The Sporting News has given out a Comeback Player of the Year award every year since 1965, but in 2005, MLB launched its own official (and sponsored) version of the award to “recognize those players who have re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season." It's not a race that I typically address in Awards Watch, but this year's contenders are so compelling that, having just checked in on all three of the major player awards last week, I'll make an exception and give my top five in each league for this season's honors. We'll return to our regular format by looking at the MVP races next week.
Unlike other awards, there are two components to evaluating a candidacy for Comeback Player of the Year. The first is the quality of a player’s performance in the current year, and the other is what they’re coming back from. In my opinion, a player returning from an injury or other extended absence is a better candidate for this award than a player who simply rebounded from a poor but generally healthy season. It’s also worth noting that a breakout season, such as the one being enjoyed by Mike Moustakas, is not a comeback. The following rankings thus have as much to do with each player’s 2014 season as his '15 performance.
(NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, July 22.)
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Dismiss Rodriguez’s 2014 absence as self-inflicted if you want. The fact is that he still missed an entire season at age 38 and has come back as a better hitter than he was in any of the four years before last. With his start against the Orioles on Thursday afternoon, Rodriguez has doubled his number of games played from '13, and his on-base and slugging percentages are his highest since 2009. His OPS+ is his highest since '08, and he's on pace for 35 home runs, which would be his best total since that season. All of that has come from a player who, because of his suspension, wasn’t even allowed in a ballpark last year and will turn 40 on Monday.
Never mind last year. Prior to this season, Madson last pitched in the majors in 2011. From '07 to '11, he posted a 146 ERA+ as the Phillies' top setup man and occasional closer, and in that final season, he saved 32 games for Philadelphia. That earned him a $8.5 million contract from the Reds that winter, but Madson never threw a pitch for Cincinnati, spraining his ulnar collateral ligament early in spring training of 2012 and undergoing Tommy John surgery that April. Madson’s recovery from that operation was long and arduous: The Reds bought out his option after '12, and the Angels signed him to an incentive-laden one-year deal for '13, but he managed to pitch just one inning all year and spent '14 out of the game entirely.
Brought into camp as a non-roster invitee by the Royals this spring, Madson not only won a spot on the roster of the defending American League champions, he has also emerged as a key arm in the majors' best bullpen. He's regained his mid-90s velocity at the age of 34, and he's arguably been better than All-Star Kelvin Herrera (1.99 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.6 K/9).
The runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2013, Iglesias missed all of last year due to stress fractures in both of his shins. In '15, however, he has returned to prove his rookie campaign was no fluke and to make his first All-Star team, establishing himself as one of the best all-around shortstops in the Junior Circuit.
Still an elite defender, Iglesias’s batting line through his first 82 games this season is a near match for the one he put up in 63 games as a member of the Red Sox two years ago (.330/.376/.409, 115 OPS+), one that seemed to be part fluke and part a product of hitter-friendly Fenway Park. Given how many doubts there were about Iglesias’s bat when he was in the minors, it’s astonishing to think that he may be a legitimate .300 hitter in the major leagues (current career line: .293/.343/.374), but at 25, all indications are that his production at the plate is for real.
Like Rodriguez, Fielder is a veteran star who has not only rebounded from a lost year but has also come back as a better hitter than he was in his last healthy season. Expected to light up the Ballpark in Arlington in 2014 after being traded to the Rangers following a disappointing '13 with the Tigers, Fielder managed just three home runs before succumbing to a neck injury that required a late-May surgery, wiping out the remainder of his season. That procedure, which fused the C5 and C6 verebrae in his neck, is not a common one for athletes; Peyton Manning made a successful return from it in the NFL in '12, but there was no guarantee that Fielder, whose physique had always been the source of concern, would be able to do the same.
As it turns out, he has. Fielder is tied with the injured Dee Gordon for the major league lead in hits with 122; his current on-base and slugging percentages are his best since 2012, and his OPS+ is his best since '11. His power hasn’t come all the way back, but his .182 isolated slugging mark is his highest since '12, and he was legitimately chosen for the All-Star team ahead of Rodriguez.
