Last week I previewed the early favorites for National League Comeback Player of the Year. This week, it’s all about the American League. Just like in the NL, where Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman are the clear favorites, the AL sees two players separating from the field. But, somewhat counter-intuitively, the best American League comeback stories are taking place on the pitching mound.
Without further ado, here’s a look at the early leaders — and a couple longshot contenders.
Dallas Keuchel became an upper-tier starter in 2014 and then made the leap to Cy Young winner in 2015. The Astros thought they had an ace on their hands, one who could lead the rotation for years to come. Then came 2016 and a massive regression. His ERA ballooned from 2.48 to 4.55; his WHIP went from 1.02 to 1.29; and his walks-per-nine rose from 2.0 to 2.6. That all amounted to a 9-12 record in 26 starts, a big reason Houston missed the playoffs by five games.
Fast forward to 2017 and the 29-year-old is quickly making last year feel like a bad dream. In eight starts, Keuchel is 6-0 with a miniscule 1.69 ERA and 0.869 WHIP, and his walks-per-nine are back to the low twos (2.1). He’s firmly in the mix for another Cy Young, and the Astros are running away with the AL West. He’s the CPOY frontrunner in the AL.
Vargas is the co-favorite along with Keuchel. Whereas Keuchel is coming back from a down year, Vargas is returning from a non-year. The 33-year-old lefty missed almost the entire 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery, making just three starts.
Most of his 2017 numbers are even better than Keuchel’s: 1.01 ERA, 1.6 BB/9. And his 2.5 WAR is tied for the AL lead.
He’d be the frontrunner but I have more faith that Keuchel can keep up his current level of play than Vargas. Vargas has never posted an ERA below 3.71 in his 12-year career, and his strikeouts-per-nine have taken a giant leap (from 5.7 in 2015 to 7.9 this year). I expect him to regress toward his career averages as the season wears on. But if he maintains anything close to this level, he’ll get a lot of love from voters, especially with most of his Royals teammates ****ing the bed.
Brantley played just 11 games last season after re-injuring his shoulder. Prior to that, he was putting up career-high numbers; in 2014, Brantley hit .327 with 20 home runs and 97 RBIs. That was good enough to be considered for AL MVP and earn a spot on the AL All-Star team. Brantley followed that up with another impressive year, even though his numbers were a tad lower.
Skip ahead a year, and Brantley is now healthy and helping the Indians rebound from a troubling start. In 26 games, he has five home runs, 17 RBIs and a batting average of .283. If he can stay healthy, the soon-to-be 30-year-old has a clear shot at the Comeback Player of the Year award — especially if he can up his production a bit and the pitchers above fall off.
As I discussed in the NL article, narrative and opportunity are half the battle when it comes to the CPOY award. Moustakas has the backstory: after helping guide his team to the 2015 World Series, Moustakas tore his ACL and missed nearly the entire 2016 season. Now he’s back, healthy, and looking for redemption.
The other half of the CPOY equation is putting up the numbers, and Moose still has some work to do in that department. He’s performing roughly the same as he did pre-injury, with eight home runs, 14 RBIs and a .245 batting average. If he can get back to the .284/.348/.470 slash-line that helped the Royals win the 2015 AL Central title, he’ll be in the mix.
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