In another losing season, the Reds should still have a few players in contention for postseason awards. Perhaps Eugenio Suarez’s potential 50-homer season will earn him a few MVP votes. Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo could get some Cy Young love. None of them are likely to win those awards.
However, Gray has a strong chance of winning a less sexy but still notable prize: National League Comeback Player of the Year.
The official criterion for the award is rather vague: “The Comeback Player of the Year Award recognizes the players who have re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season.” It often goes to a player who was injured the previous year. That was the case for the last four NL winners (Matt Harvey, Anthony Rendon, Greg Holland, and Jonny Venters) and last two AL winners (David Price and Mike Moustakas).
However, it’s not unheard of for a player to win the award after having a flat-out lousy season the year before. That’s where Gray makes a compelling case.
Voters, rightly or wrongly, often love a good narrative when casting their ballots. Gray undoubtedly checks that box. His only full season as a member of the New York Yankees was, by most accounts, a disaster. In 130.1 innings, Gray posted a 4.90 ERA, 1.5 fWAR, and 0.6 bWAR. His peripherals were better, but that didn’t matter to the Yankees’ front office or fans.
Things only got worse at home (6.98 ERA), which quickly turned the Bronx faithful against him. Yankees fans booed him off the mound after a start on August 1. Gray smirked as he walked to the dugout, further infuriating the crowd. Shortly after, he was demoted to the bullpen and ultimately left off the postseason roster.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman minced no words in the offseason in expressing his desire to move on from Gray: “We are going to move him if we get the right deal because I don’t think it is going to work out in The Bronx. I don’t feel like we can go through the same exercise and expect different results.” The New York media pulled no punches, either, writing headlines such as: “Yankees can’t get rid of Sonny Gray fast enough.” Yankees fans celebrated when Gray was traded to the Reds in January.
Reunited with his former pitching coach, Derek Johnson, Gray bounced back from that low point to make the All-Star Game in 2019. That makes for quite a compelling narrative. But Gray also has the numbers — both traditional and analytical — to back it up.
Here are his ranks among all qualified pitchers in an array of metrics:
- bWAR (5.5): 11th
- fWAR (4.1): 17th
- ERA (2.80): 7th
- FIP (3.43): 13th
- xFIP (3.65): 15th
- SIERA (3.98): 20th
- WHIP (1.09): 13th
- K% (28.8%): 15th
- xwOBA (.285): 16th
- AVG (.195): 3rd
- GB% (51.4%): 7th
Some of these stats are more important than others, but voters will surely take all of these into account. Gray has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season by almost every measure. That’s quite a turnaround from getting run out of town in New York eight short months ago.
Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson is likely Gray’s biggest competition given just how down his 2018 season was. Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg and Dodgers starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu are also candidates. Both pitched well in 2018 but were limited by injuries. Kris Bryant will likely find himself in the mix, too, after dealing with injuries and regression last year.
How does Gray stack up against this competition? If the voters prefer the underdog narrative, very well. The other candidates were all injured in 2018. But past seasons indicate voters are often intrigued by players coming off major injuries or who missed a majority of the previous season. Donaldson (134 wRC+) meets that standard after playing in only 52 games last year.
Strasburg has arguably had the best season of the entire group (3.29 FIP, 3.22 xFIP, 5.3 fWAR), but he did at least throw 130 innings last season. Is that enough of a “setback” to make him the Comeback Player of the Year in the voters’ eyes? Ryu threw only 82.1 innings in 2018 but was dominant in that limited time (1.97 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 3.11 xFIP). He was also a postseason hero for the Dodgers. Will voters consider his 2019 season (2.35 ERA, 4.4 fWAR) as much of a comeback as other players in contention since he threw so well when he was on the field last year? Bryant (139 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR) has rebounded after an injury-plagued 2018, but he hasn’t quite returned to the MVP standards he set for himself in his first two seasons.
From a statistical perspective, it’s hard to compare position players to pitchers. WAR is one of the few stats by which both are measured, making it the natural comparison tool. The table below uses the average of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference WAR and includes 2017 WAR to show how far the given player “fell” last season.
Gray fares extremely well in this simplified analysis. Donaldson is the only player to add more WAR from 2018 to 2019. Bryant had the largest fall from 2017 to 2018, but he hasn’t quite reproduced his value the same way Donaldson and Strasburg have.
It will ultimately come down to an unscientific process, as most awards voting does. Each player has an argument, and we could throw Corey Seager and Willson Contreras into the mix as well. The vague language of the award makes it even murkier.
Some voters may look at it strictly analytically: how much more WAR was the player worth to their team compared to last year? Some may vote based on the player with the “best” redemption story — however they choose to quantify that. Others may vote based on whether the player helped their team make the postseason, an unfair but still common standard in the major awards. Voting may be tainted by various other biases as well.
On paper and based on how voters usually decide — the bigger the previous year’s setback, the better — Gray and Donaldson seem like the two best bets to win the award. If Gray gets the hardware, he’d become the Reds’ first Comeback Player of the Year since Ken Griffey Jr. in 2005. Think he misses the Bronx yet?