As usual, in the winter months, I pine for competitive baseball.

If you’re an MLB fan like me, you’re probably starting to get that itch right about now, too.

So, while we impatiently wait for April 2, 2017, let’s delve into last season’s statistics and discover which players excelled in hitting, pitching and defense.

In this first column of the series, I’ll start with an exploration of some noteworthy hitters in the National League last season.

Now, remember, my list is subjective. I’ve included players who topped the stats and also, those who transcended in the big moments.

They are not necessarily listed in any particular order.

DJ LeMahieu, 2B, Colorado Rockies

The name of this player may be vague to you like it was for me before I started researching the best hitters of 2016.

That’s because despite the fact that he had excellent defensive skills, LeMahieu was an average hitter for the first 4 years of his professional baseball career.

Things changed in that department for him after the 2014 season.

When he finished with a .267 BA, 42 RBIs, 132 Hits, 59 Runs and .663 OPS, he sought out a facility for help during the off-season in Atlanta (where he was living at the time).

He was fortuitously referred to Casey Smith, a former minor leaguer turned coach and owner of a large baseball facility not far from LeMahieu’s home.

The two men made an immediate connection both personally and professionally.

Through a collaboration of ideas and hard work with Smith, LeMahieu’s offensive skills made a dramatic upturn during the 2015 season.  He finished with a .301 BA, .746 OPS, 61 RBIs, 170 Hits, and 85 Runs.  He also became an All Star for the first time.

In 2016, LeMahieu’s offense improved exponentially more.  He ended the year with a .348 BA, .911 OPS, 66 RBIs, 192 Hits,104 Runs, and was crowned the NL batting champion.

What Smith claims has been the difference in LeMahieu since 2014 is a new awareness of his own potential, improvement of his hand-eye coordination, and his ability to harness the natural power of his 6’4, 215 lb. frame.

As far as Smith is concerned, the sky is the limit as to his continued growth.

Of course, as this is the age of controversy, LeMahieu’s 2016 batting title didn’t come without tumult.

Throughout the month of September, LeMahieu and Nationals 2B Daniel Murphy were neck and neck in the race for best batting average.

But, on Sept 17, Murphy got hurt and missed 10 straight games.

Knowing that Murphy’s batting average would be stuck at .347, (one point less than LeMahieu’s), Rockies Manager Walt Weiss decided to sit his player 5 of the last 8 games of the season (including the last 2) to help preserve his one-point lead for the title.

(Batting averages do not decline with inactivity.)

Weiss said, “My philosophy, whether you like it or not, is I’m going to take care of the guys who take care of our team. DJ’s one of those guys that takes care of our team.”

LeMahieu told reporters that he understood what Weiss was doing, but nonetheless, it had been difficult for him to sit on the bench that final week.

There was a great deal of public criticism for the move and particularly because it went against the “spirit of competition”.

Personally, I have no problem with what Weiss did to help LeMahieu get the batting title, an accolade that will be printed in the history books forever.

Besides, LeMahieu worked hard the entire season and deserved to win, no matter how it was ultimately achieved.

Daniel Murphy, 2B, Washington Nationals

Speaking of Daniel Murphy… I can’t help but to feel bad for how his season ended.  I wonder what could have been if he hadn’t been injured in September.

Not only would we have seen Murphy & LeMahieu slug it out for the batting title, but Murphy had the chance to win the MVP Award given the fact that he set career highs in every statistical batting category, was an All Star and received a Silver Slugger Award.

In the end, he finished runner-up to Jose Altuve.

At any age, those are great achievements for Murphy.  But at almost 32, phenomenal.

So, how did he get here?

It has been a bit of a long road for him, especially earlier in his career after he was drafted by the New York Mets in 2006 out of college.

Murphy showed he was always a strong hitter, but injuries caused him to miss some time (including all of 2010 and part of 2011) and likely, development.

His batting average hovered consistently around .300 through the 2015 regular season, but during the 2015 post season, Murphy broke out and went on a tear.

He set a major league record with homers in 6 straight postseason games, became the only other player besides Lou Gehrig with 7 straight postseason games with a hit, a run and an RBI, and was crowned NLCS MVP.

All told, Murphy hit .529 (9-for-17) with 4 homers, 1 double and 6 RBIs in the 2015 NLCS.

