One of the best awards in the post season is the Comeback Player of the Year Award. The award is one of the best because it celebrates the underdog, a player that overcame obstacles to have a season nobody expected. It's one of the bluest collar awards of them all and Fans dig that. We love those stories where a player overcomes and is again successful. Each league has two obvious choices this year. The National League has Pat Burrell and the American League has Bruce Chen. Let's start with Chen.
Bruce Chen capped off his year on Friday night with a 7-0, complete game shutout against the Tampa Bay Rays on a night when the Rays are fighting for the best record in baseball and the AL East title. Chen gave up two hits and two walks and struck out seven. The win finishes his season with a 12-7 record with a 4.17 ERA. It was only the second time in Chen's career that he won more than ten games. Chen's season wasn't ace-like in any shape or form. His WHIP is a hefty 1.4+. His BABIP (.289) suggests that he was a bit lucky. In eleven of Chen's starts, the Royals scored six or more runs for him and obviously, his record during those games was 8-0.
But that's not really the point. The point is that Chen has pitched for ten different major league teams. He pitched in five games in 2007. He was out of the major leagues the entire 2008 season. He pitched (badly) in just 17 games for the Royals last year and here he is making 22 starts and 32 overall appearances covering 140 innings and he won twelve of his nineteen decisions. After all these years, he gave the Royals a league average pitcher and there is a lot to be said for that. If the Royals had two or three more guys like him, they would have been a much better team. This is a guy who played for parts of 13 seasons in the minors and parts of 12 seasons in the majors and he never quit and he came from nowhere this year and gave the Royals their best pitching performance this side of Zack Greinke. That's your basic definition of a comeback player of the year.
Pat Burrell was famous once. He was the golden boy of the Philadelphia Phillies. His good looks combined with average seasons of 28 homers a year with 91 RBIs, a penchant for getting on base helped him become an idol in the city of brotherly love. His average numbers there would be even better if you threw out 2003 which was so bad it had to be an outlier. He hit .205 that year for gosh sakes. But he had a big contract with the Phillies. He never was much of a left fielder. There is no DH in the National League and the Phillies decided not to prolong their relationship after the 2008 title season.
Burrell signed with the Tampa Bay Rays who desperately needed a DH. Burrell seemed perfect. Everyone thought it was perfect. But Burrell just didn't perform. He had a horrid 2009 there and his OPS+ was 81, easily the lowest of his career (including that horrid 2003). He came back in 2010 with the Bay Rays and it was even worse. After 24 games, his OPS+ was down to 73 and the Bay Rays couldn't take anymore and they released him.
That was one of the best things to ever happen to the San Francisco Giants. Burrell's slash line with the Giants: .264/.364/.507. He's had a 130 OPS+ with the Giants. And he along with Buster Posey have completely changed the Giants' line up and it has carried the Giants on the brink of a NL West title. He has a 1.018 OPS when there are runners are in scoring position with two outs. Burrell has an .892 OPS in high leverage situations. His WAR is the highest he's had since is 2005 season.
Who knows why Burrell didn't hit in Tampa. Perhaps he never could get the handle on the DH thing. Perhaps he's a better player in the National League (sort of like Javier Vazquez). Whatever it is, he's been reborn in San Francisco and he's probably (almost certainly) going to the post season and may get to face his old team. Now won't that be fun? He is the NL Comeback Player of the Year.