In 2005, major league baseball, in tandem with Viagra (nudge, wink) saw fit to bestow the newly formed Comeback Player of the Year award to a player adjudged to have “re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season.
Typically, since the award’s inception, it has been given to players who have come back from grievous injury, with few exceptions. The first winners (they go to one in each league) were the New York Yankees Jason Giambi and Cincinnati Reds Ken Griffey Jr.
Giambi came back from a knee injury, respiratory infection, intestinal parasite and benign pituitary tumor that limited him to 80 games in 2004 to post AL highs in walks (108) and on-base percentage (.440) in 2005.
Griffey Jr. experienced injuries from head to toe between 2000-2004, including a torn hamstring, torn knee tendon, dislocated shoulder and torn ankle tissue. In 2004, he appeared in just 83 games, returning in 2005 to hit .305 with 35 homers.
Here are 10 players in the last 10 seasons who have made astonishing comebacks (not necessarily injury related).
10. Eric Thames – Milwaukee Brewers 2017
It may be early, but so far Milwaukee’s Eric Thames is the odds-on favorite to win 2017 National League Comeback Player of the Year honors. After three full seasons spent punishing the baseball to the tune of 124 home runs for the Korean Baseball Organization’s NC Dinos, Thames is ripping the hide off the ball for the Brew Crew. In 15 games so far, the outfielder/first baseman has a league leading 20 hits, .415 batting average and eight home runs. In addition, he is tops in the senior circuit in slugging percentage (.981) and OPS (1.481). Thames was drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 MLB draft out of Pepperdine University by the Toronto Blue Jays. He made his debut with the Jays in 2011, hitting a respectable .262, with 24 doubles, five triples, 12 homers and 37 RBI in 95 games. He slipped to .232 (9 HR 25 RBI) in 86 games split between Toronto and Seattle in 2012 and spent 2013 in the minors before heading over to Korea. A great story this season.
9. Casey McGehee – Miami Marlins 2014
He may be an out-of-work free agent now, but for one shining season, he was the talk of the National League. The big corner infielder made a splash with Milwaukee in 2009 after the Chicago Cubs gave up on him, hitting .301 in 116 games, along with 16 homers and 66 RBI to finish fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting. A year later, he posted a .285 batting averageand career highs in homers (23) and RBI (104). He declined precipitously in 2011 (.223, 13 HR, 67 RBI) and after a season split between Pittsburgh and the Yankees in 2012, he was released. Like Thames above, McGehee headed to Asia, putting in a superb season for the champion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, batting .292 with 28 homers and 93 RBI. That performance enticed the Miami Marlins to entice him back to major league baseball in 2014. For a mere $1.1 million, “Hits McGehee” became the “it” guy in baseball, smacking out a career high 177 hits, finishing with a .287 average, four homers and 76 RBI to win the comeback award.
8. Anthony Rendon – Washington Nationals 2016
It’s a good thing that Washington Nationals’ third baseman Anthony Rendon chose to stay in school at Rice University rather than sign with Atlanta after being drafted by the Braves in the 27th round of the 2008 draft. Three years later, Washington chose the unsigned collegiate star sixth overall and after a decent rookie season in 2013, he broke out in a big way a year later. he won a silver slugger and was fifth in NL MVP voting after hitting .287, with a league leading 111 runs, 66 extra-base hits, 17 stolen bases and 83 RBI. In 2015, however, the young third sacker battled the injury bug and hit just .264 in 80 games and experienced a power outage with just 16 doubles and five homers. Questions, then, abounded last year but he would answer them all with an amazing bounce back year. He easily copped Comeback Player of the Year in the NL by hitting .270 with 38 doubles, two triples, 20 homer and 85 RBI.
7. Carlos Pena – Tampa Bay Devil Rays 2007
In terms of comebacks, first baseman Carlos Pena literally came back from the dead to have an all-star worthy season in 2007 with Tampa. A free swinger who hit 76 homers in his first six seasons, Pena was an up-and-down player who, by 2006, was buried in the Boston Red Sox minor league system after just 18 games with the Bosox, presumably never to be heard from again. However, in 2007, the Devil Rays signed him to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Eventually, he was reassigned to the Rays minor league camp, but after an injury to regular first baseman Greg Norton, Pena was re-signed on April 1. After a slow start, Pena picked things up in May and never looked back. he would rip a career high 46 homers and drive in 121 runs to earn AL CBPOY honors and the only Silver Slugger award of his 13-year career.
6. Justin Morneau – Colorado Rockies 2014
At one time, Canadian first baseman Justin Morneau was the man, a great contact hitter who drove in over 100 runs four years in a row with Minnesota between 2006 and 2009. In addition, he was the AL MVP in 2006 with a slash line that included a .321 batting average and highs in home runs (34) and RBI (130). Later, a concussion sustained during an all-star campaign in 2010 would send his career into a downward spiral. Still a good hitter, his average nonetheless slipped, never creeping past .267 and his power numbers dropped noticeably. In 2013, he played in 152 games with Minnesota and Pittburgh and then signed a two-year contract with the Colorado Rockies in 2014. It was the tonic he would need. Morneau topped the senior circuit that year with a .319 batting average, garnering a few votes for MVP. He didn’t win the comeback award (that went to Casey McGehee), but we think he could have been a co-winner.
