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September 12, 2012

The Lineup Card

11 Candidates for Best Comeback Player

by Baseball Prospectus

​1. Buster Posey
I attended the Giants game last May 25, watched the hometown nine fall behind 6-2, and bolted for the exit after a fruitless bottom of the eighth inning, one of the few times I have ever left a ballpark early. After a 45-minute commute home, during which I followed in disbelief the Giants' four-run, ninth-inning rally, I walked in and flipped on the TV, just in time to see Scott Cousins at third base with one out, five minutes before what, to that point, had been a 27-20 season turned on a dime. You know the rest of that story.

A 2011 return for Buster Posey was out of the question, but it begged a host of others to which there were no immediate answers: Would he be ready for spring training? Would he still be able to catch? Would he hold up over the course of a 162-game campaign? 

Ready for spring training? Check. Still catching? You bet. Holding up down the stretch? Better than ever. After months of fretting, I'm writing this entry from my living room, proudly wearing my favorite Giants-themed shirt. It reads: Keep Calm and Buster Posey.

Posey entered Tuesday's game against the Rockies with a .330/.404/.538 triple slash and 21 home runs. Since the All-Star break, he's been the best hitter in baseball, at .388/.464/.654 with 11 big flies. Pablo Sandoval strained his hamstring in late-July. Melky Cabrera was slapped with a 50-game steroid suspension in mid-August. But Posey, together with Angel Pagan and the newly-acquired Marco Scutaro, ensured that the diminished top of the order would continue to produce in their absence. Six months removed from being the biggest question mark on the Giants' roster, Posey has become its surest thing.

Come awards season, two things are as certain as death and taxes: Mike Trout winning the American League's Most Valuable Player distinction, and Posey taking home the senior circuit's Comeback Player of the Year accolades. But Posey has gone far beyond that in 2012. He is polishing off one of the best offensive seasons by a catcher in the past half-century

The National League Rookie of the Year in 2010, Posey's mantel could soon shoulder the load of a rare trifecta. If he outguns Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, and the rest of the field for Most Valuable Player honors, Posey would become the first player since Jose Canseco to be named Rookie of the Year, MVP, and Comeback Player of the Year during the course of his career. 

And he's just getting started. After a prolonged minor-league stay in 2010 and an injury-shortened 2011, this is Posey's first full major-league season. —Daniel Rathman

2. David Wright
There were whispers in baseball circles coming into this season that Mets third baseman David Wright was an "old" 29. Front-office types and scouts wondered if Wright's body was breaking down after playing so hard through the first eight years of his major-league career. Wright had his worst season last year, appearing in just 102 games because of a stress fracture in his lower back that sidelined him for nine weeks. He posted a .254/.345/.427 slash line in 447 plate appearances and barely played above replacement level as he finished at 0.6 WARP. However, Wright has looked like a spry 29-year-old this season, as he is hitting .313/.401/.497 in 588 plate appearances. Most impressive is Wright's 5.4 WARP, which ranks him fourth in the major leagues behind Mike Trout (7.8), Buster Posey (6.0) and Andrew McCutchen (5.6). That shoots a pretty big hole in the idea that Wright might be on the downhill side of his career. —John Perrotto

3. Adam Wainwright
Did you know that there is a well-known pitcher who missed 2011 with Tommy John surgery? He's vital to his team's chances in the playoffs. He's a strikeout-an-inning sort of guy with a low walk rate and gets lots of ground balls with his curve, and he's in the top 10 in (pick your favorite ERA estimator) in all baseball. And the po-po isn't going to shut him down after 160 innings. There's a bias in hearing the word "comeback" to favor guys who were good, then awful, then good again. Wainwright skipped the awful part. Sure, players now generally come back from Tommy John fully recovered, but it's like he never missed a beat. Even though his statline never walked through the valley of the shadow of death (or alternately, where he harvests his grain), Adam Wainwright deserves an award for his ninja-like comeback this year. —Russell A. Carleton

