Monday, August 6, 2012

The One and Only COY Choice

If it wasn't for disappointment
I wouldn't have any appointments.
John Flansburgh, "Snowball in Hell"

Ascendant Ales: Rios has exceeded even his most optimistic preseason projections. (Jonathan Daniel/GI)

This offseason, the question asked most often centered around whether or not the two biggest disappointments in recent White Sox memory, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios, could rebound in 2012.

Full disclosure: I was not bullish on either one ever becoming a notable contributor to the White Sox ever again. Dunn looked like he aged a decade between a the lost appendix and deserted confidence that plagued his debut in Chicago. Rios, never one to be accused of Charlie Hustling, appeared both on and off the field to have lost any and all motivation to improve and earn the balance of the bounteous contract Toronto handed over just two seasons into his baseball stardom.

If pressed to choose one of the pair to contribute in 2012, I would have taken Dunn, with his solid track record (remember those "guaranteed" 40 homers per year at USCF?) and the solitary focus (slugging) that he would need to remaster in order to get back on top of his game. Rios was so extensively lost as a hitter and a fielder that when coupled with his seeming indifference to the game and his past barren stretches of play, he looked to be a Lost Cause.

Last week, Daryl Van Schouwen wrote about the resurgence of Rios, which is all well and good, because the oft-maligned outfielder has resurged, for sure. But there's a passage, in which Daryl connects Rios and Adam Dunn as Comeback Player of the Year candidates, that rings hollow:
Rios and Dunn have a lot in common: big-money contracts and career-low experiences on the South Side last season. And now, bounce-back years that make their contracts look pretty good. Remember all the talk last year about the Sox being stuck with those deals? Dunn is in the second year of four years worth $56 million. Rios signed a six-year, $64 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays that pays him $12.5 million this season and $13 million in each of the next two (with a club option for 2015), and nobody even brings it up it anymore.
I suppose as far as quick-n-dirty comparisons go, it's easy to look at Rios and Dunn as equal parts of a same solution so sugary sweet it launches Sox fans into diabetic comas. But the two are not nearly equal in what they have brought to the table in 2012, nor are their future projections likely to keep their debilitating contracts off of the minds of fans in the same measure.

Rios has, quite simply, defied all odds and logic to become an All-Star caliber player again, some four seasons (and countless agonizing boo bird sessions) after his previous peak. Dunn, frankly, is doing nothing special, unless you are going to award full credits for simply being a lot better than the guy who just had the Worst Season in Baseball History, as was his 2011.

Dunn be COY? Nope.
Still, the perception is that Dunn is a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year in 2012. Ignoring anyone else's candidates, Dunn doesn’t even have a better case than his own teammate, Rios. An argument might even be made that Jake Peavy is a better COY candidate than Dunn.

Dunn’s WAR at the two-thirds point of the season stands at a paltry 1.5*. There’s nothing special whatsoever about such a figure; Dunn himself has surpassed it in between five and seven previous seasons in his career, depending on which WAR you fancy among Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs. Of his 12 seasons, 2012 will project to be somewhere right on average for his career.

There’s no doubt that Dunn could easily have just packed in his career—going through the motions for the three years remaining on his White Sox contract, or outright retiring in citation of his oft-repeated "no fun anymore" personal contract clause. His overall gain in WAR from his beyond belief 2011 (-3.0) to 2012 is 4.5 WAR, which is an amazing swing. But keep in mind that no one but the Positively Marlins Way Ozzie Guillen wouldn’t have allowed Dunn to dig such a preposterously deep hole in the first place, in 2011. (Somehow, it was more insulting to Guillen to have Dunn chalk up the Worst Season in Baseball History on his watch than it was to mercy-kill him to the bench.) Dunn is approaching 400 career homers and could easily become a 500-homer hitter (and who knows, get some postseason credentials on his resume, wink wink), but thanks to Ozzie’s sleepwalking, the question right now that Dunn will have to answer first for the rest of his life will be about authoring the Worst Season in Baseball History.

What’s a bummer about Dunn is that he was never going to be a bargain. In fact, the way he’s hitting today as a master of the Three Outcomes (Ks, BBs, HRs), he’s much less valuable a one-dimensional slugger than was even his spiritual predecessor on the South Side, Jim Thome. As argued in this analysis of Ken Williams’ free-agency moves Dunn’s extreme adherence to the Three Outcomes guts his value to the team, as much as everyone simply wants to throw their hands up and say, dude, he’s just a slugger … this is what sluggers do! With the White Sox, Thome was a slugger-first ballplayer, but his slash of .265/.391/.542 say he was more than a mere Three Outcome Guy, in spite of less speed than Dunn and having to hit against similar, diamond-shifting defenses. Thome averaged 2.9 WAR per season, while Dunn even in his “comeback” season is on track for only 2.3.

Quoth the Bulldog (L): "I can promise you this:
None of us are worried about that award." (h/t Merk)
Peavy wasn’t a debit at all in 2011—OK, erratic and a touch too braggadocious—punching in a 1.8 WAR. That means his All-Star caliber 3.3 at the moment is a modest raise of just 1.3 WAR. That’s dwarfed by the swing Dunn has enjoyed, but then, COY can be qualified in different ways. In sheer value, Peavy has been worth more than twice as much to the White Sox than Dunn this year. Then there’s the matter of his, um, esoteric value to the team, basically as the one guy who’s bulldogged his way to the front of the rotation and hardly faltered all season, in spite of the past buffet of injuries he’s suffered on the South Side.

As for Rios as Comeback Player of the Year, well, few players have ever been able to make such a compelling case, and there are numerous angles with which to praise. Within the White Sox, he’s ascended past even the meteoric Chris Sale to become team MVP, out-WARing him 3.7 to 3.6, and dwarfing any closer position player (A.J. Pierzynski is closest, at 2.5).

Belle: Despicably delicious.
Rios is projecting to a 5.7 WAR and stands at 10th among all AL position players in the category right now. How rare is that sort of production among White Sox hitters? It’s been since 1998 and Albert Belle’s despicably delicious 7.4 WAR that a White Sox outfielder has topped Rios’s projected 2012 season, and since 2000 (Frank Thomas, 5.8) since a White Sox hitter in general has topped Rios.

There’s also no other hitter in the AL who can match Rios’s comeback swing of 5.0 WAR and counting—the closest challenger is the out-of-nowhere Edwin Encarnacion of the Toronto Blue Jays, and his swing is just half that of Rios (2.5 WAR, from 0.9 to 3.6).

Rios projects to a WAR swing of around 7.0 WAR, and while applying the same caveats as were to Dunn (namely, Zombie Bus Driver Ozzie should not have “honored” Rios so deeply with automatic PT as to drop him to a -1.3 WAR in 2011) it’s safe to assume there have been few such positive swings in baseball history.

Thus I fully, and delightfully, rescind my sour prognostications regarding Rios.

The Comeback Player of the Year was designed for such glorious resurrections as this.

*NOTE: In all cases I have taken Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, and FanGraphs WAR figures into account for this study, grinding all three into a sort of SuperWAR.

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