As we turn the calendar to a new year, it is important to look back on the year that was. After a grueling 162 game season and one of the most enthralling postseasons in recent memory, the Chicago Cubs broke their 108-year curse and won the World Series. Marty McFly was only one year off. Go figure. Without further ado, here are your top 10 storylines of a memorable 2016 season:
- Chicago Cubs
It finally happened. Billy goat, black cat, and Bartman be gone, the Chicago Cubs are finally World Series Champions again. Touted by many as the favorites at the beginning of the year, the Chicago Cubs lived up to their lofty expectations by winning the final game of the season. With the amount of talent that General Manager Theo Epstein assembled, anything less than a championship would have been disappointment. Backed by sluggers Anthony Rizzo and NL MVP Kris Bryant, the second and third place finishers in the NL Cy Young voting (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, respectively) and perhaps the best defense of all time, the Cubs cruised through the regular season with an MLB-best record of 103-58 before continuing their winning ways through October. They made it interesting in the end, but the Cubs came back from a 3-1 series deficit and ended more than a century of suffering for their fans on the north side of Chicago.
- Cleveland Indians
Had it not been for the Cubs, the Cleveland Indians would have been the biggest sports Cinderella story of 2016. Despite a 14-game winning streak during the month of June, the Indians were never considered to be heavy title contenders. The Indians didn’t listen. They traded a package headlined by top prospect Clint Frazier to the Yankees for the dominant would be ALCS MVP Andrew Miller. Second year shortstop Francisco Lindor developed into one of baseball’s biggest superstars. Veterans Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, and Carlos Santana enjoyed unprecedented comeback years. And even with injuries to stud pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, the rotation, led by 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber powered the team deep into the postseason. Alas, one team had to lose the World Series and the Indians now inherit the longest active title drought in Major League Baseball at 68 years.
Baseball saw six icons step away from the game following the 2016 season. After 67 years with the Brooklyn and now Los Angeles Dodgers, Vin Scully, the legendary broadcaster known for his unparalleled storytelling ability, called his last game, a fitting walk off Dodger victory, on September 25. In Chicago, longtime catcher and one of the most adored clubhouse presences in all of baseball, David Ross, hit a home run off of Andrew Miller(!) in his final game: Game Seven of the World Series. In Texas, while he did not officially retire, all-star first basemen Prince Fielder announced that he was stepping away from baseball after being diagnosed with a C4-C5 herniation in his neck. In New York, Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira announced that he would retire following the expiration of his contract at the end of the year. Earlier in the year, Teixeira became just the fifth switch hitter ever to reach the 400 home run plateau. Staying in the Bronx, Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the most polarizing player in the history of baseball, was cut by the Yankees in early August. I covered the intricacies of his separation from the team earlier in the year for The Rock. While he has not officially retired, Rodriguez spent the remainder of the season at home with his daughters, so he will most likely finish fourth on the all-time home run list with 696. Finally, the biggest retirement of 2016 was undoubtedly Red Sox DH David Ortiz. In his final season, the 40-year-old Dominican had his best year in a decade leading the league in doubles (48), RBI (127), slugging (.620), OPS (1.021), and intentional walks (15). He also recorded his highest home run total since 2006 and easily won the AL’s Hank Aaron Award, which is given to the best hitter in each league every year.
- The Youth Movement
Led by Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Noah Syndergaard, 2015 was dubbed “the year of the rookie”. With so much high level talent graduating to the Major League level, it seemed unlikely that first year players would have as large of an impact in 2016. That notion could not have been further from the truth. Dodger shortstop Corey Seager unanimously won the NL Rookie of the Year and finished 3rd in MVP voting after anchoring the lineup with his 105 runs, 26 home runs, and .308 average. Rockies shortstop Trevor Story hit seven home runs in his first six big league games and 27 in total before tearing a ligament in his thumb and missing the rest of the year. Nationals shortstop Trea Turner put up a Mike Trout-esque second half of the season, hitting 13 home runs and stealing 33 bases in only 73 games. In the American League, Mariners reliever Edwin Diaz set a rookie record by striking out 15.3 batters per nine innings (83 Ks in 51.2 innings). Tigers pitcher and eventual Rookie of the Year winner Michael Fulmer fired 33 1/3 scoreless innings in June, falling just short of Fernando Valenzuela’s rookie record of 35. Yet no one was as dominant as Gary Sanchez over the final two months of the season. Not only did he set a record by hitting his first 19 home runs in only 45 games, but he also threw out an impressive 41% of base stealers.
- Power is back…
Be it a juiced ball, better hitting, worse pitching, or undetectable steroids (kidding), power made a tremendous comeback during the 2016 season. In fact, the 5,610 home runs hit in 2016 were the second highest total of all time. While only 20 players hit 30 home runs in 2015, the number jumped to 38 in 2016. For 13 of those 38, 2016 was the first season in which they eclipsed the 30-home run mark. This list includes myriad of baseball’s next wave of superstars such as NL MVP Kris Bryant, AL MVP runner-up Mookie Betts, and Rougned Odor. In fact, four players eclipsed the 40-home run mark for the first time in their career: league leader Mark Trumbo, Brian Dozier, Khris Davis, and Chris Carter. In addition, veterans such as Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, and Matt Kemp eclipsed the 30 home run mark for the first time in multiple seasons. One theory as to the increase in home runs comes from the way the game is changing. More pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, thus leading to both an increase in strikeouts and higher exit velocities on batted balls. Whatever the reason, the increase in home runs makes the game more fun for the fans. As the famous 1999 Nike ad said, “chicks dig the long ball.”
