By Michael Clair
I'm not sure if you've noticed, but baseball is hard. It's why I washed out in sixth grade, unable to hit, field, or even sit in the dugout very well. It's why I'm also amazed that anyone is good at it, the game seeming more like a special effect with everyone just Criss Angel-ing it when squaring up a 95 mph fastball.
It's just as perplexing when someone stops being good at baseball. I mean, sure, some players get old, fat and slow, but how do you explain the players who achieve greatness and then suddenly return to Earth, like Brady Anderson after his 50 home run season in 1996 or Darin Erstad after his bonkers 2000?
There are a zillion things that could account for it. Besides time's cruel perpetual march forward, there could be a hidden injury or mechanical hitch that prevents the same repeatable motion of the last 20 years from working. It could be an off-the-field issue, an illness in the family or an issue with a loved one. Or maybe just distaste for the pre-game spread spilling onto the field.
Because of these variables, it's difficult to identify which players will bounce back next year and which will proceed with the slow, agonizing march towards retirement. Would you have picked Francisco Liriano to make a comeback in 2010 after a 5.80 ERA in '09? Or what about Liriano this past year, when he became the first player to win two Comeback Player of the Year awards, posting a 3.02 ERA in 161 innings with the Pirates after a 5.23 ERA in 2011 and '12?
But just because it's hard, and just because we may have no idea what we're doing, that's not a reason to give up. Hell, if that were the case, no one would ever become a parent.
To judge a player's comeback chances, I used the highly scientific method of
- Looking at numbers
- Thinking about those numbers
- Getting hungry for dinner
- Thinking about those numbers while eating dinner.
That said, let's look at the candidates for next season:
2013: .258/.330/.437, 17 HR, 64 RBI, 443 PA
There are some who believe that Albert Pujols was cursed when he left St. Louis. Some say it was done during a black mass held by The Best Fans in Baseball. Others say it was John Mozeliak in a fit of rage. No one really knows.
But after hitting .328/.420/.610 with the Cardinals, the .275/.338/.475 line Prince Albert has in Anaheim is awfully disappointing, those numbers more closely resembling Jay Bruce rather than the greatest living hitter on the planet.
At the age of 33, it's not hard to worry that Pujols is in a straight decline, the eight years left on his contract a harbinger of doom for the Angels. But over the last two years, Pujols has been besieged with a variety of injuries, including a partial tear of his plantar fascia that required midseason surgery.
There's hope: Pujols is saying that his foot injury is 99.9% healed. If true, it could mean the difference between a man who couldn't drive balls last season and the monster wielding a baseball bat we all know and love.
Pujols is only getting older, so a return to the most dominating hitter on Earth is unlikely, but a hitter providing average, patience, and dozens of dingers? That seems doable.
Highly Scientific Chance of Comeback (HSCC): 80%
2013: 10-14, 4.67 ERA, 169.2 IP, 151/31 K/BB
Dan Haren's average season, 2005-2011: 14-11, 3.49 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9
Dan Haren's average season, 2012-2013: 11-14, 4.50 ERA, 7.6 K/9, 1.8 BB/9
If you're confused about what happened, well, so is Dan Haren. The numbers, beyond his ERA, are remarkably identical, with Haren showcasing the same above-average control that he always has, with only a very slight dip in strikeouts.
While part of his struggles are surely due to his declining velocity, his average fastball now sitting in the upper-eighties, Haren possesses command of five different pitches. It's the kind of combination that seemingly makes him the type of pitcher that could succeed on his wits and wiles rather than pure, unbridled stuff.
2013 was supposed to be Haren's comeback year, helping lead the Nationals to postseason greatness. Maybe that comeback was just a year delayed.
2013: .270/.328/.395, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 290 PA
All the pieces were there for a great Dodgers season. Magic Johnson was the public face of the team for his first full season after the exit of Disney villain Frank McCourt; Clayton Kershaw had another amazing season culminating in a Cy Young; Yasiel Puig made everything exciting; Hanley Ramirez returned mid-season and played like it was 2009. But they were missing one thing: their superstar center fielder.
Trying to return from shoulder surgery, Kemp never looked comfortable at the plate, his ability to drive the ball gone. Add in hamstring strains, ankle problems and another shoulder surgery at the end of the year, and Kemp's 2013 reads more like a medical student's midterm than a baseball season.
While there's always the chance that these issues will continue to plague Kemp, baseball history rife with athletic outfielders whose careers were marred with injury (Ken Griffey Jr, chief among them), he will only be 29 next season and should still be in the prime of his career. While there are rumors that he'll be traded to Seattle, a place where home runs go to die, if Kemp returns healthy, he should be the outfielder we've come to expect, if not the 50/50 player he wanted to become.
2013: .244/.313/.355, 12 HR, 54 RBI, 520 PA
Look at aging players with strong comeback seasons and you'll notice that many had the so-called "old player" skills -- namely the ability to hit for power and excellent plate control, with little reliance on things like like running, jumping, or bending over to pick things up. Konerko, a batter with one of the best approaches at the plate, is a prime candidate.
Though the 37-year-old Konerko posted the lowest OPS of his career since 1998, there's good news in the numbers, too. His strikeout rate was within his career norms, signifying that pitchers weren't necessarily throwing balls by him; the only significant drops in his batted ball data were his batting average on balls in play and the rate at which his flyballs left the stadium. Though his age is a warning sign, those numbers point to a wretched bout of bad luck rather than an inability to play baseball.