4. Alex Rios
Before there was Ned Colletti grabbing all the massive contracts on waivers, there was Kenny Williams. Almost everyone sat back and had a good laugh when Williams decided to take Alex Rios and the remainder of his seven-year, $69.84 million deal off the Blue Jays' hands in 2009. The outfielder hit a dreadful .199/.229/.301 in 41 games following the claim, worthy of a -0.9 WARP. Though his bat seemed to unthaw a bit in 2010 (well, his .427 slugging percentage, anyway), Rios' 2011 was a disaster overshadowed only by fellow South Sider Adam Dunn's historically abysmal year. The outfielder hit .227/.265/.348 and smacked just 37 extra-base hits in 570 plate appearances, turning in the third-worst hitter season (-1.2 BWARP) among batting title qualifiers. (In case you were wondering, only Casey McGehee (-1.5) and Ichiro Suzuki (-1.3) were worse. Dunn fell six PA short.)

Coming into 2012, PECOTA was optimistic for a rebound line of .259/.312/.418, a projection which Rios has already blown by this season with a .292/.323/.505 line. His .213 ISO ties his career-high mark set in '06, and though he actually has a slightly lower FB% this year, Rios is hitting far more line drives (18.4 LD% in '11 vs. 21.8% in '12) and fewer worm-beaters (42.3% GB% in '11 vs. 39.0% in '12). Overall, he has been worth a solid 4.0 WARP, making 2012 a 5.2 WARP swing and worthy of comeback player honours. —Stephani Bee

5. A.J. Burnett
After a solid first season in New York, A.J. Burnett pitched his way out of the Bronx, ultimately giving the team two years and over 300 innings of replacement-level performance. Now in Pittsburgh, he has remained durable without remaining bad, becoming a rotational anchor for the surprisingly above-.500 Pirates. And lest you think he's a mirage fueled by BABIP, his FIP is only seven-hundredths of a run off his ERA. You can call it a comeback because he left, but the A.J. Burnett that impressed teams oh those many years ago seems to be back, at least for now. —Colin Wyers

6. Lew Ford
With 5.0 career WARP in over 500 games played, and a single-season best of 3.8 WARP, Lew Ford isn't exactly a household name. Playing for the Orioles this year, he has a .232 TAv and a negative VORP and WARP, so he's not having a standout season. Regardless, the fact he's playing for a major-league team this year is nothing short of remarkable. Ford, 35 years old now, last played in the majors as a 30-year-old in 2007. Let that sink in for a second.

Following the 2007 season, Ford played in Japan for the Hanshin Tigers. He would return to the US in 2008, playing much of the year in the Independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball for the Long Island Ducks, before joining the Reds organization in late August and playing in 11 games for Triple-A Louisville. In 2010, he was out of affiliated minor-league baseball, playing the entire season for Oaxaca in the Mexican League. While I can't confirm this, I have no doubt he represented himself much better in the Mexican League than La Flama Blanca. In 2011, he was once again out of affiliated ball, re-joining the Long Island Ducks, where he would also begin his 2012 campaign. Ford signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles on May 18 and crushed the ball for Norfolk, slashing .331/.390/.550 in 267 plate appearances. That stellar play was enough to earn a promotion to the Orioles.

Ford will always be a player I keep tabs on, as I have a strange history with him in fantasy baseball. Coming off his best season, 2004, Ford was an outfielder I wanted in my 12-team mixed league that used unconventional scoring, but I was beat to the punch and unable to draft him. I eventually dealt for him as part of a blockbuster package in which he was a small piece. Ford struggled, I cut bait, but that didn’t end my relationship with him. The owner that initially traded him to me added him from the free-agent pool, and Ford played well. I once again swung a large-scale deal in which I received Ford as a toss-in. Yet again Ford struggled while on my team, and I dumped him, and yet again the previous owner added him from the free-agent pool and watched as Ford played well. Because I'm a glutton for punishment, I worked out a third deal in which I received Ford. The story remained the same, as Ford struggled and contributed nothing to my fantasy squad after being acquired. Thankfully, after cutting him this time, I was finally done with him for good. This is one of the more memorable stories from my nascent stages of fantasy gaming, and because of it, I'll follow Ford's baseball career wherever it takes him. —Josh Shepardson

7. Jason Heyward
It's not often that a kid who just turned 23 years old comes up in a discussion of comeback players, as most players that age are just happy to sniff the majors, but Heyward entered 2012 with more than 1,000 major-league plate appearances on his resume and a roller coaster of a performance record. Back in 2010, the 20-year-old Heyward was ranked as one of top prospects in the game, checking in at number two on Kevin Goldstein's top 101 that season. He exploded onto the scene in spring training with windshield-smashing exploits that were the buzz of the Grapefruit League, and he made such an impression on manager Bobby Cox that Heyward broke camp with the big club.