5. Fernando Rodney – Tampa Bay Rays 2012
Dominican fireballer Fernando Rodney is a survivor who got better with age. The hard throwing reliever from the baseball factory that is San Pedro de Macoris scuffled around in the Detroit Tigers system for seven seasons and then another two with the Los Angeles Angels between 2002 and 2011. He saved 70 total games and had a 4.28 ERA in Detroit, then cleaned up 17 games for the Angels and posted a 4.32 ERA. By the 2011 campaign, Rodney was so frustrated with the lack of relief appearances with L.A. that he asked for a trade. Eventually, the then 35-year-old signed a modest one-year, $1.75 million contract with the Rays in 2012 and it paid off, handsomely. He pitched in a career high 76 games, going 2-2 with a tiny 0.60 ERA and a career high 48 saves (which he matched two years later in Seattle). The hard-throwing righty also whiffed 76 batters in 74.2 innings and was an all-star for the first time in his career.
4. Bartolo Colon – Oakland A’s 2013
The Clown Prince of baseball wasn’t always so jolly. Still pitching in the majors at the ripe old age of 44, Bartolo Colon once won the American League Cy Young award in 2005 (he was 32 then), going 21-8 for the Los Angeles Angels. Then it was as if the Bad Luck Fairy sprinkled him with pixie dust and his career went into the dumper for five seasons and a season (2010) spent entirely out of baseball with a host of arm issues. But, as good luck would have it, he was rescued off the baseball scrap heap by the king of reclamation projects, Billy Beane in Oakland. At 39, he went 10-9 in 2012 with a 3.43 ERA. Still not great numbers but his first double-digit win season since the Cy Young year in 2005. Then in 2013, the 40-year-old fun-loving Dominican pitched in 30 games for the first time in eight years and fashioned a 18-6 record and outstanding 2.65 ERA for the A’s. Mariano Rivera would win CBPOY that year, but Colon had to get serious consideration.
3. Brad Lidge – Philadelphia Phillies 2008
Sometimes, the baseball Gods smile on a player, sometimes they smirk a little and throw a little shade. In 2005, reliever Brad Lidge was on top of his game, saving 42 games on 46 opportunities and sporting a 2.29 ERA for the Houston Astros. The lanky closer threw hard (103 Ks in 70.2 innings pitched) and was an all-star for the first time in his career. Then, in 2006, those smirking Gods saw fit to give him a case of the yips. His ERA ballooned to 5.28 and while he still struck out 104 batters in 75 innings, he blew six saves in 38 opportunities. Fate would be crueler to him in 2007, when Lidge choked on eight of 27 save opportunities. A trade to Philadelphia seemed fortuitous, until the Gods threw shade on him during 2008 spring training, saddling him with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Yet, Lidge recovered with a vengeance and would become the first Phillies pitcher to be perfect in save conversions for the front-running Phils at 41 total. For that he earned his second all-star nom and would later win a championship, recording the final out and going 7-for-7 in playoff save opportunities.
2. Francisco Liriano – Pittsburgh Pirates 2013
Francisco Liriano, currently a starter with Toronto, has virtually nine lives. Why? He is the only two-time recipient of the Comeback Player of the Year award, the first coming in 2010 with Minnesota, then in 2013 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 2010, he won the AL version after battling back from injuries. In 2013, with the Pirates, it was a whole different story. All the good will he established with that CBPOY season with the Twins in 2010 quickly disappeared, to the point he was 3-10 with a 5.31 ERA (remember he was 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 2010) in 22 games with Minnesota in 2012. The Twins dumped him to the Chicago White Sox, where struggled through the rest of the ’12 campaign. Liriano then signed with Pittsburgh in late 2012, had his contract voided when he hurt his non-throwing arm scaring his kids and then reached a new deal about a month and a half later. He did start out on the DL, making his first start in mid-May and a pitching mechanics change paid off huge. Liriano went 16-8 in 26 starts, sporting a 3.02 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 161 innings. He also picked up a victory in the post-season, limiting Cincinnati to four hits and one run in a seven-inning stint during the wild card game.
1. Rick Porcello – Boston Red Sox 2016
For years in Detroit, Rick Porcello was pretty much an inning-eating, no-nonsense hurler who won 76 games in six seasons and had a ho-hum ERA of 4.30. In December 2015, he was traded to Boston (in a deal that included Yoenis Cespedes) and promptly signed a big, fat four-year contract extension worth $82.5 million. Red Sox Nation would soon have Porcello in its crosshairs, as he went 9-15 in 2015 with a career high 4.92 ERA and 25 homer against in just 28 starts. To boot, he had to battle injuries mid-season. However, 2016 shined upon Porcello and no one, and we mean no one, saw him having the kind of Cy Young worthy season he had. Not only did he win CBPOY last year, he also copped his first Cy with a 22-4 record, 3.15 ERA and career high 223 innings pitched.