He said he wasn’t exactly sure why balls suddenly starting flying off his bat.  He told reporters, “I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

But, the likely reason is his collaboration with Mets swing coach Kevin Long during the 2015 season who helped him hone in on hitting for more power.

Long changed Murphy’s swing and his instruction took almost all season to kick in, but it did eventually for the post season and beyond.

By 2016, when Murphy became a free agent and signed with the Washington Nationals, he had his best career year with a .347 BA/.595 SLG/.985 OPS, 25 HRs, 104 RBIs, 184 Hits, and 47 doubles (the most in the NL).

Going forward, some critics are already predicting a regression and question if Murphy is the “real deal”, or if his newfound batting prowess just a fluke.

I don’t tend to see the negative in athletes straight-away.  There were reasons Murphy found his potential and got in touch with it when he did.

We shouldn’t question it, just enjoy it and hope he continues on the same path.

Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds

Without question, this 33-year-old Reds first baseman has been the best player to get on base in the league in the last decade since he was activated.

He topped the OBP % statistic from 2010-13 and he did it again in 2016 (.434). Arguably, this is the most important stat outside of WAR that we should measure the greatness of a baseball hitter.

Last season, Votto also batted for .326, had 97 RBIs, 29 HRs, 181 Hits and 101 Runs.

Of course, he has a lot to live up to after he signed the longest guaranteed contract in MLB history with the Reds in 2012.

According to ESPN, that agreement includes $251.5 million over 12 years.

To put that in perspective, the deal will expire in 2023 when Votto is 40 years old.

The length of the contract aside, it was mighty risky for Cincinnati to lock in a player for so long, given that much of the term includes Votto’s 30-something years.

The bigger issue is that the Reds are a small-market team and seemed to have put all of their eggs in this one basket.

Since 2012, Cincinnati has been unable to compete with the Cardinals and Cubs in the NL Central.  And last year, the Reds finished with an overall record of .420, their worst season since 2004.

Votto may not be directly to blame for bad decision-making at the top.

And, he surely is a great player who if he finished today would be eligible for a Hall of Fame worthy career, in my opinion.

But, that contract has probably restricted the Reds from putting together a team that would complement him (or find a viable pitching staff).

Instead, the Reds should look inward and towards Manager Bryan Price who has coached the team since October 2013.

If they are going to contend with the likes of the resurgent Cubs for the division, they need to squeeze as much talent out of each player they have as possible.  I’m not sure Price has proven he can do that.

As for Votto, after a slow start, he did everything he could do in 2016 to help his team move forward.

Honorable Mention 1 – Kris Bryant, 3B/OF, Chicago Cubs

All but one Baseball Writer gave Bryant a first place vote for the 2016 NL MVP.

I’m not sure who that hold-out was, but perhaps we should check that person for a pulse.

Bryant clearly deserved the honor because he batted .292 with 39 HRs, 35 doubles, 102 RBIs and 121 runs scored in 155 games. He also led the NL in runs scored, ranked 3rd in homers, was 4th with a .939 OPS and .554 SLG.

He was also the only player in the Majors with at least 35 HRs, 35 doubles, 100 RBIs, 100 runs scored and 75 walks.

And, in the post-season, he was outstanding going 6-12 with 2 HRs.

It’s not surprising that he recently said, “I hate being average or mediocre. I don’t want to settle or be complacent. I like moving around the field. I like improving. I like running the bases. I want more. I want more home runs.”

That attitude explains a lot about a 24-year-old who has become the 1st player in history to win the College Player of the Year (2013), Minor League Player of the Year (2014), Rookie of the Year (2015) and MVP in consistent years (2015 and 2016).

Honorable Mention 2 – Ben Zobrist, Utility Player, Chicago Cubs

Statistically speaking, Zobrist had a good year as a hitter in the 2016 regular season.

But, where he shined was in the post season.

Who could forget when he stepped up to the plate during Game 7 of the World Series in the 10th inning and hit an RBI single that broke a 6-6 tie and put the Cubs ahead for good?

Still a really good player at almost 36 years old, the Cubs were lucky to get the 11-year veteran when he came up for free agency in 2015.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that he was swept up by Chicago and would be under Coach Joe Maddon’s tutelage again. Zobrist had worked with him the first 9 years of his career in Tampa Bay.

The Coach and Player will have at least 2 more years together to help make magic, as Zobrist is signed through 2019.

NEXT UP: I’ll reveal who I think the best hitters were in the American League in 2016.

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