The success translated to the regular season and Heyward wasted no time getting acquainted with the Atlanta faithful, hitting a three-run home run off of Carlos Zambrano in his first major-league at-bat. Heyward displayed an assortment of tools in his rookie season, and his immense walk rate of 14.6 percent underscored a selective approach that bordered on passive. Expectations were high entering the 2011 season and Heyward responded with a loud April, but thereafter he labored through the proverbial sophomore slump, battling shoulder injuries on his way to a .227/.319/.389 line that put his overall VORP in the red.

All of the performance indicators were heading in the wrong direction coming into 2012, but Heyward has rediscovered his stroke while employing a different approach at the plate. His walk rate is at a career low while his K rate has spiked, yet the batted-ball numbers have improved across the board when compared to his freshman campaign. A line-drive rate that fell five percentage points from 2010 to 2011 has reached new heights by exceeding 20 percent this season, replacing the infield flies that heavily populated last year's batting line.

The most startling change is in the power category, where Heyward has pumped up his home-run rate by more than 50 percent despite a HR/FB percentage that has held firm from last season. The key difference is that Heyward is hitting far more balls into the air, leading to an ISO that is nearly 40 points better than his previous best. He has also added a greater speed element to his game, with 19 steals in 26 attempts this year after going 20-for-28 in the previous two seasons combined. The player comment for Heyward in BP 2012 was prescient in predicting a comeback to 2010 levels, and his skills appear to be coalescing into the superstar that so many had anticipated. —Doug Thorburn

8. Fernando Rodney
Though his hat is still askew, Fernando Rodney’s unprecedented control in 2012 has led to a career year for the seasoned reliever, whose 42 saves and microscopic 0.69 ERA through September 10 represent major-league bests. With 22 games left to play, Rodney has already eclipsed his previous career highs in both saves (37) and strikeouts (65), while participating in his first All-Star game this past July. Now in his 10th big-league season, the historically erratic Rodney has an impressive 1.7 BB/9 rate in 2012, a massive departure from his 4.9 career clip. His 0.78 WHIP trails only the cyborgian tandem of Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman, at 0.68 and 0.76, respectively.

As Tommy Rancel points outs, a handful of factors have contributed to Rodney’s newfound control: abandoning his slider in favor of a fastball/changeup combination, and the unparalleled framing skills of Jose Molina. In addition, R.J. Anderson noted that Rodney has adjusted his position on the rubber, which has led to better balance and, ultimately, better control, particularly against right-handed batters.

Rodney is reaping the benefits of routinely getting ahead in the count and working with the bases empty; consequently, the 35-year-old is getting batters to chase pitches outside the strike zone with unprecedented regularity. Not surprisingly, his 9.1 K/9 represents his highest mark since 2008, while his 5.5 K/BB trumps his career rate by more than 3.5 strikeouts.

In his first season with Tampa Bay, Rodney has anchored a bullpen that sports the best ERA in the American League (2.78) and has blown just two saves all season. Pretty good for a guy who was penciled in as Kyle Farnsworth’s set-up man during spring training. —Jonah Birenbaum

9. Jake Peavy
Jake Peavy is one of four teammates in contention for this honor (and we wonder why the White Sox are the surprise division leader). For me, he is really the comeback player of the last three years. I saw Peavy make a Triple-A rehab start against the Durham Bulls back in August 2009, when he was working his way back from an ankle injury (he lost that night to Wade Davis, who took a no-hitter into the sixth inning). Peavy had hurt the ankle running the bases as a San Diego Padre, and was out of action for about three months. In the interim, the Padres traded him to the White Sox, who took a waiver-deadline gamble and dealt for an injured star, a classic Freewheelin’ Kenny Williams move.

Williams was hoping that Peavy might recover in time to help push the White Sox over the hump in the AL Central. Unfortunately, Peavy didn’t make it back to the majors until just two weeks remained in the regular season, by which time the White Sox were three games under .500 and nearly eliminated. He did, however, pitch very well in the three starts he made for his new team, ending the season with 17 straight scoreless innings.

Then came Peavy’s freakishly severe shoulder injury and surgery in 2010, which cost him the second half of the year. After a long recuperation, he was pitching against the Durham Bulls again early in 2011 (he had a good outing but this time lost to former teammate—and at that point bestselling author—Dirk Hayhurst). Around this time, it was tempting to write him off as a fallen ace whose legendary ultra-competitiveness wasn’t going to be sufficient to overcome a surfeit of injuries, some of which his very competitiveness may have exacerbated. Sure enough, Peavy returned to the majors in May 2011, lost more time to a groin strain the following month, and wound up having the worst season of his career, posting an ERA near 5.00.

And then… 2012. Or rather, 2012! Peavy is having his best season since 2008—in the last guaranteed year of his contract, no less. He has been, by most reliable measures, one of the 30 best starting pitchers in baseball in 2012. When the White Sox initially traded for him back in 2009, they didn’t foresee having to wait three years for contention, during which time Peavy has cost them more than $52 million. The righty is still just 31 (with, admittedly, a lot of miles and time in the repair shop). His expiring contract has a club option for a whopping $22 million for 2013. Who would have predicted, six months ago, that Peavy would pitch so well that Kenny Williams has to consider, at least idly, picking up that option? —Adam Sobsey

10. Adam Dunn
I love Adam Dunn, and I'm lost as to how it's possible for anyone not to. For most of a decade, he was a devastatingly effective hitter (to say nothing for the rest of his game, and for very good reason) by means that didn't compare well to anyone else's in the history of the game. Dunn would stand at the plate and take pitches, essentially without regard to the strike zone, until he saw one that he really liked, at which point he'd take a swing that, in most cases, could only possibly result in either a miss or a demolished baseball.

Last year, it really looked like it had all ended, abruptly and irrevocably, and I was terribly sad about that. This may shock some of you, but if you take Adam Dunn, give him the highest strikeout rate and second-lowest full-season walk rate of his career, and slice his home run rate by nearly two-thirds, it turns out that what you end up with is one of the worst seasons the game has ever seen. It's just one year, but at age 32 with what used to be called "old-man skills," it was hard not to wonder whether this might just be the way it all ends.

Now 2012 has come and mostly gone, and Dunn is... not as good as he was before 2011, but much more Adam Dunn than he's ever been before. For much of the summer (as I discussed here), Dunn led the American League in each of the Three True Outcomes (BB, K, and HR), which would be the first time that had happened in either league since 1985. That unofficial Triple Crown is still well within reach—he's two homers behind Josh Hamilton and leads by plenty in both walks and strikeouts, though his record-setting pace in the latter has slowed quite a bit of late. Whether he gets there or not, though, Dunn has taken his already totally unique game to a whole new level, excelling as a hitter while posting just a .208 batting average and threatening to smash every Three True Outcomes record. I don't know how long this caricatured version of Dunn can possibly last, but I hope it's a good long while. Some day, it's going to be hard to explain to our grandchildren just how weirdly successful Adam Dunn was at the plate (and that's even assuming that baseball still exists then). —Bill Parker

11. Eric Chavez
Anyone can come back after one or two terrible years (note: that’s not true), but it takes a special set of circumstances for a player to return to prominence after several seasons out of the spotlight. Chavez spent time on the 60-day DL in every season from 2006 to 2011, and he stopped hitting for power after 2007. This year, the 34-year-old has avoided the DL entirely, suffering from only a few day-to-day injuries in a part-time role, and his power has bounced most of the way back. Chavez has been worth exactly as much to the Yankees as Alex Rodriguez (1.3 WARP), for roughly three percent of the price.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Yankees have gone out of their way to protect Chavez from left-handed pitchers, which has something to do with his resurgence. And he hasn’t had an extra-base hit (or many hits of any kind) since mid-August, which makes his feat look a little less impressive. Still, before this season, it seemed like Chavez had long since left both a healthy back and a healthy bat behind him. His renaissance has been one of the season’s nicest surprises. —Ben Lindbergh

19 comments have been left for this article.

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