sox talk about getting Lackey “back on track” they certainly mean fewer outings like that one. Between 2002 and 2009 Lackey allowed six or more earned runs 20 times. In his two years with the Red Sox he has “accomplished” the feat on 12 occasions.

Looking Back

The Red Sox assembled what, at the start of the season, could be called one of the best teams ever. A lost season by Carl Crawford didn’t help them, but didn’t hold back the most potent offense in baseball. While Daisuke Matsuzaka only rarely lived up to the hype surrounding his move to America, his solid contributions, if not spectacular, were a valuable asset out of the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation. As we saw this year, a pitcher who can go five or six innings and not get shelled every time he takes the mound is a valuable guy. Clay Buchholz’s back turned out to be the lead domino which, when time was running out, could not be help up by the veterans of the staff.

In any situation, when things get bad we turn to those who we most believe can save us. For the Red Sox, still possessing two of the better pitchers in the game, the playoffs were not out of reach. Two strong pitchers can carry a team through the Division Series when they are supported by a strong offense. Had Lackey pulled himself together and summoned even his 2009 era self, the collapse would have been sad, but tragedy avoided. The 2011 season was cut short because when the Red Sox needed a hero, the three guys they expected to count on all came up short.


Cross-posted at Sports of Boston