The Comeback Player of the Year: an award you never want to be a candidate for, but one which, if you win, represents a triumph. It’s gotta feel pretty good overall. And Mariano Rivera and Francisco Liriano are probably feeling pretty good today, because won the Comeback Player of the Year Awards for the AL and NL, respectively, last night.
The award, voted on by MLB.com writers, is presented annually to one player in each league who has re-emerged on the field during the season. Often the award is given to a player who missed a season or a large part of a season due to injury or illness. But, as is the case with Liriano, it can go to a guy who simply bounced back from ineffectiveness.
And Liriano was in the competitive wilderness for a while. He posted ERAs of 5.34 and 5.09 in 2012 and 2011, with a combined record of 15-22 bouncing from the Twins to the White Sox. This season he put it altogether, though, going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts for the Pirates. This after breaking his arm in the offseason. He was a key part to the Pirates improbable playoff run.
As for Mariano Rivera: the fact that I forgot he was injured and missed most of 2012 with that ACL injury until I saw the announcement probably tells you that it was a pretty good and thorough comeback. Indeed, he didn’t miss a beat in his final year, saving 44 games while compiling a 6-2 record with a 2.11 ERA and 54 strikeouts and nine walks. All at age 43.
To the surprise of, well, very few, the Mariners didn’t make the cut for the postseason this year. While they threw their hats in the ring for a wild card berth, their pitching staff just couldn’t stay healthy, from the handful of pitchers who contracted season-ending injuries in spring training to Felix Hernandez‘s shoulder bursitis to structural damage in Hisashi Iwakuma‘s right shoulder. Left-hander James Paxton missed 79 days with a lingering head cold, strained left forearm and pectoral strain. Heading into the 2018 season, the lefty told MLB.com’s Greg Johns that he plans to “nerd out big-time” in order to prepare for a healthy, consistent run with the club.
So far, Johns reports, that entails a new diet and workout program, hot yoga sessions and blood testing. “I just think there’s more I can do,” Paxton said. “I haven’t done the blood testing before. Finding out if there’s something I don’t know about myself. It’s just about learning and trying to find what works for me.”
When healthy, the 28-year-old southpaw was lights-out for the Mariners. He helped stabilize the front end of the rotation with a 12-5 record in 24 starts and supplemented his efforts with a 2.98 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 10.3 SO/9 through 136 innings. Despite taking multiple trips to the disabled list, he built up 4.6 fWAR — the most wins above replacement he’s compiled in any season of his career to date. Had he not been felled by a pectoral injury in mid-August — one that came with a five-week trip to the disabled list — the club might have been been able to make a bigger push for the playoffs.
Of course, even if Paxton manages to stay healthy next season, the Mariners still have the rest of the rotation to worry about. They cycled through 17 starters in 2017 and tied the 2014 Rangers with 40 total pitchers over the course of the season. Per GM Jerry Dipoto, their top four starters (Paxton, Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Tommy John candidate Drew Smyly) only contributed 17% of total innings pitched, just a tad below the 40% average. Finding adequate big league arms and compensating for injured aces (both current and former) will be tough. Still, getting a healthy, dominant Paxton back on the mound for 30+ starts would be a huge get for the team — whether or not the postseason is in their future next year.