There’s a lot of baseball left to be played, so any discussion of awards for the season is fairly premature at this point, but it certainly seems as though the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award will be headed to the South Side this fall.
Every White Sox fan remembers how brutally bad Adam Dunn’s 2011 season was. He finished with a .159 batting average, which ranks as the worst average in history for anyone who got as many plate appearances as Dunn did, and takes that distinction by a large margin (second worst goes to Rob Deer, who’s .179 in 1991 was still twenty points better than Dunn). After hitting 38 or more home runs in seven consecutive seasons, Dunn’s total dropped all the way to 11 last year. Using Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR (which factors in hitting, fielding, and base running, among other factors) Dunn’s 2011 rates as the 6th worst season by any player in American League history. It was an ugly, ugly season.
In 2012, Dunn is currently leading all of baseball in both home runs and walks, his slugging percentage is back above .500, basically right at his career level, he’s bounced back in a big, big way, and if the season were to end now, I expect he would be selected as the Comeback Player of the Year. The thing is, Adam Dunn isn’t the member of the White Sox who deserves the award.
Adam Dunn’s 2011 season was the worst in baseball, and the drop in his power was staggering, so he (understandably) drew the most attention, but the second worst 2011 season in the American League also belonged to the White Sox. Alex Rios batted only .227 last year, and while Dunn drew enough walks to put together a bad but not historically so .292 on-base percentage, Rios walked only 27 times; his OBP was an anemic .265, the 7th worst total in baseball over the last twenty years. Strictly as a batter, Rios was probably a little worse than Dunn in 2011, only playing centerfield and running the bases better allowed him to rate higher than Dunn overall.
The same way Dunn’s 2011 got more negative attention than Rios’, his 31 home runs and 77 walks have also drawn more positive attention to Dunn in 2012. I would argue that Rios has been the better player though, even if he doesn’t have anything as flashy as the league lead in home runs to bolster his case. Dunn is managing to walk a lot and hit a lot of home runs, but when he’s not doing either of those two things, he’s been as bad as in 2011, so his batting average is just .211 and even with the league lead in walks, his OBP is .348, a very solid figure, but identical to Rios’ OBP. Dunn has out-homered Rios 31-16, but Rios has more doubles (26-13), triples (5-0), and total extra-base hits (47-44). Factor in the major difference in batting average (Rios’ .315 is 8th best in the AL, Dunn’s .211 is 4th worst) and Rios has the better slugging percentage.
Their OBPs are equal and Rios has the superior SLG; I don’t think I need to draw on statistics to convince anyone that Rios runs the bases better and provides more value on the defensive side of things. To me, Rios has clearly been better than Dunn in 2012, and by a margin that (in my view) more than makes up for Dunn having been even worse in 2011. Using bWAR again, Dunn has gone from -3.1 in 2011 to +1.1 so far in 2012, an improvement of 4.2 wins (which is a BIG figure), while Rios has gone from -2.1 to +3.3 so far, an improvement of 5.4 wins, one of the largest margins in recent history (3rd highest in the 2000s. Among players with a bWAR of -2.0 or worse, only Aubrey Huff (7.5) and Carlos Lee (6.1) have had larger improvements, and Lee’s figure is still reachable for Rios).
Right now, Alex Rios deserves to be named Comeback Player of the Year.