AL Comeback Player of the Year Race: Adam Dunn vs. Alex Rios

Going into this season, I often said the Sox’ success would hinge on how Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, and Adam Dunn perform, labeling them “the comeback kids” after they’d recently struggled with terrible performance and/or serious injuries.

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Adam Dunn (Photo by Keith Allison via CC BY-SA 2.0)

About six months later and here we are – the White Sox are in first place in the AL Central Division large in part because of “the comeback kids” who have all blown away our greatest expectations for 2012. And now it’s fairly clear that the American League’s “Comeback Player of the Year Award” will be given to one of the south siders – it’s just not perfectly clear who.

First, let’s take a look at these three veterans’ 2011 seasons to get an idea of why expectations were so low for them back in March …

  • Adam Dunn only drew 75 walks and hit 11 home runs, both lows for his career given the extensive playing time he got (122 games). He hit a woeful .159 average and was only able to plate 42 runners. He was, to put it simply, about as bad as any starting hitter has ever been.
  • Alex Rios hit .227, which certainly wasn’t the most pathetic of averages … but his power and production were much, much worse than that. While clubbing 13 long balls, he only drove in 44 RBIs and bolstered a low .348 slugging percentage. His negative 2.1 wins above replacement, or “WAR,” says it all.
  • Jake Peavy only pitched in 36 games, making 35 starts between 2010 and 2011. Many doubted he’d be able to come back strong, as he had undergone an experimental surgery to repair his right shoulder. His ERA during those two years averaged out to about 4.80, and he never really was able to put together any extended success for the Sox after being traded from the Padres in 2009.

I think you get the point. These guys didn’t just have “down years.” They had miserably awful campaigns. Most thought all the money that was being tied up in these three ineffective, unproductive players would be the downfall to general manager Kenny Williams’ regime, as the team would ultimately need to completely rebuild.

But those opinions changed quickly, since each of these guys has played at an All-Star level in 2012. Now let’s dissect each of the comeback kids’ current stats to see just how much they’ve bounced back. Then we’ll have a better idea of who is the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year.

  • Adam Dunn is hitting .210 and has an MLB record 198 strikeouts through his first 138 games played. But to go along with the .50 point increase in average, Dunn’s power is indeed back.He’s got 39 home runs and 90 RBIs to go along with 99 walks, which has helped him keep a respectable .342 on base percentage.
  • Alex Rios has been the Sox’ most consistent hitter in 2012 – hitting .301 with 24 home runs, 35 doubles, and 87 driven in – all while Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko drive in many runs ahead of him in the batting order.
  • Jake Peavy (as cliche as this is) has been a bulldog in 2012, already racking up 198.2 innings pitched while fanning 177 and keeping a solid ERA all year, which is now at 3.26. His record is only 11-11, but he could have over 15 runs considering how many times he’s pitched great and walked away with a no-decision or a loss.
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Alex Rios (Photo by Keith Allison via CC BY-SA 2.0)

Unfortunately Peavy isn’t really in the race for Comeback POY. And that’s no disrespect to him, but what Adam Dunn and Alex Rios are doing is so miraculous and is represented very well by their impressive stat lines.

As of right now, it seems that Rios is indeed the front-runner for the award. His consistency is undeniable – he’s given good at-bat after good at-bat all year. He’s been able to keep up his pace and keep the Sox alive even when everyone else on the team is slumping. There’s no doubt that when in a big situation, he’s the guy Sox fans want to see at the plate.

But Adam Dunn still has a case for the award, and in my opinion it’s a very, very strong case.

Early in the year, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson would tell the story of the end of the 2011 season when Adam Dunn approached him with a somber look on his face and told him he’s going to win Comeback POY in 2012. He got off to a better start and has not slowed down. To understand just how impressive his campaign has been, you have to look further in than just the high total power numbers.

In 2011, Dunn went 6-94 against left-handed pitchers, with zero of those six hits leaving the yard. This year, Dunn leads the league with 15 home runs against south paws. A turn-around as monstrous as that helps you realize that Adam really has his head in the right place compared to last season. Why? He didn’t just struggle last year. He was historically bad. Lots of average Joes sitting on their couches at home could go 6-94 against lefties.

Every time he came up to the plate and seemingly struck out, he heard boos from Sox fans at U.S. Cellular Field. Despite playing 11 more games on the road than at home in 2011, he hit .20 points lower, had 12 less doubles, 11 less walks, and 17 more strikeouts at home than away. He could have given up on the city right then and there – Kenny Williams could’ve gotten a couple nice prospects in return for him. But Dunn stuck with it and has so far lived up to his promise to Hawk Harrelson that he’s going to be a Comeback POY guy in 2012.

Considering how much more of the disappointment discussion toward the team that was “All In” in 2011 was aimed toward Adam Dunn than Alex Rios, the race for Comeback POY is much closer than many people are dubbing it to be.

I’m as thrilled about Alex Rios as anyone – seeing him perform so well on such a consistent basis has been great to watch. But Dunn had to climb higher out of the dumps than Alex did.

With the team still in the thick of a very close playoff race, all we can hope for is continued success from the both of them the rest of the way. Not knowing which player deserves the award would certainly be a good problem to have in early October.

This story was also featured on Zach’s White Sox blog, Grab Some Bench!



About Zach Gropper

Zach Gropper is a sports broadcasting major at Indiana University in the beautiful town of Bloomington, IN. He is from Flossmoor, IL, a small Chicago suburb.
Zach was was the sports director for WHFH 88.5 FM Flossmoor his junior year of high school and Television Station Manager of Viking Television during his senior year.
He runs a White Sox blog at GrabSomeBench.com and also contributes and reports for AssemblyCall.com. Last summer, Zach interned for ESPN 1000 AM Chicago, working on programming for the Waddle and Silvy Show.
He is currently eager to get out into the professional world of sports media, wherever that may take him.

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