Absolute insanity that we've already reached the end of the regular season. This season flew by and a lot of craziness took place. Players retired, records were broken, and we saw events never before seen - both for the good and bad of the game. While the division races were all but wrapped up entering this final week, the controversial two wild card format came into play in a huge way this year. Both leagues had the chance of a three way tie, or in the case of the American League a four way tie, entering the final weekend. If the playoffs are anything like this regular season was we're in for a treat. Lets take a look back at the top storylines from 2016:
1. The Cubs Won 103 Games
We thought the Cubs would be good entering the year. This good? I'm not sure if we realized that. They're assembled as perfectly as a baseball team can reasonably be assembled. Power? Check. Pitching? Check. Lockdown closer? Check. Veteran leadership? Check. Young studs? Check. Playoff experience? Check. The list goes on and on. The Cubbies made it to the NLCS last year and the experience Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and company took from that is invaluable. The pitching rotation is led by a tough as nails ace in Jake Arrieta, two veterans in Jon Lester and John Lackey who have won World Series clinching games, and 2016's MLB Era leader in Kyle Hendricks. On top of all that they have the best manager in baseball.
The biggest blow to the team came back in April when Kyle Schwarber went down with a torn ACL. This is where the team's depth shined, however, and free agent pickups Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist picked up the slack. Any Cubs fan will tell you this team isn't actually perfect and the baseball playoffs are a more or less a crapshoot so nothing can be taken for granted. The even year Giants are lurking. Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers. Bryce Harper and the Nationals. The Mets beat them last year, although they were a little more healthy in 2015. There's challenges but all signs point to the Cubs at least making it to the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945.
2. Clayon Kershaw Strengthened His Case As The Best Pitcher In Baseball
One of the most under reported stories of 2016 was the absolute dominance of Clayton Kershaw. The 28-year-old, three time Cy Young award winner would have hands down won his fourth in six years had it not been for a lengthy mid summer back injury. Earlier this month there was even chatter that he should win the award despite the missed time. While that's somewhat far fetched the theory was that he still ranked high among the league leaders in WAR despite how few of innings he pitched.
But while he managed fewer innings the quality of those were so high he accumulated similar WAR totals to those that were healthy all season. Had Kershaw qualified in innings totals he would have ranked first in the National League in ERA, first in WHIP, first in hits per nine, first in walks per nine, fifth in strikeouts per nine, third in complete games, and first in shutouts. His WHIP and strikeout to walk ratio would have set major league records. You know what, give the man the Cy Young he deserves!
3. Mike Trout Remained Even Better Than Kershaw
In every season from 2012 through 2016 Mike Trout has led the American League in WAR. This year he accumulated more WAR through an age 24 season than any baseball player has ever accumulated through that age. Basically, he's off to the best start to a career in the entire fucking history of the game. He now has more WAR than 48 active hall of famers. He deserves to win MVP despite playing for a fourth place team. Look, there's a real case to be made for Mookie Betts. He was the best all around player on baseballs best offense. But by every objective standard Trout was the better offensive player in 2016 and it wasn't close enough to rob him of the MVP. He's that good. It seems like the worst case scenario is a second place finish for him, which would mean he will have finished first or second in the AL MVP voting all five years he has been in the league.
4. The Even Year Giants Had A Historic Second Half Collapse
It was so long ago that it feels like an after thought but at the all star break the San Francisco Giants were the best team in baseball. Yes, they even had a better record than the Cubs. What happened next nobody saw coming. The Giants finished out the season 30-43, which is the third worst mark ever for a team that had the best record in baseball at the all star break. Despite the near collapse they once again find themselves in the playoffs in an even year. There isn't a pitcher better suited to start a one game playoff than Madison Bumgarner. In his last postseason in 2014 he threw 52.2 innings with a 1.03 ERA. Statistical probability would say the even year madness comes to an end in 2016, but until we see them actually lose they can't be counted out.
