- From World Series champions to superstar rookies to retiring legends, 2016 gave us a bevy of players bigger than the game itself. But which names will we remember for years to come? Here are our picks for 2016's 10 best.
The 2016 MLB season was one of the craziest in recent memory. Records were broken. History was made. A century-long title drought was ended. But when we look back on the year and all the players who made it so much fun, who will we remember the best?
As 2016 comes to a close, SI's MLB experts put their heads together to pick their 10 most memorable players of the season. It's a diverse and eclectic list of some of the sport's best and best-loved players: award winners and a world champion, future stars and a departing legend, and a superstar taken from us far too soon. This isn't a ranking of the 10 best players of the year, but rather a list of those whose seasons we will remember most often when recalling the unforgettable 2016 season.
The Cubs' entire team was, of course, the most memorable part of 2016, but it isn't that hard to single out their most memorable player. Bryant followed up his National League Rookie of the Year season of 2015 with an even better campaign in '16. He hit .292 with a .385 on-base percentage and a .554 slugging percentage, slugged 39 home runs and played outstanding defense at third base (while showing off his versatility by making 48 starts in the outfield). It all added up to a league-best 7.7 Wins Above Replacement and a near-unanimous MVP award. After helping Chicago to the majors' best regular season record, Bryant led the Cubs to their first world championship in 108 years by batting .308/.400/.523 with three home runs and eight RBIs in the postseason. He hit the game-tying home run in Game 5 of the World Series against the Indians and a go-ahead homer in Game 6. Then, in Game 7, he etched himself indelibly into Chicago lore by breaking out into a smile while fielding Michael Martinez's two-out, 10th-inning groundball that became the final out of the Cubs' long-awaited title.
Big Papi couldn't add a fourth championship ring to his collection, but the 40-year-old slugger and Boston icon put together the greatest farewell season of any hitter by several measures, including home runs (38, pushing his career total to 541, 17th all-time), RBIs (an AL-best 127) and Wins Above Replacement (5.1). He hit .315 with a .401 on-base percentage and an AL-best .620 slugging percentage and also led the league with 48 doubles, helping power the Red Sox to their first AL East title and postseason berth since 2013. Though still an elite hitter, he says he won’t reconsider retirement due to the lengthy pregame preparation and pain associated with his 2012 Achilles injury.
Jose Fernandez was back. Fully recovered from 2014 Tommy John surgery, the Marlins' 24-year-old ace looked like his old self, bedeviling hitters with his power fastball and knee-buckling curveball. With the righthander back atop the rotation, Miami found itself in wild-card contention through the season's final month. But then, in the early morning hours of Sept. 25, tragedy struck the Marlins and the rest of the baseball world when Fernandez was killed in a boating accident in the waters off Miami Beach. The tragedy didn't just rob the Marlins of their best pitcher; it also robbed the major leagues and the world at large of one of the sport's brightest, most talented and most passionate stars—a man who brought joy and a competitive fire to every inning he pitched and who possessed Hall of Fame-level talent at a ridiculously young age.
Fernandez's team and baseball as a whole mourned his loss—with the Marlins playing a highly emotional game in Miami the day after his death, one punctuated by second baseman Dee Gordon's leadoff home run—but his spirit and his legacy will live on well past 2016.
Miller had long since emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball before the 2016 season, but what he did this year moved him into the discussion as one of the game’s best pitchers. He posted a 1.39 ERA en route to his first All-Star selection with New York, then was traded to the Indians in July and helped Cleveland to its first AL Central title in nine years with a 1.55 ERA in 26 games. But his season will be remembered best for a dominant October in which he transformed into baseball’s newest and most effective postseason weapon. Over 10 games—which he entered in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth innings—he overpowered opposing batters in historic fashion. His 30 strikeouts set a record for a single postseason, and he earned ALCS MVP honors in leading Cleveland to its first pennant since 1997. Alas, Miller ran out of gas in Game 7 of the World Series, surrendering two runs in 2 1/3 innings. Nevertheless, his ability to make Miller Time happen anytime helped rewrite the rules of reliever usage in the postseason—and maybe for the regular season, too.
