7 who bounced back during difficult season

December 23rd, 2020

This year was … well, you know, maybe the best thing any of us can say about 2020 is that it is almost over. And because it’s almost over -- it’s really, really almost over! -- it is the time of the year to look backward, rather than forward. It’s a time to commemorate a year that felt like it would never end. And, for what it’s worth, still hasn’t.

Every week until we finally reach the end, we will take a look back at the biggest stories, players, teams and moments of 2020. Last week, we looked at five teams that had great 2020s, and five teams that didn’t. This week: We look at seven players who were at the nadir of their careers when 2020 started … and used this otherwise extremely difficult year to turn it all around. (Players listed in alphabetical order by last name.)

, RHP, Rockies
Bard was the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award winner, and he sure did earn it. At the beginning of 2020, Bard was in the same place he was at the beginning of 2019 and '18: retired. He hadn’t pitched in a big league game since '13, due to his struggles with control and, ultimately, the dreaded, mysterious “yips.” But in February, he announced he was launching a comeback, and the Rockies (always desperate for pitching) gave him a chance and, incredibly, he was one of the best pitchers on the team and, ultimately, its closer. 2020 did not have a lot of feel-good stories. Bard’s was one of the best ones.

, RHP, Angels
For Bundy's entire Orioles career, Baltimore fans were terrified that their 2011 first-round Draft pick would be their next Jake Arrieta, a pitcher who could never quite figure it out as an Oriole but who would blossom with another team. It is thus very sad to report that … this is exactly what happened. Bundy had the best year of his career as an Angel -- he was the only real reliable arm the Angels had -- and he put up his best strikeout rate, best walk rate and best home run rate, by a good margin. He even finished ninth in Cy Young voting. He’s now 28 and in the prime of his career. He has now become the pitcher everyone spent the last decade dreaming on. Sorry, again, Orioles fans.

, RHP, Indians
It was July 2019 when Carrasco announced that he had been diagnosed with leukemia, and that he was able to fight his way back to the mound at all that season was downright heroic. But for the cancer survivor to not only come back in '20 during a pandemic -- when no one would have blamed him in the slightest for opting out -- but also have the best year of his career is truly incredible. His ERA+ was the best of his career, even above his fourth-place Cy Young finish in '17, and he was a key part of an Indians rotation that was vital to their overall success. He’s as important a player as the Indians have moving forward. The only reason he didn’t win Comeback Player of the Year this year was probably because … he’d just won it in '19.

Edwin Díaz, RHP, Mets
No player represented more clearly the pain of being a Mets fan than Díaz, who, before the 2019 season, was brought in (at considerable expense) to be a lockdown closer and instead … put up a 5.59 ERA. You can forgive Mets fans if they were starting to feel like everything their team touched somehow was being poisoned. But Díaz, much to the relief of a team that’s relying on him for the next two years, was back to excellence in '20, actually putting up better numbers than he did in his 57-save, eighth-in-Cy-Young-voting 2018. It has gotten a little lost just how young Díaz still is: He’s 26, and without that much mileage on him. Every team in baseball wants a 26-year-old fireballing closer. The Mets thought they had one last year. Now they do.

, C, Royals
It was during Spring Training 2019 when Perez, a six-time All-Star by the time he was 28, hurt his elbow during a workout. It turned out that he’d torn his ulnar collateral ligament and would have to miss the entire '19 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. It was a devastating blow, particularly for a catcher who had never had any extended injury problems in his career. But not only did he make it back for '20, he returned as a far, far better hitter than he’d ever been. Did you see how Sal hit in his last 15 games? He was a monster: .371/.391/.806. He had seven homers in 15 games! (He even stole a base, which seems impossible.) The Royals are a quietly intriguing team entering '21, and Perez, if he’s back to 100 percent and hitting like that, is a stealth MVP candidate.

José Ramírez, 3B, Indians
Speaking of MVP candidates, how about the MVP runner-up? Ramírez ended up having an above-average season at the plate in 2019, but he went about it in the strangest possible way. In the first half, he looked like his talent had vanished before he exploded in the second half. There was reason to wonder whether he was all the way back, though. Well ... he was. He was better than he ever has been in '20, and now he’s the most valuable of all players: 28-year-old superstar under team control for three more years, one who keeps getting better. Let’s just all forget that '19 first half ever happened, yes?

, RHP, Rockies
You could probably take your pick of Rockies starting pitchers; Kyle Freeland also pulled himself back from the brink in 2020. But boy was Senzatela terrible, and unusually damaging, in '19, putting up a 6.71 ERA in 124 2/3 innings, something that’s actually pretty hard to do. (When you’re throwing like that, they typically make you stop.) But '20 was the best year of his career, as he put up a 2.10 ERA at Coors Field, always a challenge. His strikeout rate somehow still went down, which may be a warning flare moving forward, but for now: He, and the Rockies, are relieved to have him back.