One of the great things about baseball is how unpredictable it can be. Even with all the predictive stats and robust projection systems we have access to, players will always defy our expectations. They’ll crawl out of the open manhole they had fallen into and claw their way onto an All-Star team or become a key figure in a team’s championship run. Today, Beyond the Box Score awards our comeback players of the year.
AL Comeback Player of the Year: Nathan Eovaldi, SP, Tampa Bay Rays / Boston Red Sox
Did Nathan Eovaldi’s October color our perception? Probably. Eovaldi’s performance in Game Three of the World Series was certainly inspiring, and that came after him throwing the hardest fastball of his career, a 102 mph fastball to Alex Bregman in the ALCS. But Eovaldi’s regular season was resurgent.
Eovaldi missed all of 2017 and part of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Before the procedure, Eovaldi had been having a down year. In 124 2/3 innings, he struck out just 90 batters. His walk percentage was the highest it had been in three seasons. His HR/FB rate also took a major spike going from 7.8 percent in 2015 to 18.7 the following year. All of that combined for his worst season by FIP (4.98) and arguably his worst season overall.
When Eovaldi came back from Tommy John at the end of May, there was no certainty that Eovaldi would be the same. It had been three years since he had pitched like Nathan Eovaldi, and even then, he was a roughly league average starter.
But Eovaldi put together one of his best seasons. His strikeout and walk percentages with both career bests at 22.2 and 4.4 respectively. He also pitched to a 3.23 DRA and 3.71 SIERA which are his lowest in each category. Eovaldi not only revitalized his career, but he also set himself up well for free agency.
NL Comeback Player of the Year: Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Matt Kemp was not a part of the Dodgers’ plans this year. The only reason he came back to Los Angeles at all was because the Dodgers were swapping bad contracts with the Braves. The prevailing thought was that Kemp was going to be released or traded again. There was no way a team as deep as the Dodgers could waste a roster spot on Kemp who had combined for -0.6 bWAR since Los Angeles traded him to the Padres following the 2014 season.
Then Kemp, along with Max Muncy, wound up carrying the Dodgers’ for the first half of the season. Until the All-Star break, Kemp slashed .310/.352/.522 for a 137 wRC+. Among Dodgers not named Max Muncy, Kemp led the Dodgers in OPS, wRC+, and wOBA. His performance was enough to earn him a starting spot on the NL All-Star team.
Immediately after the All-Star break, Kemp fell back into the open manhole hitting just .214/.291/.286 for a 64 wRC+ in August. That was supposed to be it for Kemp. The first half was just a mirage. He did, after all, start out 2017 similarly hot before having his worst season as a big leaguer when it was all said and done.
But Kemp bounced back down the final stretch, helping the Dodgers secure the NL West just like it was 2014 again. Kemp ended the season with a .290/.338/.481 and a 122 wRC+. He even improved his defense going from -17 DRS in 2017 to just -9. Not too shabby for someone who was one of the league’s worst position players last year.
Check back tomorrow as we announce our winners for Reliever of the Year.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville.