While the Comeback Player of the Year Award is usually overlooked among baseball's most prestigious awards, the stories it embodies are a perfect example of the nature of the game and the many chances it features for redemption.
The 2013 recipient for the American League was none other than Yankee icon Mariano Rivera, coming back from a season lost to injury, in what would be his retirement year. While Rivera's story was certainly appealing, his distinction as the Comeback Player of the Year seems more like another laureate in the Year of Mariano – one more way to recognize his brilliant career and send him off on a high note.
On the other hand, the winner in the National League was a pitcher who was probably written off by many and hanging by a thread to hold a Major League job. After years full of injuries, adversity and poor performance, Francisco Liriano was lucky enough to be given another chance to succeed, and he delivered.
It is important to remember that Liriano was once one of the most promising lefties in the game, standing alongside Johan Santana as one of the best one-two combos in the AL. His rookie season was a thing of beauty, when in 2006 he was able to amass a 12-3 record to go along his pristine 2.16 ERA and 4.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by an injury that required Tommy John surgery, leaving him out until 2008 – and after that, he simply wasn't the same.
While the adage holds that any lefty can usually be useful just as long as he is breathing, Liriano's career had almost seemed to hit the point of no return after a string of bad seasons and a poor command of the strike zone. From 2009 to 2012, he was only able to complete one full healthy season, managing to keep his ERA below 5 only once in that span. His hits and homerun rates were mostly competent, but his proneness to walk people usually led to big innings and short outings for the southpaw. His BB/9 climbed all the way up to 5 in 2012 to go along with 11 wild pitches, and so the White Sox simply let him walk, months after the Twins had given up on him, as well.
His track record scared off most teams, and he ended up signing a modest 2-year, $12.75 million deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The problem came just a few weeks later, when a broken right arm was enough to veto the deal, though the Pirates did not walk away completely and instead offered an incentive-full deal that guaranteed a cool million for Liriano's services. His ability to stay healthy and his performance ended up giving him more money in the end, though it was easy to see why everyone was skeptical about Liriano. At that point it was clear that he was a reclamation project by a team desperate enough to give Jonathan Sanchez a shot, but at least their bet on Liriano paid off.
His numbers in 2013 were not close to his precocious brilliance in 2006, but they were far superior to his past few terrible seasons. He reduced his ERA all the way down to 3.02, and most importantly cut his BB/9 ratio to a respectable 3.5, while giving the Pirates the legitimate #1 pitcher they needed. Earning a 3.0 WAR is probably not the most spectacular thing, but Liriano's presence was certainly more meaningful than numbers can express for a team that finally broke a string of 20 losing seasons and that could be the catalyst for a different culture in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates won 17 of the 26 games started by Liriano, who was particularly brilliant in his wins, posting a 1.05 ERA and 112 punch-outs in 111 1/3 innings. A lot of his success was also owed to the microscopic batting line he allowed to opposing left-handed batters, who hit a meager .131/.175/.146 against Liriano in what was one of the most impressive performances in Major League history.
After finding a way to rediscover his vicious slider and staying healthy for a full season, Francisco Liriano now has the benefit of knowing he earned his option and is guaranteed $6 million in salary for 2014. Also, the Pirates know that they can be contenders again thanks to their young offensive core and a top of the rotation that will contain Liriano, phenom Gerrit Cole and probably a return from A.J. Burnett.
In the end, while the Comeback Player of the Year in the AL may have been simply a good PR move, the winner in the NL was certainly one of the best stories of 2013, and is on his way to becoming a factor again in 2014.