It’s that time of the season when the debates over who deserves which awards for the season intensify. Understandably, most of those debates will center around MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year. However, Comeback Player of the Year is often an afterthought, even though it can include some of the most inspiring and compelling performances of the season. And while Braves like Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña, Jr., and Mike Soroka have made strong cases this season to win some hardware, Josh Donaldson might have the strongest case of any Braves player to bring an award home - the NL Comeback Player of the Year. The Braves would have back-to-back winners if Donaldson wins after Jonny Venters won the award in 2018.
To determine who is most deserving of the Comeback Player of the Year Award, the history and criteria of the award are important. The Sporting News has published their Comeback Player of the Year Award since 1965, although the award has not been formally recognized by MLB. In 2005, MLB started giving out their own Comeback Player of the Year. The award is given to one player in each league. There are no express criteria for the award, but it is vaguely described as an award given to a player that has “re-emerged” in baseball. (For the purposes of this article, I will examine only MLB’s version of the award.)
There are a few characteristics that are inherent in the award, however. One is prior success, since there is no “coming back” if the player has not previously enjoyed some modicum of success in their career. Second is a down season, which can be due to injury, poor performance, or personal issues. Since 2005, 75% of the recipients missed significant time in their prior season due to injury. The third is a bounce back season.
Because there are no actual criteria for the award, determining who is most deserving can be quite tricky. Gleaning from past winners, there are certainly some general tendencies but also many exceptions. In FanGraphs’ review of recipients of the award from 2005-2017, they found that the average fWAR for the player’s season two years prior was 2.31, with a down year average fWAR of 0.4, and a bounce back year average fWAR of 3.73. FanGraphs also found that the recipient’s team’s success was also a factor, as the median win percentage of the recipient’s team was .552, and 78.3% of recipients played for teams over .500.
But while there are tendencies, there are plenty of deviations and immeasurable considerations. For example, the Braves’ own 2018 recipient didn’t fit the mold of typical winners in a few ways. Venters had success in 2010-2011, making it to the 2011 All-Star Game, but never had an fWAR higher than 1.3 in his career (perhaps due to his role as a relief pitcher). After the 2013 season, Venters underwent multiple Tommy John surgeries and did not throw another inning in the majors until 2018. In his bounce back year, Venters was a serviceable reliever with a 3.67 ERA and 0.3 fWAR. Venters’ numbers did not align with the prior level of success or bounce back season numbers of other recipients, yet Venters perhaps embodies the award more than any other recipient has. So while numbers certainly play a part in who receives the award, clearly the narrative is very important, as well, even if it is immeasurable.
All of this brings us to the candidates for the 2019 NL Comeback Player of the Year, and there are plenty. While players like Corey Seager, Willson Contreras, and Sonny Gray deserve an honorable mention, I will focus on four players who seem like prime candidates.
Of all the great narratives that have emerged during the Braves’ 2019 season, Donaldson’s comeback year has to be towards the top. The 2015 AL MVP essentially played one full season over the course of two years prior to 2019 (165 games played total from 2017 to 2018). In 2018, Donaldson only played 52 games for the Blue Jays and Indians while dealing with shoulder and calf injuries. He was fairly productive in 2018 when he did play, with a 117 wRC+ and 1.3 fWAR. However, at age 33 coming off such injuries, it was natural to wonder how much Donaldson had left in the tank and whether he could still stay healthy enough to contribute in 2019.
Donaldson has answered all questions emphatically as only the braggadocious “Bringer of Rain” can. He has 34 home runs, 134 wRC+, and 4.4 fWAR so far in 2019. He has provided the thump that the first-place Braves have been looking for out of their cleanup hitter.
Donaldson deserves the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award. He checks all the boxes of so many of the previous recipients. He reached the greatest individual heights as a player by winning the MVP before struggling with injuries for two seasons and being traded in the middle of 2018. Despite the adversity, he has joined a new team and had a monster 2019 campaign for a playoff contender. Donaldson’s story is the archetype of the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Bryant’s path has been very similar to Donaldson’s. Both are former MVP third basemen who struggled with injuries in 2018 only to bounce back to very productive 2019 seasons. Their peaks have been identical – both won MVP’s before their down season, and they have had very similar production this season (131 wRC+ and 4.2 fWAR for Bryant versus 134 wRC+ and 4.4 fWAR for Donaldson).
What is different between Bryant and Donaldson is the length and severity of the down season (or in Donaldson’s case, seasons). Bryant played in at least 150 games in every season before 2018 and managed to play in 102 games in 2018 (nearly double as many as Donaldson) despite a shoulder injury. So while the peaks were the same for Bryant and Donaldson, the adversity was not to the same degree and may give Donaldson a slight nod over Bryant.
Ryu has been an incredible story in 2019. After the Dodgers acquired Ryu from the KBO League in 2013, he enjoyed two strong seasons in 2013 and 2014, amassing 7.8 fWAR over the two seasons. However, a shoulder injury which eventually required surgery sidelined Ryu for the entire 2015 season. Ryu tried to pitch again in 2016 but made only one start before needing to have surgery on his pitching elbow. In 2017, Ryu came back and managed to pitch 126.2 innings but was not the same pitcher that he was before. Ryu started to return to form in 2018 but missed significant time due to a groin injury. Despite the injury, Ryu posted a 1.97 ERA over 82.1 innings in 2018.
Finally healthy,Ryu has emerged as a Cy Young Award candidate in 2019. His 2.35 ERA is the best in baseball among qualified pitchers. He has also done so for the Dodgers, who have the best record in the National League.
It is hard to argue against Ryu’s case for Comeback Player of the Year. He has overcome more professional adversity than any other of this year’s candidates and is having an excellent year. Ryu has allowed 18 runs over his last 14.2 innings in three starts, though, so he might be wearing down. While his recent struggles should not take away from his impressive comeback this season, it could ultimately affect his chances in this tight race.
Strasburg has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since being drafted with the first overall pick in the 2009 Draft. He is a three-time all-star and finished third in Cy Young Award voting in 2017 after a 2.52 ERA and 5.8 fWAR campaign.
In 2018, though, Strasburg spent two stints on the IL and accumulated 2.3 fWAR over 22 starts and 130 innings. His fWAR and starts were the lowest he has had in a season since 2011. However, his 2018 season was far from lost. He still managed to pitch 130 innings and performed well when he was healthy. Additionally, his 2018 was similar to seasons past, as he made only 23 and 24 starts in 2015 and 2016, respectively. This is to say that Strasburg’s 2018 was less of a down year and more of the same for a pitcher who has consistently performed well but intermittently joined the IL throughout his career.
Strasburg has been spectacular, though, as he has stayed healthy during the 2019 season. He is worthy of Cy Young Award consideration with a 5.0 fWAR that ranks third among NL pitchers.
Overall, Strasburg has a strong case for the NL Comeback Player of the Year, but considering that many pitchers would love to have the type of “down year” that Strasburg had in 2018, voters might feel compelled to vote for a player who has overcome a little more adversity.
Due to the subjective nature of the award, anyone of these players could win it. In my opinion, it would be hard not to give it to Ryu or Donaldson, but there will only be one award handed out in the NL. Donaldson has certainly done all that he can to deserve the honor, and it’s difficult to say that anyone has a better case than he does. This award might be settled during the final weeks of the season.