1. Matt Cain
2.89, 3.14, 2.88, 2.79. Those are the ERAs that Matt Cain posted from 2009 through 2012 before he seemingly forgot how to be an ace. In 2013, Cain posted a 4.00 ERA over 184 1/3 innings, though for just the second time in his career his FIP was lower than his ERA.
In 2014 Cain had put up a 4.18 ERA and 4.53 FIP over 90 1/3 IP before hitting the DL with elbow issues. Cain would later admit that he's had bone chips in his elbow ever since high school, but that he would move them about while pitching to avoid discomfort (gross). Cain also enlightened fans everywhere by saying that he hadn't been able to fully extend his arm for more than 10 years (crazy).
With season-ending surgery on August 12 to remove the loose bodies in his elbow, 2014 is a lost season for the Giants' pitcher. 2015 looks like an opportunity for Cain to redeem himself after back-to-back lackluster seasons, assuming that he has no further complications with his arm. There's really not much in Cain's peripherals that would suggest to you that he should have pitched so poorly in 2013-2014, so perhaps a clean bill of health is all he needs to get back to being a top of the rotation type of pitcher. Then again, he could end up like Joe Nathan who had Tommy John Surgery just months after having bone chips removed back in 2009. —Jeff Long
2. Matt Harvey
It feels like a tough award for a young guy to win without much of a body of work to come back to, but voters have been pretty willing lately to give it to young players. Aaron Hill won it in his 27-year-old season in 2009, Francisco Liriano was 26 when he won for the first time in 2010, and Buster Posey was 25 and had never played a full season before his Comeback Player of the Year award in 2012.
Harvey might not pitch a full 200-inning season—there's still no consensus on whether the Stephen Strasburg approach in the TJ+1 year was the right one. However, he'll benefit from visually appealing statistics in a good pitching ballpark and a campaign that everybody's watching with the comeback storyline riding along with him the whole time. —Zachary Levine
3. Alex Rodriguez
Reality is the ultimate troll. Suppose that Alex Rodriguez does the requisite public confession of his sins and comes back to the Yankees lineup in 2015. His 39-year-old body has had a year off from the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to, at least when you play professional baseball. Back at his old stomping grounds at third base, and finally with a shortstop flanking him who has some decent range, he picks up where he left off. No, not the "best player in the league" A-Rod of 10 years ago, but the A-Rod who put up a two-win season in 2012 and a half-win season in 40 games in 2013. He spends the entire year at least mouthing the correct answers to questions about PEDs. He catches a few lucky breaks and puts up a three-win season, and hits 25 HR, drawing ever closer to 700, making him a perfectly good third baseman for a team. Most importantly, he does it in Yankee Stadium, and he contributes to the Yankees ending their incredibly long playoff drought. —Russell A. Carleton
4. Wily Mo Pena
This is a longshot, admittedly, but Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors tweeted earlier this week that Pena, who's been bopping monster shots in Japan, would like to return to the majors and that three teams have already expressed interest. Here's a clip of some of the baseballs that the 32-year-old Pena has destroyed across the Pacific:
Pena hit .270 with 29 home runs in 119 games for the Orix Buffaloes this year while trimming his strikeout rate and hiking his walk clip. Those last two are potentially promising indicators, though whether they will translate back to the majors is an open question. In any case, there appears a legitimate possibility that Wily Mo Pena—who last appeared with the Mariners in 2011—will be back in United States in 2015, likely competing for a job as a platoon player or bench bat. A Comeback Player of the Year trophy would be one of the greatest stories of the coming season. —Daniel Rathman
5. Jeff Mathis
My career as a baseball writer was by and large built on making fun of Jeff Mathis' Catcher ERA, so naturally I take great interest in the way that every year he manages to produce a CERA way lower than the other catchers on his team. As I wrote last year in a piece about his catching style and Jose Fernandez,
this is the seventh year in a row pitchers have allowed fewer runs with Mathis behind the plate than when other catchers on the same team were behind the plate.
Year Mathis R/9 Primary Alternate R/9 All Non-Mathis R/9 2007 4.26 4.66 4.74 2008 4.10 4.65 4.60 2009 4.22 5.16 5.17 2010 3.88 5.54 4.65 2011 3.58 4.04 4.17 2012 4.69 5.00 5.00 2013 3.05 4.84 4.82 Total 3.96 4.87 4.74
Want to hear something insane? In the past seven years, Jeff Mathis has caught 4,253 innings, and his primary catching partners in each season have caught 4,263 innings. Mathis has allowed 437 fewer runs than those teammates.
So of course it’s a bit disappointing to me that this year, finally this year, five years after I declared it a certainty that Mathis’ “fluke” CERA would regress, that he finally has a CERA worse than his teammates'. I’m finally right? Or something? It feels wrong.
Fortunately, there’s reason to believe that he’ll bounce back. A few reasons, actually. Here’s one:
Mathis’ pitchers have been burned by high BABIPs, but when we look just at the things the pitcher (and, I guess, the catcher? I mean, as far as we’re taking this conceit at least…) can control, the gap narrows. Mathis trails Saltalamacchia narrowly, but does best the Marlins’ other catchers as a group. Further, the difference is in home run rate, which is flukier than the other two.
Further, Salty got all eight of Jose Fernandez’s starts, and all six of Jarred Cosart’s. If we were to exclude those completely, because there’s no shared overlap, Mathis takes the FIP lead; a majority of the pitchers who threw at least nine innings to each pitcher did better while throwing to Mathis.
Did it take a lot of extra work to convince myself this year that Jeff Mathis is magical? Yes, it did, a lot more work. Some cherry-picking, some selective logic, and so forth. But I’m pretty sure nobody reads about Jeff Mathis’ CERA anymore except for meta-ironic reasons, so we’re all absolved. —Sam Miller
6. The Red Sox
After pulling off a comeback season in 2013, can the Red Sox do it again after a disappointing 2014? In 2012, they set up their offseason with one big trade, moving some underperforming players with big contracts, thus creating flexibility for what turned out to be some solid acquisitions. This time, the Red Sox made multiple moves during the season that could help bolster the club's offense in 2015.
We're all well aware of Boston's drop from the best offense in the AL to the worst in just one season. The additions off Yoenis Cespedes and Rusney Castillo (and to a lesser degree, Allen Craig, who may benefit from offseason surgery, but it doesn't appear as though the Red Sox are relying on him returning to his 2013 form. At least they shouldn't be…) are early strikes to try and reconstruct that unit for 2015. Add in a solid showing from Mookie Betts (.298 TAv in 132 plate appearances) and the hope that Xander Bogaerts will finally start delivering more than glimpses of the talent that made him a consensus top five prospect entering the season and one feels more comfortable believing that the Red Sox offense can once again become a force.
Of course, the moves made during the offseason will be key. Who they add to the rotation after the departures of Jon Lester and John Lackey is a big question. Making a run at the likes of Max Scherzer or James Shields certainly makes sense. As does using the depth of the minor league system to pursue any top arms that may hit the trade market. And that system depth certainly will help fill out the back of the rotation, with Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Eduardo Rodriguez, Henry Owens, and others as talented possiblities to be a part of the Red Sox 2015 staff (or part of an offseason trade). And, yes, acquiring another bat would make sense, possibly filling a hole at third base with Pablo Sandoval or adding an elite presence if the Marlins decide to make Giancarlo Stanton available.
The bottom line is with another strong offseason, it's hardly unreasonable to see the Red Sox putting themselves in position to contend in 2015. After all, they've already done it once before. —Sahadev Sharma
7. Close Plays at the Plate
This is not a call for baserunners to start running catchers over again. I don't want to see anyone get hurt more than anyone else. But a close play at the plate is one of the most exciting events on a baseball field, and this season they've gone the way of earflap-less helmets. They need to come back for next season.
Rule 7.13 was not meant to be taken by the letter of the law, yet that's how it was enforced for the majority of the season. The commissioner's office recently released a statement, giving the umpires some judgement on whether or not the play had a "clear outcome," avoiding those technicality runs that we've all become sick of this season. That should solve the temporary issue of runners scoring because the catcher's foot was an inch inside the running lane, but it won't allow runners to attack the plate with any more aggressiveness.
You'll notice I said attack the plate, not the catcher. What will hopefully make a comeback next season with further clarification and adjustments to the rule, is the willingness and legality of runners to go after the plate. The NCAA allows catchers to block the plate, yet runners are not allowed to barrel them over. The same applies in high school. And yet, there are still close plays at the plate. Amazingly enough, runners even manage to score runs.
With rule 7.13, however, runners are afraid to go aggressively for the plate for fear of hitting a catcher and being called out or worse. Some of that hesitation should subside with better understanding, and 2015 should see a return of bang-bang plays at the plate without any catchers suffering the consequences. —Jeff Moore
8. The Miami Marlins
Yes, the Back to The Future truthers would have you believe that 2015 is the Chicago Cubs’ year. That’s how it plays out in Back to The Future II, after all. The Cubs sweep Miami in five games in the 2015 World Series (at some point in the movie’s past the series went from a best-of-seven to a best-of-nine format). But this also assumes that the Cubs and Miami somehow wound up in different leagues.
It didn’t play out that way when Major League Baseball expanded in 1993 and added the then-Florida Marlins to the National League. Divisional realignment has since moved the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros to different leagues but the Cubs and Marlins both remain in the National League.
So only one of these teams can make the World Series, and this amateur futurologist and Back to The Future fan is going to make a lot of fans of the trilogy and the Cubs unhappy by picking the Marlins to win it all. Yes, the movie is right insofar as the Cubs will surprise everyone and make the playoffs on the strength of a young offensive juggernaut, but without another established ace arm to add behind Jake Arrieta, the Cubs will be unable to get past the wild card round. The Marlins meanwhile, will ride a rejuvenated and healthy Jose Fernandez, a sophomore Andrew Heaney who lives up to expectations, and a 50 home run season from Giancarlo Stanton into the World Series. There, they will meet a Yankees team that responded to missing the playoffs two years in a row by expanding the payroll to $300 million dollars, luxury tax be dammed. In the seventh game, the Marlins will win by…
…meanwhile back in 1985, Marty McFly slams his car in reverse, avoiding the collision with the Rolls Royce, changing his future and somehow eliminating a weird future where fax machines are ubiquitous but there is no Internet. While it would be nice to say with certainty that the Marlins will fulfill their half of the Back to the Future fantasy, as Doc Brown told Marty at the end of Back to The Future III, the future is not yet written. Hopefully, though, there will be hoverboards and Gray’s Sports Almanacs for all. —Mike Gianella
9. Prince Fielder
Last we saw Prince Fielder he was naked on the cover of a major sports magazine, his girth put on display for all to see leaving very little to the imagination. He lost the 2014 season early with a neck injury and is crossing over to “wrong side of 30” territory. A comeback is a long shot given his body type, injury history and age but I hold out hope for Prince. The plate discipline was still evident even during his brief 2014 campaign and I think the power bounces back in a meaningful way. The Rangers themselves are worthy of a comeback entry as they dealt with all of the injuries this year, Fielder coming back would be a big plus in them competing in 2015. I believe in the Rangers and I believe in Prince Fielder. —Mauricio Rubio