Major League Baseball’s Comeback Player of the Year award is the only trophy a healthy and productive pro athlete should never aspire to own. Introduced by The Sporting News in 1965 and an official MLB award since 2005, it almost always goes to a veteran in each league who has recovered from a serious injury, fought his way out of a slump responsible for uncharacteristically low numbers the previous season or endured issues off the field that likely contributed to his struggles on the field.
Robinson Cano went through all of that in 2015.
An acid reflux disorder affected his diet and sapped his strength. Although Cano’s stomach finally settled, a sports hernia condition lingered to the point it would require off-season surgery.
Because Cano was an everyday player performing at quite less than 100 percent, his stats at the All-Star break — a .251 batting average, with six homers and 28 RBIs — suggested the Mariners’ second baseman was beginning that phase of the descent where the tray tables are locked and seat belts are fastened.
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Meanwhile, the death of his grandfather, a few weeks before the Mariners concluded spring training, deprived Cano from consulting the loved one he regarded to be his “No. 1 fan.”
Between Cano’s poor health, out-of-sync swing and broken heart, he stumbled through a first half that a former Mariners assistant coach still was stewing about months later.
“Robbie Cano was the single worst, third-place, everyday player I’ve ever seen,” Andy Van Slyke told a St. Louis radio station last November. “He couldn’t drive in Miss Daisy if he tried. He couldn’t hit when it mattered. He played the worst defense I’ve ever seen at second base. I mean, I’m talking about the worst defense ever.”
After his string of five consecutive All-Star game appearances was snapped last summer, Cano will be the lone Seattle player on the field Tuesday night in San Diego. He won’t be starting at second base — that honor belongs to the Astros’ Jose Altuve, deserving winner of the fan vote — but make no mistake: Cano was not chosen just because MLB demands at least one representative from every team.
At the age of 34, Cano is enjoying what might be his best overall season in the majors. The 21 homers and are 58 RBIs are impressive, as are the league-leading 222 total bases. But he’s on a pace to outperform his 12-year career averages in virtually every offensive category.
Take his slash line for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage: .313/.358/.555 this season, up from a lifetime slash line of .308/.356/.497.
Considering that one of his former coaches chided Cano’s inability to drive in runs and get a hit when it mattered, you’d think the “worst second baseman ever” to be a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year in the A.L.
But he’s not a shoo-in, and when the vote of baseball beat writers is tallied after the regular season, Cano probably won’t finish among the top five. Why?
Well, for one, Cano began his resurgence after the 2015 break, around the time he developed a rapport with hitting coach Edgar Martinez, a mid-season replacement for Howard Johnson.
“I knew how to play through it, but he helped me a lot,” Cano has said of Martinez’s assistance. “He reminded me of things like, ‘Don't forget who you are.’ He helped me out with things I don’t want to tell people because you don’t want them to know your secrets. But he was really good.”
Cano ended up hitting .330 during the second half, finishing with a .287 batting average, along with 21 homers and 79 RBIs. Not monster numbers, but respectable enough to threaten his status as Comeback Player of the Year.
And then there is the competition, which includes a similar link to Martinez. There were moments Mark Trumbo appeared lost in space after the Mariners acquired him from Arizona on June 2, 2015. Reputed for his light-tower power, Trumbo connected for one homer during the month that followed. His batting average was down to .221 on July 3.
But he worked on some swing adjustments with Edgar, and slugged 10 home runs after Aug. 1. Between Arizona and Seattle, Trumbo ended up hitting .262 with 22 homers.
Trumbo’s case for outstanding comeback is steeped in the 28 homers he’s already hit for the Orioles, who got him in the winter trade that brought backup catcher Steve Clevenger to Seattle.
When you’re leading the league in home runs on July 12, during a season that began when you were exchanged for a backup catcher, it sort of defines the essence of “comeback year.”
As for Cano, don’t be surprised if he makes a run at Most Valuable Player, the ultimate individual award but one typically reliant on a team’s success. During his prime as a perennial All-Star between 2010 and 2014, Cano finished among the top six in the MVP vote five times in five seasons.
The Mariners remain on the fringe of the wild-card race, and if Cano’s bat helps vault them from the fringe into the frying pan that awaits any September contender, an MVP candidacy will be justified.
In lieu of awards, Cano likely will have to settle for a reward. He’ll be introduced Tuesday night alongside the best baseball players in the world, trusting that Andy Van Slyke is watching at home.