CC Sabathia’s career has been experiencing a slow fade for years now. He hasn’t been his old self for several seasons now, he missed most of the 2014 season after undergoing knee surgery, and he entered alcohol rehab in 2015 just prior to the Yankees’ Wild Card game. Despite steps taken to support his ailing body, you could consider CC down, and nearly out last winter.
Instead of continuing to fall apart, though, Sabathia held it together and managed to have himself a bit of a renaissance. After holding the Red Sox to one run and four hits in 7.1 innings, he will now finish the season with a 3.91 ERA, 4.28 FIP, and 2.5 WAR–the making this possibly his best season since 2012. Sure, his 179 innings falls short of his once-typical 200-inning seasons, but that isn’t surprising for his age-36 season.
This should come as no surprise, since he’s actually pitched to a 3.75 ERA and 4.25 FIP since returning at the end of the 2015 with a knee brace. The additional support has helped him maintain his mechanics on the mound, in spite of the degenerative knee that has disrupted his repertoire and sapped him of his fastball velocity. Despite the positive signs that came in last September, they were mostly overshadowed by his surprise entrance into rehab to deal with alcoholism, a disease that may have affected his abilities on the mound more than we could ever have known.
Though he looked to be in a bad place heading into the season, with his physical limitation in check and his head screwed on tight, CC Sabathia was in the perfect position to qualify for Comeback Player of the Year, and yet he hasn’t been mentioned in relation to the award at all.
Instead, the players who have been connected with the award all seem to fill a candidate genre. Each of CC’s competition are vying for the award for different reasons.
Chris Tillman of the Orioles definitely poses a serious threat to CC’s award aspiration, but overall they are pretty evenly matched. In 2015, Tillman pitched to a 4.99 ERA and 4.45 FIP over 173 innings in what was a very disappointing season after back-to-back years of sub-4.00 ERAs and innings totals over 200. This year he came back in a big way with a 3.77 ERA and 4.22 FIP in 172 innings, putting his worth at 2.4 WAR to match CC. In the end, it would seem that his 2015 was only a blip on the radar as his numbers have regressed in a positive way.
It’s possible Tillman gets the edge because of the better ERA and strikeout rate, but it’s probably not a bad thing to be a part of a playoff team. I doubt this will play as big of a part as it does with the MVP award, but it could be something to consider. We’ll have to see how things end up.
Porcello has not been very good for most of his major league career. At the time, his 2014 season seemed like a fluke when he managed to maintained a 3.43 ERA and 3.67 FIP in 200 innings for the first time in his career while his K/9 flatlined to just 5.67 and he was only deemed to be worth 2.8 WAR. It was a good season, to be sure, but it wasn’t like Porcello arrived or anything, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he backtracked.
His first year with the Red Sox seemed like the Porcello of old with a 4.92 ERA, 4.13 FIP, and an ugly 1.7 WAR. He missed 21 games with a triceps injury, but that is hardly season-destroying or something that needs to be overcome. He returned this year with a 3.11 ERA and 3.37 FIP, logging a career-high 217 innings and accumulating 5.1 WAR. It feels like if there was a Breakout Player of the Year Award, maybe that should go to Porcello, but his fantastic 2016 season shouldn’t get him this award just because people want to give him something.
This is when a player falls apart but is reborn upon starting fresh with a new team. According to betting odds for the American League award (if you actually bet on such things), Ian Desmond is considered the favorite. After finishing out his National career hitting with a disappointing .233/.290/.384 batting line as a 30-year-old, Desmond was forced to sign a one-year deal with the Rangers and move to center field just to get a big league job. It turns out the signing was worth it for Texas because he turned in a .284/.334/.447 effort with 24 home runs and managed to be worth 3.3 WAR in 2016.
He sounds like an easy choice, right? However, he’s only managed to accumulate a 62 wRC+ in the second half of the season when he was a 137 wRC+ hitter in the first. He put together a solid season overall, but just like you wouldn’t award the MVP for an impressive half season, should Desmond really be the obvious choice?
Here is the guy who was plagued by injury, but managed to overcome and return to his former glory. However, Robinson Cano has never not been good for the Mariners. There was worry last year that he might be falling apart, but it turned out he played the entire season with a hernia.
His 83 wRC+ in the first half of last year was unpleasant to see, but the 175 wRC+ he put up in the second half more than made up for his early struggles. He ended the season hitting .287/.334/.446 and 21 home runs. Sure, he’s hit much better in 2016, but it’s not like he wasn’t still an offensive force when he was down.
Victor Martinez also fits into this category after playing through knee troubles last year. He only managed to hit .245/.301/.366 with 11 home runs as the knee injury sapped his power. This year he’s been healthy, though, and a .290/.352/.477 batting line with 27 home runs has propelled him into the conversation. Unfortunately, he’s only been worth 0.9 WAR, considering he offers no value on defense at all.
After missing most, or all, of the 2015 season, Yu Darvish, Marcus Stroman, and Michael Saunders all qualify as the guy who made a big return. After missing the 2015 season to Tommy John surgery, Darvish return to the big leagues in May and has pitched to a 3.53 ERA and 3.31 FIP in 94.1 innings. His impressive peripherals of 11.45 K/9 and 2.86 BB/9 set him up to be worth 2.3 WAR, and a very good candidate to win the award.
The award could also go to Marcus Stroman, who returned from a knee injury this year to pitch to a 4.37 ERA and 3.71 FIP. He managed to be extremely valuable to the Blue Jays this year, worth 3.7 WAR in 204 innings pitched. Stroman is also only 25 years old, and after big things were expected from him last year, he’s delivered on expectations, even despite the discrepancy between his ERA and FIP.
Sanders also missed most of last season after suffering a meniscus tear early in the 2015 season. He made his return by hitting .298/.372/.551 in the first half of the season, but could only accomplish a .182/.280/.365 batting line afterwards to all but destroy his chances of winning the award. In the end he has hit only .255/.338/.481 and was worth 1.4 WAR, thanks to his rotten defense. It would appear that not even his career-high 24 home runs will help him earn the award.
Something was wrong last year, and now it’s been fixed. Hanley Ramirez was pushed all around the field last year as the team attempted to stuff as much talent into one lineup as possible. The result was a player out of position and a miserable season where Ramirez hit just .249/.291/.426 and turned in a negative WAR performance overall.
In numbers alone it might make sense to give him the award, but once you put it into context it becomes difficult. It’s hard to say how much a player being forced into a position he can’t play should factor into being a comeback player. He’s gone on to hit .288/.360/.505 this year, but he’s still only worth 2.4 WAR as a first baseman. I wouldn’t object to him winning, but he’s not exactly a slam dunk when you consider that what the Red Sox did to him last year.
CC Sabathia is the Feel Good Story. It might be nice to see a guy get back from an injury or figure things out after a down year, but when I’m looking for a comeback, I want the best story matched with the best season. When Mariano Rivera won the award in 2013, he was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, but it also made for a great story. Hanley and Tillman make it close, but the rest don’t stand up to the story of Sabathia. I won’t hold my breath for the league to recognize his impressive season, but I can hope. After everything he’s been through this past year, he’s earned a little recognition.