5. The Sudden Death Of Jose Fernandez
Undoubtedly the saddest moment of 2016 was the way to soon, unexpected death of 24-year-old Jose Fernandez. He was not only one of the most fun pitchers to watch, he was becoming one of baseballs best. A full year removed from Tommy John surgery Fernandez was having a dominant year. Through 29 starts he was 16-8 with a 2.86 ERA and an eye pooping 253 strikeouts through just 182.1 innings pitched. Things were only going to get better as he grew with Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and this young Marlins team. Despite losing baseballs most passionate player the game will remember him fondly. The image below is my all time favorite baseball GIF and will never be topped.
6. Bartolo Colon Hit A Home Run
On a brighter note 2016 was a hell of a year for Bartolo "Big Sexy" Colon. He came out firing early in the season, pitching to a 2.87 ERA through the beginning of July and being named an all star. Before that hell froze after and Colon hit a home run. In an actual major league game. The fact that this happened all the way back in April means it may have been forgotten. But the new "shot heard round the world" will live on thanks to YouTube, Vine, and GIFs. It's strange and hilarious moments like this that make baseball the best sport in the world. It was one of the best moments of the season without a doubt.
7. Bryce Harper's Struggles
Following the youngest unanimous MVP season in the history of baseball it felt as if Bryce Harper had broken out for good in 2015. He came out guns blazing in 2016, declaring it his mission to make baseball fun again, and by the end of April had people believing he was better than Trout. Things were downhill from there, however, as Harper finished his season with just 24 homers and a .243/.373/.441 triple slash line. Those numbers are a fry cry off from 2015's 42 homers and .330/.460/.649 triple slash.
Still just 23 years old there is plenty of reason to believe the best of Harper is still to come. For one there have been multiple reports throughout the season that he has been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury. While both he and the Nationals have denied this it would make sense as to what happened to his power. As for the batting average? Well Harper was simply unlucky this year. His 2016 batting average of balls in play was .264, which is well below his career average of .317. Set for a record breaking free agent contract after the 2018 season expect Harper to rebound strongly over the next two years.
8. Ichiro Reaching 3,000 Hits
Ichiro has quietly become the Tom Brady of baseball, claiming he wants to play until he's 50 years old. While that's obviously unlikely the consensus is that, similar to Brady, if anybody can do it it's Ichiro. He got some love this summer when he was closing in on 3,000 hits but not as much as he deserved. Part of the issue was he was chasing the milestone as a part time player, which he has been for a few years now. He had his most productive season in a half decade though, batting .291 with a .354 OBP.
When taking a closer looks at his all time stats it's a wonder he isn't discussed more among the all time greats. The guy didn't come over to America until he was 27 and still reached 3,000 hits. In all 10 seasons from 2001-2010 he hit AT LEAST .310 with 200 hits. He stole 30 bases in all but one of those years. That type of consistent dominance is the stuff legends are made of. When he ultimatelty decides to hang up the spikes he will become the first Japanese player inducted into Cooperstown.
9. Superstars Retiring
While Ichiro is still plugging along we still said goodbye to some former stars in 2016. The most noteworthy of which was David Ortiz who as you probably know had the best farewell season of the games history. As a 40-year-old Ortiz hit an absurd 38 homers with a .315 batting average. He led the AL in doubles, RBIs, slugging, and OPS. It will be interesting to see if he has one more big October in him.
While Papi got to leave on his own terms Alex Rodriguez wasn't awarded that same luxury. Despite having one and a half years left on his contract the Yankees decided to pay A-Rod to just go away. There was a lot of thought that he would return to play this year, probably for the Miami Marlins, but that never materialized. Just four homers shy of 700 it still wouldn't be a complete surprise to see A-Rod in uniform next year. Similar to Ichiro we often forget just how great Alex was in his prime. In the all time leader boards he ranks fourth in homers, third in RBIs, 19th in hits, eighth in runs, and 24th in slugging.
In addition to these two Hall of Fame worthy talents we witnessed the retirements of Vin Scully, Prince Fielder, and Mark Teixeira. Scully left as only he could by broadcasting a walk off Dodgers win in his final game. Teixeira hit a walk off grand slam against the Red Sox during his final week. Things weren't as fortunate for Prince Fielder. He was forced into early retirement due to a neck injury. It's sad because you could tell the neck injury prevented him from being himself the past couple of seasons but at the same time he is still being awarded the entirety of the $106 million left on his contract that was scheduled to run through 2020.