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September 4, 2014

The Lineup Card

Nine Comeback Player of the Year Candidates

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Aroldis Chapman
Most of the time, "Comeback Player of the Year" refers to a guy who was hurt last year or who was just plain awful, and then, after a visit from his fairy godmother, suddenly got his groove back. But remember back in March, when Chapman, pitching in a spring training game against the Royals, was hit in the head by a liner off the bat of Salvador Perez? Chapman did miss a month for recovery from his wounds, but he came back into the Reds bullpen and has been back to his amazing self, getting nearly two-thirds of his outs via the strikeout and having a FIP below 1.00.

It's not easy to come back from something like that. In addition to the physical wounds that Chapman suffered, he also had to go back onto a pitching mound knowing that... well, that could happen again. And he did it. To me, although he's been here for years, I feel comfortable calling it a comeback. —Russell A. Carleton

2. Jake Arrieta
When the Cubs acquired Arrieta last summer from the Orioles, they weren't getting a top pitching prospect. Arrieta was viewed as a pitcher with the stuff to succeed, but neither the command nor the confidence to harness his talents. However, the Cubs were willing to bet on that stuff and believed that their coaching staff would be able to extract the potential that once made Arrieta a top talent in the Orioles farm system.

With the help of pitching coach Chris Bosio, along with dogged work ethic and finding the right frame of mind, Arrieta appears to have finally become the pitcher many hoped he could be. With some mechanical tweaks as well as a deep arsenal of pitches to pull from, Arrieta has emerged as the anchor of the Cubs staff.

Arrieta has a 2.81 ERA with a 25.9 percent strikeout rate and a 7.1 percent walk rate in 134 1/3 innings, leading one to believe that his success this season is likely sustainable. With the bounce back of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, along with a plethora of position prospects beginning to impact the major league roster, having Arrieta develop into a legit top-of-the-rotation force has sped up the Cubs rebuild and given them a real chance to surprise in 2015. —Sahadev Sharma

3. Starlin Castro
By any measure, advanced or traditional, Starlin Castro was an unmitigated disaster in 2013. He was the worst regular in baseball as the Cubs tried to tinker with his swing and teach him some patience at the plate. There were a myriad of questions surrounding the shortstop heading into the year as no one was certain what to expect from the young Castro in 2014. He’s shown up in a big way en route to posting a 3.7 WARP (projected to finish with a 4.1), 48 extra-base hits and a .290/.338/.436 slash line. He’s likely to set a career high in homers, walks, and doubles this year. After cratering in 2013, it would appear that Castro’s career is back on track. —Mauricio Rubio

4. Melky Cabrera
Cabrera was coming off an injury-plagued, PED-smudged 2013, but the Blue Jays didn't give themselves much in the way of corner outfield depth going into 2014. Luckily for them, Cabrera has made that depth unnecessary, his .831 OPS second only to Justin Upton's among everyday left-fielders (of which there are surprisingly few throughout the majors). Most importantly, Cabrera has played in 135 games, well on his way to another season of 150-plus games and putting himself in a good position as he hits free agency again. —Adam Sobsey

5. Chris Young
About a month ago, my wife was watching some home-and-garden channel about luxurious home pools—I’m not sure which one, they all blend together so seamlessly—but I perked up during a show about pools, particularly a segment about one belonging to “Mets pitcher Chris Young.” This was helpful. It dated the show—Young last pitched for them in 2012, and not well—and it also indicated it was not Chris Young, the Mets hitter. I don’t know what kind of pool he has.

Young the pitcher hasn’t actually very good since 2007, mostly because of assorted injuries (and not Tommy John!). He didn’t even touch the big leagues last year, splitting time between the Nationals farm system and the DL, and I’m not sure which fate is gentler. Knock on all the wood you can find in your house but this is the first year Young has not visited the disabled list since 2006.

He could have finished his career known as the former pitcher with a great pool, and hosted fancy pool parties and skinny dipped at night, staring at the moon in peace and harmony, pondering the intricacies of life. Instead he chose the Mariners, who signed him after being released by the Nationals out of spring training. Okay, he’s having one of his worst seasons FIP-wise, mostly because his K-rate is among the worst, but a pitch-to-contact flyball pitcher will survive at Safeco Field. All told he is the third-best starter on the American League’s best pitching staff and is a candidate not only for Comeback Player of the Year but also Residential Aquatic Leisure Aficionado Of The Decade. —Matt Sussman

