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2011: The Year of the Comeback

Matt Kemp leads a bevy of redemption stories

by Keith Glab,
October 21, 2011

Jacoby Ellsbury and Lance Berkman were both very deserving of the Comeback Player of the Year Awards they received last week, but they had more competition than you may realize.  The 2011 season saw the largest field of Comeback Award-worthy players in recent memory.

Matt Kemp

It's actually pretty puzzling that Lance Berkman won the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award over Matt Kemp.  Berkman hit .248 with a 112 OPS+ in 122 games last year, then hit .301 with a 166 OPS+ in 145 games this season.  Kemp batted .249 with a 106 OPS+ in 162 games last season before hitting .324 with a 171 OPS in 161 games this year.  He also upped his stolen base total from 19 to 40 and pretty clearly deserves to win the NL MVP Award.

Kemp went from costing the Dodgers 15 runs on defense in 2010 to saving them one this year.  After costing his teams four runs defensively last season, Berkman cost the Cardinals nine this year, although he did manage to transition from first base back to the outfield, a position he had not manned full-time since 2004 or at all since 2007.  Frankly, the only reason I can see why Berkman beat out Kemp here is because Fat Elvis spent the final two months of last season with the Yankees, with whom mediocrity gets magnified.

Jose Reyes

Earlier in the season, Jose Reyes was outdistancing both Berkman and Kemp for NL Comeback Player.  He was batting .354 with 30 steals at the beginning of July, but wound up missing about a month's worth of games thereafter with injuries.  He still went from batting .282 with a 103 OPS+ and 30 stolen bases in 2010 to .337 with a 143 OPS+ and 39 steals in 2011, plus he led the league with 16 triples despite all the missed time.  But in 2011, Reyes falls short with a bevy of other Comeback Candidates around.

Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson is supposedly an MVP candidate as well.  While I don't necessarily buy that, he's is certainly a Comeback candidate.  The speedy centerfielder had declined offensively in three straight seasons after a breakout 2007 campaign at the age of 26.  It was a shock when, at 30, he set career highs in runs scored, homers, and RBI by wide margins (48 RBI, for instance) and very nearly set career highs in steals, OBP, and SLG.  The price of his offensive revival, however, was a steep defensive decline.  Granderson saved 14 runs in 2009, 4 in 2010, then cost that Yankees a whopping 15 runs this year.  He deserves to finish behind Ellsbury for the Comeback Award and isn't even in Ellsbury's vicinity in terms of MVP ranking. 

David Ortiz

As impressive of an offseason as the Red Sox had, it took resurgent seasons from more than just Ellsbury for the Red Sox to even compete with New York and Tampa Bay.  David Ortiz has the unusual distinction of being a Comeback candidate for two seasons in a row.  He was just deplorable in 2009, and at 33-years old, Big Papi appeared to be finished.  Last year he came back to become a productive player and this year he came back to near his prime performance levels of 2003-2007.  Papi's season represents more of an interesting career arc than a true threat to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Josh Beckett

Teammate Josh Beckett is another story.  In 2010, he had an xFIP of 3.86 and an ERA of 5.78, so he was a likely Comeback candidate even before the season began.  He wound up doing more than just regressing his luck, going 13-7 with a 2.89 ERA despite a 3.60 xFIP that wasn't much of an improvement from his 2010 expectation.  His average fastball velocity actually declined from 2010 to 2011.

James Shields

It's a similar story for James Shields.   His fastball velocity also dipped, and even though his ERA improved from 5.18 to 2.82, his xFIP only improved from 3.25 to 3.66.  Last October, people questioned whether James Shields should have even been a part of the Rays' postseason roster.  This October, manager Joe Maddon was scrambling to get him to pitch twice in the ALDS. He didn't pitch well in either postseason.

Kyle Farnsworth

In a 2005 season split between the Tigers and Braves, Kyle Farnsworth saved 16 games and posted a 2.19 ERA.  In the subsequent five years, he totaled just seven saves and a 4.28 ERA.  This season, the 35-year-old Farnsworth has nearly doubled his career save total and dropped his career ERA to 4.25 thanks to his walking batters half as frequently as his career rate.  He finally became the closer the Cubs had envisioned, approximately one decade later than they were hoping.

Ben Zobrist

People wonder how the Rays made the playoffs this year after all the talent they lost in the offseason, but all these resurgent performances go a long way towards explaining the team's resilience.   Ben Zobrist's OPS+ by year from 2009 to 2011: 149, 96, 132.  Additionally, the Rays finally settled Zobrist into primarily one position, second base, and he responded by saving them 17 defensive runs there and an additional six in the outfield

Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon

Pablo Sandoval

Sandoval looked a little less Pandalike in2011, losing somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 pounds from his weight at the end of his disappointing 2010 campaign. This helped him to get his OPS back up over .900 after a dismal .732 showing last year. His defense improved even moreso, going from acceptable to Gold Glove-caliber. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to just 117 games, eliminating him from any serious Comeback Award consideration.

The Yankees' most important acquisition last winter may have been pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who got veterans Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia to pitch as though it was 2005 and rookie Ivan Nova to outperform his talent level.  Garcia's 3.62 ERA was a full run lower than his 2010 mark, and it was the first time since 2005 that he managed an ERA under 4.00.  Colon went 14-21 with a 5.18 ERA from 2006-2009 and did not pitch at all last season.  At 6-4 with a 3.20 ERA in the first half, he was a favorite to win the Comeback Award, but he slumped to 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA overall.

Colon, of course, may have had help from a source other than Rothschild.  MLB is still investigating the stem-cell treatment he received in the Dominican Republic last offseason, as to whether it represents illegal performance-enhancement.  For whatever it's worth, Colon's fastball was 2.5 MPH faster on average in 2011 than it was in 2009, though that velocity dipped noticeably during hte last month or so of the season.

Ryan Voglesong

If there were such a thing as a Colby Lewis Award, Ryan Voglesong would have won it this year.  Lewis had spent two years in Japan prior to a stellar 2010 season with the Rangers in which he fanned nearly a batter per inning and cultivated an ERA 21% better than the average AL pitcher.  Vogelsong spent three years in Japan and hadn't pitched in the majors since 2006 until this season.  Without his 13-7, 2.71 effort, the Giants probably don't finish over .500 this season, much less contend for the NL West crown into the final month.

The problem with both Vogelsong and Lewis, of course, is that they had breakout seasons, not comeback seasons, as neither had shown a proclivity for pitching well in the majors prior to their so-called comebacks.  Lewis had a 6.71 ERA in 217.1 major league innings prior to 2010.  Vogelsong went 10-22 with a 5.86 ERA in his 315 big league innings before 2011.

Brandon McCarthy

McCarthy is listed at 200 pounds, which could well be rounded up from 151, so it's no shock that the 6-foot-7 right hander has dealt with injuries throughout his career.  He had never pitched more than 102 innings or posted an ERA below 4.00 in a season before this year, when he held a 3.32 ERA through 170.2 frames.  Like Vogelsong, McCarthy's 2011 performance represented more of a late harness of latent talent than a true comeback campaign for the 28-year old.

Sean Burroughs

Now Burroughs is a true comeback story.  He was a .280 hitter in the majors between 2002 and 2006, then retired from baseball completely after playing four games in 2007.  He then hit an insane .412 in Triple-A before joining the D-backs and batting .273 in 110 at-bats, 56 of which came as a pinch-hitter.  Unfortunately for Burroughs and the Diamondbacks, his comeback was so true that he remained an empty-average hitter just as before, managing an OPS+ of just 70 despite the very solid batting average.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at

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