After making his first All-Star team and finishing 11th in the AL MVP voting in 2013, Kipnis suffered through an injury-plagued '14 in which an early oblique injury and leg soreness in September dragged him down nearly to replacement level via the lousy batting line seen above and poor play in the field. This year, however, Kipnis is fully healthy. He's once again an All-Star and one of the league’s most valuable players (I had him third in the AL MVP race just last week).
He's actually having the best 2015 of any of the five players on this list, but he's also overcome the least of this quintet, which is why he just barely edges out the Yankees' Mark Teixeira and the Royals' Kendrys Morales for the final spot on this list.
Having missed all of last year following October 2013 Tommy John surgery, Harvey has returned with his stuff intact. His fastball still touches 100 mph, his offspeed pitches still miss a ton of bats and he is once again one of the better pitchers in the league. He’s not all the way back, however. His command is still lacking at times, and he is prone to the occasional disaster outing. Still, he turned in eight quality starts before his first stinker, and all signs currently point to his making a full recovery and even contending for the Cy Young yet again next year (he finished fourth in the voting in '13).
2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
Season Stats: .298/.413/.512 (154 OPS+), 17 HR, 45 RBIs
2014 Stats: .255/.390/.409 (124 OPS+), 6 HR, 23 RBIs
Leg injuries have plagued Votto in recent seasons. In July 2012, he tore the meniscus in his left knee and returned without his usual ability to hit for power. He rebounded in '13, but last year he suffered a left quad strain in mid-May that cost him 23 games; less than a month after his return, he suffered another quad strain in the same leg that ended his season after just 62 games. He has made a full recovery this year, however, and is on pace to have just the second 30-homer season of his career and first since 2010.
The key piece of information missing from Fernandez’s 2014 stat line above is that he made just eight starts before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament and undergoing Tommy John surgery in May. He's made only four starts since returning from that injury, but as the stats suggest and his velocity would seem to confirm (he's averaging 96.6 mph with his fastball, per BrooksBaseball.net), he is already all the way back. It’s not impossible to envision Fernandez ultimately squeaking past Harvey to claim this award, as Harvey looked better in his first eight starts this year than he has in his last 10, but Fernandez’s season could follow a similar pattern, particularly given that he did not have the extra rehab time that Harvey did prior to his return.
A down-ballot Rookie of the Year candidate in 2011, Espinosa lost both his second base job and his spot on the Nationals’ roster amid a disastrous '13 in which he attempted to play through fractured wrist, then was shipped to the minors in early June and left there. Last year, he rebounded just enough to stick on Washington’s bench and draw playing time at the keystone during Ryan Zimmerman’s stints on the disabled list, but lost his spot in the lineup to deadline acquisition Asdrubal Cabrera down the stretch.
This year, Espinosa was again ticketed for the bench, but Anthony Rendon’s chronic quad strain created an opportunity which he has seized fully, posting career-highs in all three slash stats (not counting his .447 slugging in 28 games in 2010) and rebounding from replacement level to be worth 1.9 WAR just 93 games into the season. In fact, per bWAR, Espinosa has been the Nationals’ second-best position player this season (way behind outfielder Bryce Harper) and is effectively tied with righthander Jordan Zimmermann as the third-most valuable player on the team, behind Harper and ace Max Scherzer.
After saving 101 games for the Orioles in 2012 and '13 combined, Johnson looked close to washing out of baseball last year. Traded to the Athletics in anticipation of a big arbitration payday before the season, he lost the closer job in Oakland in the season’s first week and, after drawing no interest at the trade deadline, was released on Aug. 1 sporting a 7.14 ERA. The Tigers picked him up five days later, but he was nearly as bad for them, posting a 6.92 ERA in 16 games and failing to make a postseason roster that was desperate for relief help.
Having made $10 million in arbitration last year, Johnson's free agency resulted in a comparatively puny $1.6 million contract with the Braves in December, and it was a surprise that he even got a major league deal at that point. Nonetheless, he has emerged as a solid setup man to new closer Jason Grilli, and when Grilli went down with a season-ending Achilles injury earlier this month, Johnson moved back into the closer spot. He has since converted all three of his save opportunities ain that role, which is one exactly zero people thought he’d be filling four months ago.