Remember when people actually complained about signing Josh Donaldson to a team-friendly one-year, $23 million contract? That was a funny time in Braves Country. Those same people are now screaming from the rooftops for an extension, and I’d be shocked if the Braves let him out of their grasps this offseason. He’s a perfect fit in the middle of this Atlanta offense, and his Gold Glove-caliber defense has been a splendid surprise. You could even make a case that he is the MVP of a team that features two other legitimate MVP candidates, but if there is one award he has all but locked up and taken home with him already, it is the Comeback Player of the Year.
Donaldson’s 2017 season was cut short due to injury, limiting him to 113 games. He hit 33 home runs and 78 RBIs in those 113 games and was perhaps on his way to the second AL MVP award of his career. The following season, injuries piled up in numbers, leading to him being shut down by the Blue Jays in May until he was eventually traded to the Cleveland Indians during their playoff push. He wasn’t terrible in his return, but it wasn’t the kind of contract year he was hoping for. Donaldson entered free agency after only playing 165 games in the past two seasons combined, and at 33-years-old, teams were right to question what to expect going forward, but Anthopoulos took a risk on one of his former players, and it’s helped put the Braves over the hump in becoming World Series contenders.
Donaldson’s season as a whole has been spectacular. He’s slashing .262/.384/.534, has a bWAR of 5.8 and an fWAR of 5.1, smacking 37 homers, 30 doubles, and closing in on 100 walks. But if you look even closer, since June 14th, he might be the MVP of the entire league, with an OPS of 1.034, 28 homers, 15 doubles, and 61 RBIs in 82 games. It took a couple of months for him to get his feet under himself in Atlanta following two injury-plagued seasons, but that’s why they call it the Comeback Player of the Year.
Ryu was masterful when he did play last season, recording a 1.97 ERA in 15 starts, which kept him out of the running for any awards. This year, he’s followed his 2018 with an even better 2019, leading the major leagues in ERA at 2.35 in 27 starts. Ryu has been healthy for most of the season and looked like a lock for the Cy Young Award a month ago; however, a recent stretch has seen his bWAR drop to 4.6 and ERA go up almost a full point. He remains the favorite for the Cy, but considering the year Josh Donaldson is having and the rash of injuries that proceeded him heading into the season, Ryu should not take home the Comeback Player of the Year award.
Gray isn’t bouncing back from an injury like the other contestants on this list, but that isn’t always a requirement. Now with the Cincinnati Reds, he had his name dragged through the mud in New York and was eventually traded this past offseason. Before he could play a game in Cincinnati, Gray signed a contract extension, and the Reds are reaping the benefits.
Gray is a legitimate contender for the Cy Young Award as well, toting a 2.80 ERA in 29 starts, as he closes in on 200 strikeouts. His FIP of 3.43 is the lowest it has been in his entire career, and like Dallas Keuchel, he’s wholly proven his doubters wrong. However, I’m not sure he’s done enough to pry the award away from Josh Donaldson.
Bryant suffered several minor injuries in 2018 and only played in 102 games. Because of that, he also wasn’t the player offensively that led to him being the MVP back in 2016. Sound familiar? Bryant’s bounced back in 2019 with 31 home runs, an All-Star appearance, and an OPS of over .900. He and Josh Donaldson’s situations are eerily similar, except Donaldson was out for much longer, is six years older, and is having a significantly better season than Bryant.
Cruising to Victory
For a former AL MVP, Donaldson has his eyes set on much bigger accomplishments – like a World Series ring. However, you can never have too much hardware, and the Braves third-baseman should be a shoo-in to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Donaldson has a few things going for him: he was counted out for two reasons – injury history and his age. Few people believed a 33-year-old could bounce back from a litany of injuries and return to his 2015 MVP form. No team wanted to offer him a lucrative multi-year offer, and the Braves were likely one of the few willing to hand him 20+ million for a year, and he’s rewarded them with an MVP-like campaign. Once Donaldson found his footing, he has taken off and is the reason why the Braves believe they are a much more complete team entering the postseason this time around.