One year after his rival, Bryce Harper, won the NL MVP award in unanimous fashion and re-ignited the debate as to who baseball's best player really is, Trout reclaimed that throne with yet another spectacular season that already has him in the company of baseball's greatest legends. While Harper struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness in Washington, Trout led the majors in Wins Above Replacement for the fifth straight year, and this time, he was so exceptional that MVP voters made him just the sixth award-winner hailing from a team that finished below .500. The 25-year-old Angels centerfielder won his second award on the strength of a .315/.441/.550 batting line with 29 home runs, 30 stolen bases and 10.6 WAR, the latter his highest total since his 2012 rookie campaign. He's just the sixth postwar player with multiple 10-win seasons since World War II, after Willie Mays (six times), Barry Bonds and Mickey Mantle (three apiece) and Cal Ripken and Carl Yastrzemski (two each).
The 32-year-old Nationals ace didn't add to his collection of no-hitters this season—he threw two in 2015—but Scherzer did write his name in the record books by tying the single-game mark of 20 strikeouts in a nine inning game on May 11 against the Tigers, his old team. That electric performance—in which he didn't allow a walk—was part of a brilliant season in which he went 20-7 with a 2.96 ERA, an MLB-best 284 strikeouts and a 0.97 WHIP, also tops in the majors. Scherzer cruised to the NL Cy Young award, three years after he won the AL honor with Detroit, making him just the sixth pitcher ever to win the award in both leagues.
Sanchez brought with him to the Bronx a bat that reminded many of a youthful Alex Rodriguez, and he did so with none of the attendant drama or controversy. The 24-year-old catcher hit his first major league home run on Aug. 10 and his 11th just two weeks later in only his 23rd career game, making him the fastest player to reach that mark. He was also the fastest to hit 19 home runs (45 career games) and tied the 20-game mark (51 games). In 53 big league games, Sanchez batted .299/.376/.657 with 20 home runs and 42 RBIs, finishing second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. With Sanchez joining fellow rookies Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin, the new-look Yankees have an impressive group of power hitters who could form the core of the team’s next championship contender.
The big story of the Red Sox' 2016 season was the retiring David Ortiz, but Betts stole plenty of Big Papi's spotlight with his own outstanding season. Emerging as a dominant force in the AL's best lineup, Betts was fantastic at the plate, in the field and on the bases for the AL East champions. On offense, he hit a gaudy .318/.363/.534 with 31 home runs, 113 RBIs and an MLB-high 359 total bases. Defensively, he won the Gold Glove award for his sparkling play in rightfield. To that, he added 26 stolen bases and was caught just four times for a terrific 87% success rate. It all added up to 9.6 Wins Above Replacement—second in baseball only to Mike Trout—and a second-place finish in the AL MVP voting. Ortiz's departure will be a big loss for the Red Sox, but with the 24-year-old Betts blossoming into one of the game's newest superstars, Boston's future is in good hands.
Baseball is newly flush with young star shortstops, from the Astros' Carlos Correa to the Indians' Francisco Lindor to the Red Sox' Xander Bogaerts. But it was the Dodgers' Seager who stood above his shortstop peers in 2016. In his first full season and at just 22 years of age, the rookie torched opposing pitchers to the tune of a .308/.365/.512 line and 26 home runs, numbers that helped land him a unanimous first-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and a third-place finish in the NL MVP race. Along the way, Seager also picked up an All-Star team nod and a Silver Slugger award and set franchise records for most hits, doubles and home runs by a rookie in a single season, helping Los Angeles to its fourth straight NL West crown.
The biggest story in the first week of the 2016 season was Story, the Rockies' rookie shortstop who wasted little time making baseball history. On Opening Day, Story smashed two home runs against the Diamondbacks, making him just the sixth player ever to start his career that way. On April 5, he hit another, then followed it up with one on April 6 and two in Colorado's home opener against the Padres on April 8. No player before had ever gone deep in his first four games. For good measure, Story added another blast on April 12, giving him seven home runs in his first six games. Though he soon cooled off, Story still had 27 home runs by the last week in July—the most ever by a rookie shortstop in the National League—but a torn left thumb ligament ended his season on July 30. That couldn’t overshadow his stellar season, however, as Story finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting.