In many ways, the baseball season — or at least, how we perceive it — is primarily driven by narratives. Last season saw itself defined by the Next Man Up mentality, 2018 by a 100-win team that seemed destined to lose, 2017 by the Baby Bombers movement and the “David v. Goliath” MVP race that has, for some bizarre reason, found its way back into the spotlight. While it’s still too early to know what narrative the 2020 Yankees will be known by — although I’m personally pulling for “greatest team of all time” — we can begin to keep an eye out for the ones that might arise.
An early candidate would be the AL Comeback Player of the Year race, which could conceivably find itself centered on the Bronx.
The overwhelming majority of Comeback Player recipients are big names who spent more time on the injured list than on the diamond during the previous season, and the 2020 Yankees have an abundance of players that fit that description. Giancarlo Stanton and Luis Severino headline a deep group of possible candidates that also include Miguel Andujar, J.A. Happ, and Jordan Montgomery.
Stanton’s and Severino’s potential cases for the award are pretty standard. Both players have been among the top players in the league the last few years, but were hamstrung by injuries in 2019. The former was limited to 18 games, the latter to 3 starts. Should each player perform to their projections, in fact, one could make the case that the award will come down to these two. ZiPS projects Stanton to post a .911 OPS, good for 11th in all of baseball, and Severino to post a 3.40 FIP, 12th best among starting pitchers. So long as they stay healthy, it’s easy to see the award coming down to whether the voters believe Stanton’s bat or Severino’s arm made more of a difference to the team.
Despite being Wally Pipp’d and losing his starting third base job to Gio Urshela, Miguel Andujar nonetheless presents a strong possible case for the award. In fact, so long as he hits well and stays in the lineup, his potential story — the former Rookie of the Year runner-up losing his starting job due to injury, then having to play multiple new positions in order to find a spot in the lineup — is one that would be loved by the media. In fact, due to the award’s loose definition, he could make himself a frontrunner even if he is outplayed by other candidates.
Jordan Montgomery could also find himself in the running for similar reasons. Having pitched only 31 innings since his out-of-nowhere rookie season due to Tommy John surgery, he has often been forgotten when discussing the Yankees’ pitching staff. Montgomery not only re-emerging as a legitimate mid-to-back-rotation starter, but building upon his previous performance, would be a veritable underdog story that audiences would love.
Most of the candidates that have won Comeback Player of the Year saw their previous season (or in some cases, seasons) ruined due to injuries. A small handful of winners, however, such as Rick Porcello in 2016 and Fernando Rodney in 2012, have won the award even though their performance didn’t bounce back in a big way. If he continues to build on a strong month of September and leave the rest of 2019 behind him, starting pitcher J.A. Happ could find himself joining this category.
Happ was, to put it bluntly, atrocious throughout most of last season, posting month-by-month ERAs of 4.68, 4.99, 6.43, 5.04, and 7.30 through September 1. In September, however, he shined, posting a minuscule 1.65 ERA in 27 innings, with a WHIP of 0.988 and a K/BB rate of 3.11. Written off by many at the start of the offseason — and again when the Yankees appeared to shop him after signing Gerrit Cole — Happ was thrust into a more prominent spot in the rotation following the injury to James Paxton. While nobody expects him to duplicate his September success and turn into 2018 Jacob deGrom, a strong performance from Happ could keep him in the rotation even when everybody is healthy — and a shot at winning Comeback Player of the Year.
Of course, at the end of the day, it’s impossible to know what players are going to put up the sorts of performances to win any end-of-season award, let alone the least scientific of them all, Comeback Player of the Year. Nonetheless, as we begin to see how the story of the 2020 Yankees gets told, it’s worth watching out for these players. Just like the 2018 Rookie of the Year finalists included two Baby Bombers, we may see pinstripes dominate the Comeback Player discussion this fall.