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What are the chances Sonny Gray actually wins NL Comeback Player of the Year?

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A look at what factors into winning the award.

San Diego Padres v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This week, the MLB Player’s Association will announce the winners of it’s 2019 Player’s Choice Awards, awarded annually by the players through a secret ballot process for several different categories. Categories include league specific awards for Outstanding Player, Pitcher, Rookie, and Comeback Player, as well as non-league specific, single winners of Player of the Year (which isn’t necessarily the same recipient as the league-he-belongs Outstanding Player, which is strange) and Marvin Miller Man of the Year (given to “the player in either league whose on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to higher levels of achievement,” according to Wikipedia).

Last week, the Player’s Association began announcing the finalist for said awards, of which included a nomination for Reds starting pitcher Sonny Gray for National League Comeback Player of the Year. He’ll be vying for the award with Atlanta Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson and Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Winners of the Players Choice Awards receive grants through the Player’s Association Players Trust, which are then given to a charity of the winner’s choice.

Comeback Player of the Year is a tricky thing to quantify. For other season specific awards, it’s easier to take a look at the numbers, determine who performed the best in that given season, and give them a trophy. “Comeback” Player of the Year has more connotations, though, and it’s not always necessarily appropriate to just look at Baseball Reference and give it to the guy with the best numbers.

With that in mind, I thought it interesting to break down the numbers and also the narratives for each finalist.

The Numbers

Sonny Gray - 4.4 fWAR/5.6 bWAR, 2.87 ERA, 1.084 WHIP, 3.42 FIP, 64 ERA-/158 ERA+, 10.52 K/9, 3.49 BB/9

Hyun-Jin Ryu - 4.8 fWAR/5.3 bWAR, 2.32 ERA, 1.007 WHIP, 3.10 FIP, 55 ERA-/179 ERA+, 8.03 K/9, 1.18 BB/9

Josh Donaldson - 4.9 fWAR/6.1 bWAR, .259 AVG, .379 OBP, .521 SLG, 37 HR, 132 wRC+/127 OPS+

These are pretty good numbers! It’s obviously a little harder to do a one-to-one comparison between Donaldson and the pitchers (though those WAR numbers are attempting to do that), but I think we can all agree that each guy had a pretty good season. Fangraphs like Ryu a little better than Sonny Gray, while Baseball Reference trends in the other direction, and Donaldson scores a little higher than each by both metrics.

Still, they’re all so relatively close together, I’m not sure there’s a particularly strong, convincing argument that one was demonstrably better than the other two.

Another notion that frequently gets applied to other awards that I don’t think is particularly applicable to this one is team performance. The Dodgers and Braves were obviously several orders of magnitude better than the Reds in 2019. But, “Comeback” Player of the Year awards are uniquely individual in that we must also look at a players past performances (indeed, a player has to be “coming back” from something). Of the three, only Ryu is playing for the team he’s played with in any other season, so the merits of the 2019 team performance isn’t particularly import.

In the American League, of the three players nominated (Jorge Soler, Lucas Giolito, Hunter Pence), none played on a team that made the playoffs or played for a team that won more than 78 games.

Which brings us to the next and, probably, more important equation to the award.

What are you coming back from?

Injury

In many instances, a Comeback Player of the Year Award (of which there are at least three given in Major League Baseball, which wasn’t confusing at all in the researching of this piece), previous injury history seems to play an out sized role for the recipient. Going back to 2009, the only winners from the National League that I can find that’s specifically not injury related is Casey McGehee, who won the award in 2014, and Francisco Liriano, 2013’s winner (though, he previously won the AL award in 2010 with the Twins after coming back from Tommy John surgery).

Ryan Zimmerman (2017’s winner) and Matt Kemp (2018) don’t specifically fall into the “devastating” type of injury you may expect, like a pitcher’s busted elbow (Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson) or a player’s shredded knee (Lance Berkman, Buster Posey), but each dealt with a multitude of nagging type injuries that negatively affected their playing performance. Once able to put together a full season somewhat back to full strength, they won the award.

In that regard, Sonny Gray’s story doesn’t really fit. He’s only been on the injured list twice in his career, once at the end of 2016 with a strained right forearm, and once to begin 2017 with a strained right shoulder. Each injury cost him about a month, but he was well enough to pitch his final start in September of 2016, while he came back the first of May in 2017 and hasn’t missed a beat since, health-wise. He was just... bad with the Yankees.

Josh Donaldson, on the other hand, missed over 100 games last season due to shoulder and calf injuries, playing only 16 games after May 28th. In many ways, it was probably the main explanation for why he had to take a one year cushion contract for this season, rather than getting any type of longer term security at age 33.

The worst injury history of the set belongs to Ryu, who missed essentially all of two full seasons between 2015 and 2016 due to shoulder and elbow injuries. He returned with healthy arms in 2017, but still only pitched 125 innings across 24 starts as he missed time with a hip injury. In 2018, he missed the better part of the season due to a groin strain. 2019 was easily the healthiest season for Ryu in quite some time.

Career Trajectory

I’m struggling to come up with exactly what I mean by this. I almost settled on peak, but that’s not necessarily the right sentiment. Basically, a player has to have shown some sort of promise or prolonged performance that would suggest that there is something to comeback to. Whether that be someone like Chris Carpenter, who’d played several seasons before his peak Cy Young performance in 2005, or someone like Casey McGehee, who at least slashed .291/.349/.477 between 2009 and 2010 with the Brewers, finishing top five in Rookie of the Year voting in 2009, before essentially being banished to play baseball in Japan by 2013.

Ryu pitched 344 innings of 3.17 ERA ball over 2013 and 2014 with the Dodgers, finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting, before being felled by the aforementioned injuries. Even so, when he’s been healthy enough to pitch, he’s pitched well. Though he was only able to manage 209 innings across 2017 and 2018, his ERA was a minuscule 3.06 with a nearly 9 K/9. He wasn’t available often, but he was a perfectly fine option when he was.

Sonny Gray was similarly great to begin his Major League career. He wasn’t called up until July of 2013, but pitched 64 innings of 2.67 ERA ball. He followed that up with a 219 innings pitched performance in his sophomore season, doing much of the same (3.08 ERA) before finishing third in the American League Cy Young Award voting in 2015. He was limited in 2016 and performed poorly (the aforementioned IL stint), before being perfectly solid in 2017 and being messed up by the Yankees in 2018.

The biggest peak season/career trajectory of all obviously comes from Josh Donaldson, the 2015 American League Most Valuable Player. Donaldson has finished top five in voting for the award in two other seasons, while making three All Star games. He was also chosen Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player in 2015 by these very voters. If there is a player who had the furthest to “comeback” to based on historical performance, it’s Donaldson.

Conclusion

With all that being written, I don’t think Sonny Gray wins this award. Donaldson probably played the best of the three players this season, and I’m sure there are several people that don’t even view Gray as the best pitcher on the list. That’s debatable, and another topic for another article. He neither has the injury history that seems to heavily factor into awards like these (Ryu), nor the career “peak” to reach again (Donaldson).

Instead, Reds fans will have to settle on Sonny Gray merely just being great. And, it might help to be consoled by the fact that if you had to pick a guy to sustain 2019 type of performance over the next several years, Gray is probably the favorite.