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September 15, 2005

Prospectus Today

Come Again?

by Joe Sheehan

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The Comeback Player of the Year Award has long been a throwaway honor. Ill-defined and ill-considered, it's occupied a space between the big four (Manager, Rookie, Cy Young, MVP) and sponsored awards such as the Silver Sluggers and any award given out by a magazine, baseball card company or antacid maker.

This year, MLB.com has cemented the Comeback Player's status as a second-class honor by turning it into an award whose winners will be chosen via fan vote. It's not that the fans will do it wrong; I actually expect that, as they do with the All-Star voting, they'll alight on the top candidates for the hardware. Nevertheless, the act of turning this award into a combination marketing event and pharmaceutical ad lessens it.

Where I have trouble taking it seriously is in the lists. To give this credence as a "fan vote," MLB put together lists of six nominees in each league. If you thought the award had been ill-defined before, a peek at the lists would make it clear that no one on Park Avenue had given the matter much thought, either.

In the AL, there's the likely winner in Jason Giambi. Giambi has returned from an injury-riddled season and a controversy-riddled offseason--not to mention a start in 2005 that nearly got him demoted to Triple-A--to be the game's best hitter on a per-out basis. That's a fantastic comeback, and as much as MLB might prefer to not see one of its steroid-tainted names feted, Giambi is the AL's comeback player of the year. He's coming back from both injury and poor performance, and most CpoTYs only have one of those clubs in their bag.

Richie Sexson is the only other legitimate candidate in a weak field. He's put up the highest EqA of his career, while coming off of a season in which he hit about like he always does, but missed five months with a shoulder injury. Sexson represents the "return from injury" track, as opposed to the "return from Guzmania" track.

The rest of the ballot is just weird. In 2004, Roy Halladay was an above-average starter whose season was cut short by injury. In 2005, Halladay was a great starter whose season was cut short by injury. It wasn't a comeback so much as a fluctuation. The same could be said, more or less, for Barry Zito, who's basically been more hit-lucky in '05 than he was in '04, and pitched about as well as he did in '03. Bob Wickman's comeback really occurred in the second half of '04, when he returned from surgery to reclaim his closer job in Cleveland. His year is really no different from any other in his career.

My personal favorite is Jay Gibbons, who has "come back" to be the same inadequate corner hitter that he was before his injury-riddled '04. Whoo. Did the ballot really need to have six names?

The NL ballot is much the same, a mix of legitimate comebacks and head-scratchers. Ken Griffey Jr. and Todd Jones are the highlighted names, and at least one of them is coming back from something. Griffey's story is a great one, even if it is apparently over for the year. Playing in more than 120 games for the first time since 2000, Griffey hit 35 homers and put up a .301/.374/.576 line. He's no kind of center fielder any longer, but that kind of return from multiple short seasons and diminished performance deserves praise.

Jones is having the best year of his life. The problem with giving this kind of award to a reliever is that this is what these guys do. Relievers jump from closer to crap, from ERA's in the 4.00s to the 1.00s, all the time. Ask Keith Foulke. Jones isn't coming back from something so much as he's experiencing 70 peak innings. He's certainly pitched better in '05 than he had previously, but I don't really see where this is a comeback. The guy threw 80-odd innings of league-average relief last year.

Cliff Floyd, Andy Pettitte and Troy Glaus all make the ballot by virtue of being Cliff Floyd, Andy Pettitte and Troy Glaus, but over a full season rather than their injury-plaged 2004s.

You know why I'm even writing this article? There's a guy on the NL ballot who may be the most ridiculous candidate for any award in human history that didn't involve NARAS. Brian Fuentes is apparently having a "comeback," which is interesting because you probably can't find 20 people who knew he was even having a career. Fuentes' entire career consisted of four seasons, two complete. He had a 2.75 ERA for the Rockies in '03, throwing mostly low-leverage relief as the second lefty behind Javier Lopez. His ERA jumped to 5.64 last year in 44 2/3 innings, even though he didn't pitch all that much worse. He made the All-Star team this year because Todd Helton hit .025 in May, and while he's been one of the NL's best relievers this season, to call what he's doing a comeback implies that Fuentes actually was anywhere to begin with.

I shouldn't get so upset about this stuff, but I do. Because of their cross-platform contracts and a growing effort to control message, people are going to be getting their baseball information from MLB, through MLB.com and an MLB channel and, for all I know, MLB telepathy ("more playoff teams""we're losing millions and need a salary cap""be sure to drink your Ovaltine"). If they're going to be the source, I want them to be providing good information. Statistical fluctuation isn't a comeback. If a guy has a major injury, or is an established star who goes Cirillo for a year or Wallach for an election cycle, that's a player who can come back. You can't come back if you were never there, and you can't come back just by playing 25% more than you did last year.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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