Roughly 16 months ago, in May of 2015, Tommy Joseph suffered another concussion. The then-23-year-old catcher had played in 111 games for minor league clubs in the Phillies organization since arriving less than three years prior in the trade that sent Hunter Pence to San Francisco, and his ability to play in many more seemed very much in doubt.
At least three concussions, plus the post-concussion symptoms that followed, plus wrist surgery had robbed Joseph of precious developmental time and necessitated his move to first base. It was less about skill - when Joseph was catching, he had thrown out 32 percent of would-be thieves and had shown improvement in receiving - and more about prolonging Joseph's life.
"At this time last year, a lot of people had given up on my future. But to be sitting here with 20 homers in The Show, it's a pretty special feeling," Joseph told MLB.com's Todd Zolecki following Saturday's game, a watershed moment for a player who very nearly had his life's work stolen out from under him. And yet, here Joseph sits, with 20 home runs, 41 RBI and a respectable .256/.302/.505 line at the Major League level through Sunday afternoon's game. It's a season that might never have happened were it not for some good fortune and a whole heaping helping of hard work, and for all of that, Joseph deserves serious consideration as the first rookie to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Since the inception of The Sporting News version in 1965 and officially sanctioned MLB version in 2005, no rookie has won the Comeback Player of the Year. It's an award typically reserved for those with previous Major League service who rebounded from injury, adversity or both to perform at a high level once more. Yet nowhere in either award's provisions are rookies considered exempt; it's often just recognition designated for former stars (especially in the case of the TSN version, with an origin seemingly rooted in rewarding once-and-future MLB stars). Like other awards - ahem, Most Valuable Player - there is no clear-cut definition of what, exactly, constitutes a "comeback." Really, that's why we're able to wonder about this possibility in the first place. But without any clear definition regarding the eligibility of rookies, it seems absolutely essential that Joseph be considered among the shortlist of nominees for this year's award.
Given the lean of precedent toward established Major Leaguers, Joseph has a steep hill to climb. And, of course, he is not the only player who could reasonably be rewarded. Miami's Jose Fernandez, who returned from Tommy John surgery late in 2015, pitched a full 2016 at an elite level and would appear to be a logical nominee, despite the extra time removed from the actual return from injury. Cincinnati's Dan Straily, who appeared in just 18 games from 2014-15 after emerging with Oakland in 2013, has put together 178.2 innings of above-average ball. Arizona's Jean Segura, revitalized after moving on from the tragedy and discontent that marred his time with Milwaukee, is having a superb season as the Diamondbacks' primary second baseman. Segura's successor with the Brewers, Jonathan Villar, couldn't stick with the Astros in 2015, but has had one of the best seasons of any shortstop in the game to date with Milwaukee. Consider, too, divisional rivals Anthony Rendon and Marcell Ozuna, who have both had far stronger 2016s than 2015s.
Here, laid out with some key stats, is how a rough sketch of the competition stacks up through Sunday:
|2015||2016 (through 9/18)|
|Joseph, PHI||.241/.290/.392, 6 HR,28 RBI, 58 G (Rk & AAA)||.256/.302/.505, 20 HR, 41 RBI, 96 G|
|Fernandez, MIA||64.2 IP, 2.92 ERA, 79 K, 14 BB, 6-1||174.1 IP, 2.99 ERA, 241 K, 55 BB, 15-8|
|Villar, MIL||.284/.339/.414, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 53 G (HOU)||.286/.368/.447, 16 HR, 55 RBI, 144 G|
|Segura, ARI||.257/.281/.336, 6 HR, 50 RBI, 142 G (MIL)||.319/.365/.490, 17 HR, 59 RBI, 140 G|
|Straily, CIN||16.2 IP, 14 K, 8 BB, 0-1 (HOU)||178.2 IP, 3.83 ERA, 150 K, 69 BB, 13-8|
|Rendon, WAS||.264/.344/.363, 5 HR, 25 RBI, 80 G||.275/.355/.457, 18 HR, 78 RBI, 144 G|
|Ozuna, MIA||.259/.308/.383, 10 HR, 44 RBI, 123 G||.267/.322/.463, 23 HR, 72 RBI, 138 G|
Joseph is by no means an odds-on favorite who stands to be overlooked on technicality; as seen above, there are a handful of equally deserving candidates who more closely fit the mold of the award's typical recipients. But as of today, consider this the start of some soapboxing for a Phillies player to win some hardware in a season that may otherwise be devoid of it entirely if Freddy Galvis is denied a Gold Glove.