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Franklin Gutierrez: Rich Hill's hitting equivalent

Franklin Gutierrez had a 167 wRC+ and produced 2.3 fWAR in 189 PA, and he did it while staying under the radar.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Franklin Gutierrez's 2015 comeback went fairly underreported. Among the plethora of rookies and teammate choking scandals that clogged the second-half news cycle, his 59-game, 189-plate appearance return to the Majors didn't get a lot of talk.

Gutierrez initially returned to baseball in the form of a January Spring Training invitation with the Seattle Mariners, his most recent team. From 2011-2013, the outfielder with the outrageously great nickname Death To Flying Things only saw 658 total plate appearances. He then missed all of 2014 while treating ankylosing spondylitis, a nerve condition he has to manage for the rest of his life.

However, with his condition at least under control, Gutierrez returned to the majors in late June and hit the ever-loving life out of the ball. In those 189 appearances at the plate, Gutierrez hit .292/.354/.620 with 15 home runs and a 167 wRC+, producing 2.3 fWAR. That would be an impressive amount of power on any team — but that's especially worthy of a double take when Safeco Field is your home ballpark.

Even despite the small sample size, Gutierrez's .327 ISO does fall slightly beyond the statistic's stabilization point — and it surpasses any of his Mariners' teammates (including Nelson Cruz). It is literally higher than any Mariner has achieved in a season since Safeco Field opened in 1999 (meeting at least the stabilization rate's 160 at-bat threshold).

Is that to say that Gutierrez would be a true-talent .327 ISO hitter over a full season in Seattle? That notion is very hard to believe, and as it has literally never happened before, is very unlikely. However, even with regression, it bodes well for his future that he was capable of demonstrating that much power after missing most of four seasons.

What is additionally surprising is the lack of a narrative that formed around Gutierrez's second half. Given the unprecedented power output in a notoriously pitcher-friendly park, one might expect a treatment similar to that received by Rich Hill this September. Despite the production, and the added emotional thread of the return from a major illness, Google Trends indicates that there was at most 43 percent as much online interest in Franklin Gutierrez as in Hill's streak.

The condensed, intense, streak-y nature of Hill's first three starts (as well as being on the Red Sox) likely takes a large part of the credit for his own popularity. Mark Lowe's season might be a more apropos pitching counterpoint to Gutierrez, due to playing in the same media market for most of the season and its sustained nature.

However, like both of the above pitching examples, Gutierrez is a free agent, and is entering his age-33 season. The value created by his short burst of production is hard to nail down.

In addition to the career-best power, his 7.4 percent walk rate was his best since his last full season (2010). He continued the increased 28.5 percent strikeout rate originally seen in 2013, but as he swung less often, he also whiffed less frequently. Plus, Gutierrez's 40.7 percent ground ball rate was the lowest of his career, and he hit for a high average.

The .292 average is the statistic most obviously due for regression — it is fairly above any prior period in his career and inflated by an above-average .250 BABIP on ground balls. That is despite owning decreased speed ratings and an infield-hit percentage almost half his career rate (4.2 percent in 2015 versus 8.0 percent career).

Gutierrez attempted no stolen bases in 2015 and has been transitioned to the corner outfield spots from his prior home in center field. While no longer the +33.4 run defender he was in 2009, he still performed at a capable, slightly above-average level in 2015.

Health is obviously the limiting factor for 2016, and one that only he and his team's trainers can speak to. It is the thing that would make teams nervous and will almost certainly guarantee a one-year deal. In terms of production, he strikes me as a bit like the Brewers' Khris Davis, plus average defense — he offers a sizable amount of power, league-average walks, a low batting average, and a lot of strikeouts.

Gutierrez similarly won't offer much of anything on the basepaths at this point, but with the relative defensive improvement, that is still a fairly valuable profile. The question is, after not playing in most of now five straight seasons, how much time is he actually expected to play?

In addition to all the youth in baseball in 2015, there were plenty of comeback stories in the American League vying for attention. Mark Teixeira's return to the Yankees was stellar until his September injury, Prince Fielder rebounded to lead the Rangers to the playoffs, and even Alex Rodriguez hit 33 home runs at age 39 (and somehow became likable again).

All are deserving candidates in their own ways for the Comeback Player of the Year, but Franklin Gutierrez should at least receive passing mention. Coming back from, and playing with, a serious illness while producing higher power numbers than Bryce Harper deserves some recognition.

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Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.