Baseball, of all the major sports, has the largest window of playing age. The sport often sees large gaps in between visits to the big stage. The Comeback Player of the Year award is not the most heralded award in Major League Baseball, but it often makes for the best story. The stories can range between one of those large gaps or often, a return from a terrible injury. Last year’s American League CPOY was Chris Young, who did not pitch in the majors in 2013 due to a syndrome. The National League CPOY was Casey McGehee. After hitting .291 with 39 homers between 2009 and 2010, McGehee was out of the major leagues in 2013, playing in Japan. He was given another shot by the Marlins last year and played in 160 games, batting .287.
The injury comeback stories are often more predictable than a comeback from a seeming loss of skill. In the words to follow, I will take a look at who could be likely to bounce back from not injury, but a season or two lost due to some other factor. Whether it’s a change of scenery, position, coaching, or any other factor, these players have shown signs of being an elite player but didn’t have it in 2014. Will they find their way in 2015?
I will be using ZiPS projections from fangraphs.com for all 2015 projections. As I mentioned before, the injury comebacks essentially jump off the page at you. Prince Fielder, who missed all of 2014, is projected for .262, 21, 72. Joey Votto only played 62 games in 2014 (.255, 6, 23) and is projected for .279, 15, 51). Carlos Gonzalez played 70 games (.238, 11, 38) and is projected for .281, 20, 66. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if these three have a great 2015. They are all less than two seasons from putting up the numbers they are projected to bounce back to.
It’s a more difficult proposition to figure out who may bounce back to numbers from previous seasons if no injury seems to be at fault, or only part of the story. Let’s start with players who have shown success in the major leagues in the past, but somehow fell off a cliff in 2014. We will end with players who are “all talk”. These players were top prospects but have yet to find success in the big leagues. Most think the talent is still there for all of these players. Will 2015 be their comeback to their projections?
Justin Verlander – 2014 stats (15-12, 4.54 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) – 2015 projections (14-10, 3.78 ERA, 1.27 WHIP)
Pitchers are more difficult to predict a bounce back as there is very little history of pitchers losing their stuff and finding it later in their careers. Verlander would be an even rarer case due to being a “power” pitcher. His pitch speed has been decreasing each year due to extended mileage from multiple years of his team reaching the postseason. The Tigers have been preaching optimistically on Verlander’s 2015 and ZiPS is buying in somewhat. Verlander is said to have been working on his curveball during spring training to perhaps depend less on a decreasing fastball. The past MVP and Cy Young winner’s comeback would make for a good story, as most have labeled him washed up after 2014.
Chris Davis – 2014 stats (.196, 26, 72) – 2015 projections (.241, 34, 96)
Now that is a bounce back projection – Chris Davis was awful last year, exemplified by 173 Ks in 450 at bats. ZiPS still has him on that strikeout projection (176 in 493) but clearly they are predicting the power and average start inching closer to his monster 2014 season (.286, 53, 138). Davis further muddies the water by his Adderall suspension late in the 2014 season which cost him the postseason. This bold prediction is difficult for me to get on board with.
Jason Kipnis – 2014 stats (.240, 6, 41) – 2015 projections (.256, 13, 68)
To be fair, Kipnis hurt his oblique in May and may not have healed properly which hurt his 2014 numbers. However, between 2012 and 2013 Kipnis hit .270 with 31 homers and 61 stolen bases. ZiPS is conservative on Kipnis for 2015 but with lineup protectors in Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana, he could see his runs go up if he gets back to his 2013 OBP of .366.
Jay Bruce – 2014 stats (.217, 18, 66) – 2015 projections (.255, 28, 95)
Bruce had knee surgery in May which may have drained him of most of his power in 2014. Bruce was coming off three straight seasons of 30+ homeruns and 95+ RBI. Since he was coming off knee surgery it was odd for Bruce to reach a career high in stolen bases (12) in 2014, but if he can stay healthy, a 20-20 season is possible.
Aaron Hill – 2014 stats (.244, 10, 60) – 2015 projections (.263, 12, 59), Jean Segura – 2014 stats (.246, 5, 31, 20 SB) – 2015 projections (.277, 9, 49, 28 SB), Allen Craig – 2014 stats (.215, 8, 46) – 2015 projections (.258, 13, 64), Everth Cabrera – 2014 stats (.232, 3, 20, 18 SB) – 2015 projections (.251, 3, 29, 33 SB)
Wil Myers – 2014 stats (.222, 6, 35) – 2015 projections (.267, 17, 57)
Myers 2014 season was hurt by a wrist injury but he still has yet to become the can’t-miss prospect that was promised. He will be moving on to his third team in his young career, which is rare for a top prospect. I think the Padres would be happy with their new player reaching the ZiPS projections but those numbers should be a floor for where Wil Myers should be at this point.
Eric Hosmer – 2014 stats (.270, 9, 58); postseason (.351, 2, 12 in 15 games) – 2015 projections (.293, 17, 75)
Hosmer is another Royals prospect, like Myers, who wasn’t supposed to miss. I threw in his 2014 postseason stats above because the Eric Hosmer that was seen in the playoffs was a player who hasn’t been seen yet in the regular season. Hosmer was great and was a large reason the Royals got to where they did last year. ZiPS believes those numbers to not be just due to small sample size and it looks like they believe the numbers to be sustainable. If Hosmer and honorable mention Mike Moustakas both become bounce back candidates in 2015, the Royals may be able to repeat last season’s success.
Bryce Harper – 2014 stats (.273, 13, 32) – 2015 projections (.280, 22, 65)
I am going out on a limb and calling Harper a “never was” because we have yet to see his full ability for an extended period of time. In his rookie year, he nearly reached 20-20 but the last two seasons have been injury plagued and in 100 games last year, Harper only had two stolen bases. The excitement around baseball is through the moon for Harper still, but 2015 needs to see the numbers match the hype.
Michael Wacha – 2014 stats (5-6, 3.20 ERA, 1.20 WHIP) – 2015 projections (8-5, 3.27 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), Tony Cingrani – 2014 stats (2-8, 4.55 ERA, 1.53 WHIP) – 2015 projections (6-6, 3.98 ERA, 1.34 WHIP), Wil Middlebrooks – 2014 stats (.191, 2, 19) – 2015 projections (.235, 13, 46)