All year long the discussion has been, at least within my earshot, which Chicago White Sox player would win American League Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2012? The answer is finally in: none.
Fernando Rodney bounced back from a terrible year spent in the Angels bullpen in 2011 and became the games most successful closer in 2012 for the Tampa Bay Rays. How did his performance manage to eclipse those of Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, and Jake Peavy? It’s entirely possible that 3 players from a single market split the vote both city-wide and division wide, as the MLB.com beat reporters that see the most of the White Sox split their votes among all 3, allowing an entirely different candidate to swoop in. Think, Ralph Nader stealing votes from Al Gore to allow for a George W. Bush presidency. That’s possibility one. Possibility two: Fernando Rodney’s comeback was actually that much more remarkable.
Rodney’s 2011 campaign, as mentioned, was dismal. He put up a 4.50 ERA, he finished 15 games for LA of A but earned just 3 saves, blowing 4. Basically he was relegated to garbage time. In 2012 he came back with such fury that he very nearly helped land Tampa Bay back into the playoffs in the always difficult AL East. His ERA for the Rays was 0.60 and he registered 48 saves, blowing just 2. His strikeout percent spiked from 17.3% to 27.0% and he stopped walking guys, his BB% dropping from 18.7% to 5.3%. This is a pretty ridiculous improvement.
Let’s measure the improvements of all 3 White Sox candidates and Fernando Rodney using ERA+ and OPS+, as they use league average as a measurement of performance we can get a better idea of the difference in performance despite dealing with 2 pitchers and 2 position players here.
All 4 players were below league average according to ERA+ and OPS+, respectively, in 2011, none more so than Adam Dunn who was 46% worse than a league average player. Both pitchers, despite relatively poor years were closer to league average than the hitters. There are a lot of crappy pitchers out there, and OPS+ is for hitters and ERA+ is for pitchers, so there is some padding there. Everybody got themselves on track for above average performances in 2012, obviously, or they would not be considered for such an award. On the White Sox, Rios had the most pronounced difference, and White Sox fans can attest to that metric passing the eye test. He was a completely different player, as was Adam Dunn, and to a lesser extent since he was dealing with injury, Jake Peavy as well.
Keep in mind the positional difference that I mentioned. Bullpen pitchers are largely….not very good in terms of major leaguers. There is a lot of turnover there, replacement level out of the bullpen would be a solid place to be. Guys get called up out of the minor leagues all the time for just a few appearances before it’s discovered that they’re not ready, they are legitimately not very good, or a more capable pitcher has returned from injury. Point being the league average for a reliever is completely different than league average for, say, a right fielder. Either way, Fernando Rodney’s improvement here is astounding. A 634 ERA+ essentially means nobody came near him. He went nuts, he was the best reliever in the game. In a vacuum, extending his playing time to register a starter’s workload he would have just completed the best season ever known to man. He didn’t, he was just a reliever, and maybe that’s worth less than the things that Peavy, Rios and Dunn accomplished to right their own ships, but I don’t think you can walk away from Rodney winning the AL Comeback Player of the Year award and be too upset.