- …but not where you expect it.
Despite the plethora of players to hit over 30 home runs, a notable number of the game’s biggest stars had disappointing power outputs last season. 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper mustered only 24 homers and a .243 batting average a year after slugging 42 and batting .330. 2016 AL MVP Mike Trout only hit 29 home runs after hitting 41 in 2015 even though his stats improved across the board. Two-time NL MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt also only hit 24 home runs after hitting 33 the year before. On the other hand, 2016 saw a few hitters not known for their power break out. Despite being only 5’6” and weighing 165 pounds, Astros superstar second baseman Jose Altuve bested his career high by nine, slugging 24 home runs in 2016 while maintaining a .338 average. Further, Red Sox centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. hit 26 home runs in 2016 eclipsing his previous career high of 10.
- The Super RelieverTM
The increasing reliance on elite bullpen arms continued and may have even peaked in 2016 with, according to MLB.com’s Statcast, 37 pitchers throwing fastballs averaging 97 miles per hour or faster. And it makes sense. If a team can stock up on hard-throwing strikeout arms to use late in the game, they can theoretically shorten the game by having elite set up men pitch in the seventh and eighth innings before handing the ball over to an equally elite closer in the ninth. No team took advantage of this more than the New York Yankees, who entered the season with a flame throwing bullpen trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman. At the trade deadline, the Yankees then flipped Miller and Chapman to the Indians and Cubs respectively for prospect packages highlighted by consensus top 20 prospects Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier. It seems fitting that Miller and Chapman met up again in the World Series. It also seems only right that, after being used for multiple innings at a time multiple days in a row, both pitchers gave up home runs in Game 7.
- The Awards voting
The MLB awards season came and went once again with its fair share of controversy. There were two clear cut MVP candidates in each league. The AL race came down to Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, with Trout rightfully winning given an OPS that was almost 100 points higher and accumulating one full win above replacement more than Betts. The NL race was easily won by Cubs superstar Kris Bryant. Even though Washington National Daniel Murphy had a higher batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and more RBI, Bryant’s ability to stay in the lineup playing first, third, and the outfield for Joe Maddon’s World Series winning squad while hitting 39 home runs and leading the league in runs scored with 122. Bryant is enjoying arguably the best start to a career of all time becoming the first player ever to win the Golden Spikes Award (College Baseball’s MVP), Minor League Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and MVP in successive seasons. On the Rookie of the Year side, things got slightly more interesting. Corey Seager unanimously won the award on the NL side and, as a MVP finalist, that is not surprising. However, Seager’s win unfortunately overlooks the dominant 53/13/40/.342/33 that Nationals rookie shortstop Trea Turner put up in only 73 games. On the AL side, the season long dominance of Michael Fulmer was rewarded over the historically great two month stretch of Gary Sanchez, who was inexcusably absent from one voter’s ballot. The real controversy stemmed from the Cy Young award ballots in both leagues. On the AL side, Detroit’s Justin Verlander lost the award to Boston’s Rick Porcello despite having more first place votes (14 to 8) and better stats in most major categories because he was unjustifiably left off of two ballots. In the NL, Washington’s Max Scherzer won the award over a pair of Cubs (Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks) despite having a higher ERA and allowing the most home runs in the league due to his league leading 284 strikeouts in 228.1 innings and 0.96 WHIP.
- Baseball is fun again
The 2016 season started off with a bang as Bryce Harper wore a “Make Baseball Fun Again” hat to a press conference during spring training, an admirable message given the decreasing popularity of baseball among America’s youth. Harper demanded, and the 2016 season delivered. There were wardrobe malfunctions as portly Pablo Sandoval popped his belt on a swing. In a less funny incident, former White Sox ace Chris Sale cut up the team’s alternate jerseys on his scheduled pitching day, citing that they were uncomfortable. There was also the famous haymaker landing brawl between Jose Bautista and Rougned Odor as retribution for Bautista’s bat flip in the 2015 ALDS. In New York, former Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow signed as an outfielder with the Mets at age 29. Across town in the Bronx, left fielder Aaron Hicks threw a 105 mph throw to gun a runner at the plate, and rookies Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin made history by hitting back-to-back home runs in their first career at-bats. Future first ballot hall-of-famer Ichiro Suzuki, at age 42, reached two milestones: his 3,000th MLB hit and his 4,257th total career hit, making him the international hit leader. On the mound, Max Scherzer struck out 20 in one game and became only the sixth pitcher ever to win a Cy Young award in both leagues. In a year dominated by home runs, even pitchers got in on the action as San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner hit a home run off of the best pitcher in baseball: Clayton Kershaw. Then there was David Ortiz hitting a game-winning home run on the same day that he promised a young fan battling a heart defect that he would. Finally, in undoubtedly the greatest moment of the season, 43-year-old Mets pitcher and walking baseball meme Bartolo Colon hit a home run against the San Diego Padres.
- Jose Fernandez
Finally, it would be irresponsible to recap the 2016 season without mentioning the tragic loss of Marlins ace Jose Fernandez. I recapped this the day it happened for The Rock, but I cannot recommend Fangraph’s Dave Cameron’s article highly enough. Fernandez was not only a superlative talent on the field, but he showed more genuine joy for the game than anyone else in the league. Watching Fernandez dominate lineups was fun, watching him hit and admire his own home runs brought a smile to our faces, but nothing topped watching Fernandez love the game of baseball. Rest in peace Jose Fernandez.