Friday, February 12, 2016

The Comebacker Player of the Year

Continuing a tradition, the hosts of the Effectively Wild podcast recently drafted candidates for the 2016 Comeback Player of the Year Award. As Ben and Sam discussed, the winners typically fit one particular archetype: A quality player returns from injury to produce at his pre-injury level. The potential 2016 winners selected in Episode 811 -- Yu Darvish, Homer Bailey, Matt Cain, etc. -- meet the standard exemplified by 2015 honorees Matt Harvey and Prince Fielder. But while "Drafts of Everything" is a classic Effectively Wild theme, it would have been even more Effectively Wild to draft candidates for an award that exists only here, thanks to the Baseball Reference Play Index:

The Comebacker Player of the Year.

It seems there are two ways to define this frivolity. First are the batters who made the most outs involving a comebacker -- a ball hit directly back to the pitcher -- and second are the pitchers who induced the most comebacker outs. Lucky for us, the Comebacker Player of 2015 is easily identifiable in both categories.

Of the 705 batters who made an out starting with a "1" on the scorecard, none did it more often than Dee Gordon. His 47 comebackers led MLB by a large margin, by 16 (over 50% more) than second-place finisher Brock Holt's 31. Most of the guys at the top of the hitter list are, like Gordon, speedy types for whom the third baseman plays in on the grass:

Dee Gordon47
Brock Holt31
Ender Inciarte30
Starling Marte29
Johnny Giavotella29
Jean Segura29
Erick Aybar28
Andrelton Simmons28
Ichiro Suzuki27
Alcides Escobar27
That's a list of slappy, speedy types, except for Starling Marte, who hit 19 home runs. The top of 2014's hitter list was substantially similar, if more condensed:

Seems like it's tough to have a valuable offensive season if you're the kind of hitter who often can't get the ball past the pitcher. (Insert dig at Derek Jeter.) The flip side, of course, is that pitchers who induce comebackers are some of the best in the game. In fact, the 2015 Comebacker Pitcher of the Year was also the 2014 winner -- Dallas Keuchel.

The top four NL Cy Young finishers and the AL Cy Young winner appear on the 2015 list. Perhaps Keuchel's ability to collect comebackers should have tipped us off that his 2014 performance was sustainable. 

Last bit of trivia for the evening. In 2015, there was one game in which pitchers coerced nine comebackers. On June 2, still-a-Red Johnny Cueto faced the Phillies' Sean O'Sullivan in Philadelphia, in a game the Phillies won 5-4 in walkoff fashion. Cueto was responsible for three comebackers. O'Sullivan induced two -- both sac bunt attempts by Cueto (one failed). Relievers caused four more after the starters were pulled.

A nine-comebacker game isn't a black swan. None occurred in 2014, but there were four in 2013. one in 2012, and four in 2011. In 2010, there were two 10-comebacker games. You have to go back to 2004 to find an 11-comebacker game (there were two that season). Twelve-comebacker games are the modern (post-1988) record, with one occurring in each of 1996, 1991 and 1989. 

The takeaways from this exercise? 

- My goodness, the Play Index is fun.
- Perhaps Eno Sarris should incorporate comebackers into his fantasy pitching ranks, as they appear predictive of elite starting pitcher performance.
- Going into 2016, it's reasonable to wonder if Mike Leake, Jon Niese and Michael Wacha are on the verge of breakouts, 
- Henderson Alvarez could be a savvy return-from injury pickup for the A's. He could even win the awards for both Comeback and Comebacker Player of the Year!


Upon sending this research to the Effectively Wild hosts, Ben Lindbergh was kind enough to respond:

I like this. Good idea. My only critique is that I don't really think of a bunt as a comebacker. Has to be harder hit. Might be the same names anyway (definitely would be for the pitchers), but I think I'd filter out bunts.
Filtering out bunts from the 2015 data subtracts 836 of the 5136 comebacker outs.

Dee Gordon remains on top of a ranked list of hitter comebacker outs, with 37, down from 47 inclusive of bunts. In other words, ten (21%) of Gordon's comebackers were bunts fielded by the pitcher that resulted in outs. His other 37 comebacker outs occurred on grounders, pop-ups or line drives. Contrast that with number three on the list, Ender Inciarte. Inciarte bunted on only three (10%) of his 31 comebacker outs. One could argue that Inciarte -- who made 90% of his comebacker outs on non-bunt attempts -- should be the 2015 Comebacker Hitter of the Year.

On the pitcher side, Ben's right -- the list doesn't change at all. Of the 56 comebackers Dallas Keuchel converted into outs in 2015, a full 53 of them were groundouts. Only one was a bunt; the other two were a pop-up and a liner. Arrieta had 47 comebackers, of which 40 were groundouts and seven were bunts. Greinke's 40 comebackers were *all* groundouts.

Filtering out bunts reinforces the idea that a pitcher's ability to induce comebacker outs is a repeatable skill akin to infield popups that should be considered in projecting a pitcher's stat line.

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