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September 12, 2012
The Lineup Card
11 Candidates for Best Comeback Player
1. Buster Posey
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.
2. David Wright
3. Adam Wainwright
4. Alex Rios
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
6. Lew Ford
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
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
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
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
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
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