Friday, October 14, 2011

What's a Comeback Player, Really?

By Bill

Craig made what I thought was a good point yesterday, first on Twitter and then on the blog. Jacoby Ellsbury and Lance Berkman, winners of the 2011 Comeback Player of the Year Awards, both had very good years, both coming off of what, for very different reasons, was a ruined 2010. But on the other hand, Bartolo Colon had a very nice year after not even playing professional baseball in 2010. He hadn't started 20 games or pitched 100 innings in a season since 2005, back when Ellsbury was drafted and Berkman went to the World Series alongside Bagwell and Biggio. I don't really know what a "comeback player" is, but whatever it is, Colon has to have been just about the comebackiest comeback player in history. How does he not win this thing?

I'll admit, coming into yesterday, I'd spent probably a total of ninety seconds in my entire life thinking about the Comeback Player of the Year Award, either the old now-irrelevant Sporting News version or the new-since-2005, officially sanctioned by MLB version. But looking at the list of past winners of the latter, it seems to me that what we've got is a pretty familiar problem with end-of-season awards: the thing the voters are voting on is really poorly defined, so no one really knows what they're voting on.

Here's everything I know about the award:
  • Its purpose, according to the initial 2005 press release, is to "recognize those players who have re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season." This may, for all I know, be the only criterion the voters are given. "Re-emerged" pretty clearly means he has to have been on the baseball field before this at some point, though it doesn't even say it has to be an MLB baseball field. I'd think that would mean Jim Morris probably wouldn't have been eligible, but rookie Josh Hamilton, when he re-emerged in 2007 after spending more than three years out of baseball, would have been.
  • The full name of the award, at least initially, is/was the "Major League Comeback Player of the Year Award Presented by Viagra (sildinafil citrate)." There's no mention of Viagra in the article announcing this year's winners, so I assume the sponsorship has lapsed. Still, I feel like associating "comeback" and "Viagra" means we should prefer an older gentleman (in baseball terms) for the award, perhaps one who has seemed to have lost some of his energy, that spark, a certain vitality, and then finds it again. Score a point for Colon over Ellsbury!
  • The voters, at least this year, were "the 30 beat writers." Which, OK, whatever.
  • Typing "define:comeback" into Google comes up with this primary definition: "A return by a well-known person, esp. an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful."

So. There's a lot of room to argue, there. Is the CPOTY (see potty?) the player who, among all those who were awful or injured last year, was best this year (that would be Ellsbury in the AL, and maybe Matt Kemp in the NL)? Do we go the Viagra route, and favor the guys who found a fountain of youth and excelled in an age and place at which we all thought they were probably done (Colon and Berkman)? Or is it the guy whose completed comeback covered the most distance, the guy who was the farthest gone before he came back (which I think would have to be Colon and Ryan Vogelsong)? Or should there be some consideration (as my Twitter friend Paul suggested yesterday) to whether the thing from which the player needed to come back was his own doing, which would disqualify the likes of Hamilton and favor guys, like Ellsbury, who were just banged up (which might get you to Ellsbury and Berkman)?

My knee-jerk reaction would be to go the Colon and Vogelsong route; the award, it seems to me, is about stories, and those guys are easily the best stories. I don't see how the player's initial fault or lack thereof should matter. The voters don't seem to be on my side there, though; neither Josh Hamilton nor Rick Ankiel won the award in 2007 or 2008, and those guys (like Colon, and all three for totally different reasons) came about as far as you can come. And the definition of "comeback" isn't really on my side, either; Colon was certainly prominent before his fall -- he stole Santana'swon the Cy Young in 2005, after all -- but Vogelsong most definitely was not.

The voters seem by and large to have run with that dictionary definition, giving the award to the highest-profile player who faced some adversity the year before. Ellsbury and Berkman this year, Ken Griffey, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi, Chris Carpenter, Jim Thome. The one thing almost all these winners and their stories seem to have in common is fame, which probably means an increased likelihood of bringing some attention to the CPOTYA (see pot ya. That's better).

Which I think is why this award is of almost no value and holds exactly none of my interest, and why, as soon as I hit "publish post" three minutes from now, I'll go back to forgetting it exists.

But the one thing I'm sure of is that while there are a ton of possible definitions of a "comeback player," Bartolo Colon's 2011 meets all of them, and there's really no justification for his not winning the award.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

I have the same problems with the award and wrote about them yesterday. Is it the "was injured last year and not this year" award? The problem is defining what "Re-emerged" means. The word seems to imply that a player had to "emerge" at some other time. That would seem to rule out the Vogelsongs of the world. But Vogelsong to me is the pure definition of what the award should be. And Colon too.

As for the Ellsbury selection, it's kind of absurd. He didn't "re-emerge" this season. He emerged into something totally different than he'd ever been before. Berkman, from my vantage point re-emerged from a couple of years of disinterest and lack of conditioning. Signing a less than Berkman-like contract will cause those life changes.

Until this "award" gets a face lift, it really is, as you state so well, a non-entity.

Bill said...

That's an excellent point, Mr. Tasker. If I take one step back and then follow it with thirty steps forward, it's hard to label those thirty steps as a "re-emergence." (That would seem to disqualify Vogelsong and Ellsbury, but that's OK.)

Anonymous said...

What about Delmon Young? The dead weight that the Minnesota Twins got rid of has turned out to be the rock that the Detroit Tigers can count on. If you were as good a writer as Delmon Young is a player your articles wouldn't be so mediocre. Hopefully Delmon Young is gonna be a Tiger for many years to come. Thanks for the trade!

Dumbrowski said...

Delmon Young had a better year in 2010 than he did in 2011. What award does that qualify him for?