Konerko still hasn't decided if he's going to return next year, though owner Jerry Reinsdorf says the door is always open. If he does decide to play, a simple reversal of luck could see Konerko return to the slugger we've grown accustomed to.
2013: 2-8, 6.20 ERA, 81.1 IP, 83/30 K/BB
The question has never been about Johnson's talent, instead it's been his ability to stay healthy. He's struggled with a myriad of injuries over the years, missing more than 50 days in a season four times, topping the 200-inning plateau just once.
Fortunately for Johnson, despite all the nicks and cuts, his fastball has held up, averaging just under 93 mph, ranking 18th among starters, between Yu Darvish and Jon Lester, if he had enough innings to qualify. And though his walk rate has been steadily inching up over the last four years, he's held onto his ability to strike batters out, posting a career-high K/9 in 2013.
But beyond the triceps, forearm, and elbow issues he had last year, there's another problem: batters hit .450 on balls in play when Johnson pitched from the stretch. Maybe those had something to do with trying to account for his injuries. Maybe not.
Johnson will only be 30 years-old next year and there will be someone out there gambling that they can walk away with an ace on the cheap. Or, as has happened so many times before, they'll come away a player on the disabled list.
2013: 4-6, 5.73 ERA, 103.2 IP, 67/38 K/BB
Which Ryan Vogelsong do I compare him to: the one with a 5.86 ERA across 315 innings before he left for Japan in 2006? Or the one with a 3.05 ERA in 396 innings in 2011-12? And are we 100% certain that his return to the majors wasn't actually the plot from Talented Mr. Ripley 2: Ripley Goes to the Big Leagues?
Troubling is the spike in line drive percent, the drop in velocity, and the strikeout rate that was his lowest since he was a Pirate in 2005. The spike in home run rate, up to 13.4% is also frightening, given the possibility that he'll be pitching somewhere other than spacious AT&T Park.
While most of baseball history tells us not to expect Vogelsong to bounce back, that same source would have never expected Vogelsong to return as a successful major leaguer. So…
2013: .215/.270/.381, 13 HR, 27 RBI, 337 PA
A late-bloomer, Morse broke out in 2011, blasting 31 home runs and putting up a .910 OPS. Banged up in 2012, Morse was sent back to the team that originally drafted him as part of a three-team deal, Jack Zduriencik looking to add power to a team that had none.
It didn't work out.
For another season, Morse battled a series of injuries, eventually finding himself traded to the Orioles for Xavier Avery, getting only 30 at-bats down the stretch as the O's battled for a playoff spot.
Though he still has tremendous power and could fall into 20+ home runs with enough at-bats, Morse lacks a defensive position, can't stay healthy, and his plate discipline has only gotten worse, striking out 184 times and drawing only 37 walks in the last two years.
2013: 4-14, 4.75 ERA, 138.1 IP, 89/27 K/BB
First, the good news. Danks returned from shoulder surgery and had the lowest BB/9 of his career. The problem? Everything else.
Danks gave up too many home runs (28), struck out batters at a lower rate than Barry Zito and Bruce Chen, and saw his fastball velocity drop below 90 mph.
It's possible that another year back from injury could give him a little extra oomph on his pitches, but it's also been three years since he posted a league-average ERA. Pitching in US Cellular's Home Run Center (tagline: Every Flyball is a Home Run) won't be much help to Danks, either.
2013: .179/.309/.362, 22 HR, 55 RBI, 537 PA
Depending on how loosely you define "comeback," I guess you could expect one from Uggla. But if you're calling a return to his 2012 numbers (.220/.348/.384) a comeback, you've got fairly low standards.
Unfortunately for Uggla, he's the exact type of player you would expect to age poorly. An unathletic middle infielder, his DRS was a career worst -19 in 2013, jibing with the visuals of Uggla in the field. The Braves thought so little of his chances that they put Elliot Johnson and his career OPS of .592 on the postseason roster instead of Uggla.
There aren't many positive signs. Uggla's K rate has been spiking for the last three years, culminating in the third highest in baseball last year, behind only Chris Carter and Mike Napoli. Factor in his defense and Uggla's only usefulness is hitting home runs. Like a similar counterpart in Chicago who also offers no defensive value (Adam Dunn's 2013: .219/.320/.442), there's not much hope for the Rule 5 success story.
I Have No Earthly Idea
2013: 4-5, 6.82 ERA, 62 IP, 51/36 K/BB
For any other player, it would be time to say your goodbyes. But this is Roy Halladay we're talking about. He's a man who cleared the plains of wolves and coyotes, who operated on himself with gardening equipment just to see if he could, who faced Death in an arm wrestling match and won.
Yes, his fastball velocity has dropped to 89 mph, and sure, his walks spiked to their highest level since 2000 when he posted a 10.64 ERA with the Blue Jays, but hey, he came back from that once before.
And sure, he's 37 years old, and that's a terrible age for a pitcher looking to make a comeback... but this is Roy Halladay. I don't dare say Roy Halladay's done for. Because he'd find me. And beat me up.
HSCC: 20% 0%? 1,000,000%?
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