6. Jimmy Rollins
The internet loves beating on the Phillies. The internet loves nothing more than an easy target, and there is no easier target than Ruban Amaro, Jr. We love to paint him as a bumbling fool, destroyer of a once successful franchise, but life isn’t so binary. Even “Ruin Tomorrow, Jr.” has been known to not make a mistake once in a while. Take Jimmy Rollins. Amaro signed Rollins to a three year, $33 million contract following a 2011 season that saw the then-33-year-old shortstop put up 4.4 WARP season. At the time the internet saw the contract and howled. “How can you give that contract to a player that old?!,” we/they screeched. 2012 saw Rollins drop to 3.3 WARP and then to 1.2 last season. This season was expected to be similarly bad or possibly even worse. Yet, Rollins has been *gasp* good! Very good, even! To date he’s put up 4.4 WARP again and with a month to go he has a chance to post his best overall season since 2008. What’s more, he had his best defensive season by FRAA (+9.7) ever. Was Amaro wrong to give a shortstop approaching his mid-30s a three-year deal with a vesting option? Hard to say whether the gamble was worth it at the time, but the results have been *gasp* positive! Rollins has been worth a shade under nine wins in total and while it hasn’t made a dent in the Phillies overall awfulness, he’s been the second best shortstop in baseball this season (by BWARP). Jimmy Rollins has made Ruben Amaro look good, and as the internet will eagerly tell you, that’s not an easy thing to do. —Matthew Kory

7. Tim Hudson
Hudson's 2013 season ended with the right-hander down in a world of hurt, the result of a broken ankle suffered while covering first base on July 25th at Citi Field. The runner, Eric Young Jr., inadvertently stepped on Hudson's foot as the two met at the bag, and the injury was gruesome enough for many to wonder if the 38-year-old's career might be in jeopardy.

But Hudson underwent surgery the next day, and less than four months later, he became one of the first free-agent pitchers to find a new home. The former A's hurler signed a two-year, $23 million pact with the Giants, who assumed a bit of risk surrounding Hudson's recovery in exchange for a bargain-bin arm for the middle of their rotation.

Few could have expected as terrific a start to the season as Hudson delivered. He began 2014 with four consecutive walk-less outings, and while that stretch came to a halt, when the calendar reached June 12th, Hudson's ERA was still below 2.00. That wasn't sustainable, of course, and there have been rough patches interspersed with crafty dominance ever since. But it's September now, and Hudson's ERA is still just 3.08. His walk rate is still a career-low 4.2 percent. And his K:BB ratio a career-best 3.70.

Hudson's 3.41 FIP is two points lower than the 3.43 mark he posted in 21 starts before the freak accident that ended his season. You might say he's picked up almost exactly where he left off. —Daniel Rathman

8. Scott Kazmir
Scott Kazmir has been quite the story this season after his incredible comeback with the Indians last year. He has been absolutely brilliant with the Athletics.

Kazmir's two-year, $22 million contract stirred some controversy, because there still was a risk with the lefty being only two years removed from surgery. Kazmir went on to pitch 159 1/3 innings to date registering a 3.48 FIP with 132 strikeouts to 42 walks. He also returned to the All-Star Game in July after a six-year drought since 2008. Kazmir also has pitched to a career-low 2.4 BB/9. His resurgence has the A's poised for a deep run in the playoffs with their impressive rotation this October. —Rob Willer

9. Pat Neshek
Back in 2007, the submarine styling of Pat Neshek was sweeping the league. Opposing batters had a very difficult time picking up the baseball out of hand, putting him in a select category (along with Chad Bradford) of pitchers that could get their knuckles dirty on any delivery. The fastball had an upward trajectory from release point to the plate, resulting in a very high frequency of infield pop-ups (21 percent of fly balls allowed) that fueled his low rate of 5.6 hits allowed per nine innings.

Disaster struck in May of 2008 with a torn UCL that necessitated Tommy John surgery, knocking him out of big-league action until 2010. His return was brief, as a tendon injury to his throwing hand shelved Neshek in late April, and his return trip was confined to Triple-A Rochester for the summer. The right-hander struggled to find his previous level of effectiveness, and he ping-ponged between Triple-A and the majors for the next couple of seasons. He finally returned to the majors to stay in 2013, re-emerging in Oakland and posting a solid yet unspectacular season in a bit of a mop-up role, with 32 of his 45 appearances coming with the team trailing.

That usage pattern has been reversed this year, as Neshek has rediscovered the glory of that 2007 season. He has been nearly unhittable, beating his career-best with just 4.9 safeties per nine innings while allowing a career-low homer rate of 1.8 percent. His penchant for the infield pop-up has returned with a ridiculous 30 percent rate of pop-ups per flyball (another career-best), and his 59 innings pitched are the most that he has thrown in the bigs since '07. With a 1.37 ERA and K:BB ratio of 8.7, Neshek has earned his way to the back of the bullpen, coming in with the lead in 58.7 percent of his appearances and earning five saves along the way (the first saves of his career). If one listens carefully, the statistical ring of Koji Uehara can be heard emanating from Neshek's 2014 season. —Doug Thorburn

Related Content:  Awards,  Comeback Player Of The Year

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