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The best baseball stories of 2016 (so far)

From a rookie who overcame career-threatening concussions to an MVP candidate, who overcame the tyranny of long legs, here are my favorite stories of the 2016 season.

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Listen, if we’re being honest, I don’t care about you or your team. I’m sure you’re all very nice, and your favorite players seem lovely, for the most part. But there’s just so much baseball being churned out by my team — about 20 hours a week, the same as a part-time job — that it’s hard to make the same kind of individual connections.

On the other hand, I’m forced to care about your team. It’s part of my job, and if we’re being really honest, it turns out that I care a little bit. And if we’re being really really honest, there are some players who make me care a lot.

These are those players. These are my favorite stories of 2016 so far. There will be another, sadder list later this week, but for now, here are the players and/or teams that have put a smile on my face this season.

Jose Altuve, MVP candidate

It’s not just that Jose Altuve is shorter than the typical major leaguer. It’s that he has an exciting style of play. He’s a high-contact, plus-speed player with excellent range and surprising power. It’s fun to watch him do anything on the field, and those players are in relatively short supply.

Oh, I ... no, I didn’t mean that. The pun, I mean. This is supposed to be a very serious baseball article, and what I was trying to say is that Altuve is fun, regardless of how unique his body type might or might not be, and it’s been amazing to watch him reach new heights this season.

Oh, I ... okay, the best way to put it is like this: Back when I was in college, I came home for the summer and found out that my school was adding baseball as a club sport. This intrigued me, and so I spent two months "training," by which I mean that about once a week, I would take two rounds in a batting cage and then spend $12 on NBA Jam.

I harbored these delusions of club-sports grandeur for a little bit, but I got discouraged quickly. I was 5’8, and I knew my competition would be a bunch of Baby Hueys, who were much stronger than me. I just didn’t see how someone my size could compete, even at that level.

In other words, WHERE WAS MY ALTUVE? Heck, I’d probably still be on the Twins’ bench if I just believed in myself. If I had some damned heart. If I had some inspiration. I didn’t even try out when I came back, all because I was caught between the Joe Morgan era and the Jose Altuve era.

I should have tried out. But those drunken games between the Warriors and Jazz weren’t going to play themselves. Meanwhile, Altuve might end up with the best season ever from a player 5’6 or shorter, even though a) he’s probably shorter than that, and b) being compared against early 1900s players, who played in a league where half of the players had rickets.

Steven Wright, knuckleballer extraordinaire

It’s been a while since R.A. Dickey was a phenomenon. An older, Tolkien-quoting phenomenon, but still one of the biggest stories in baseball. He threw a knuckler — check that, an angry knuckler — that was one of the most delightful pitches in recent memory. It was a fast, subtle knuckleball that was without a lot of peers in baseball history.

Now he’s just an innings eater. A still-valuable piece of a contending rotation, and someone the Blue Jays would likely miss if he weren’t there, but he’s not someone that is going to make me turn on a game these days.

Enter Steven Wright. He’s a welcome story for two reasons: First, he makes me look up Steven Wright quotes every time I think about him, and second, he’s the last of his clan, a true knuckleballer. And he has the talent not only to stick in the majors, but to thrive.

Look at this pitch:

No one has any idea where it’s going. Not Chris Davis. Not the catcher. Not the fans. And certainly not Wright. Finally, a true knuckleballer has arrived, someone who deceives the world with a lazy, deliberate motion, throws a traditional knuckler, and leaves everything to the volcano god of physics.

The Rockies might have found a rotation

Point of order: The Rockies still employ Dinger, a foam gargoyle who gets to distract pitchers for whatever reason, even though his own players hate him. So, I can’t enjoy the mini-rise of Jon Gray, Tyler Chatwood, and Tyler Anderson too much.

But the struggles of the Rockies have always bugged me, if only because I like there to be answers to the riddles that baseball invents. The Rockies didn’t know what to do with their pitching after coming into the league in 1993, so they tried to buy it with Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. That failed so spectacularly that free agent pitchers are still wary of signing with the Rockies, so then the Rockies tried sinkerballers. Then they tried fly ball pitchers, for some reason. They were a step away from putting a suggestion box in front of the ballpark.

The correct answer for the Rockies was probably always "develop your own pitchers," but that’s easy for us to say. They would have to navigate the thin ice between getting pitchers ready for the high-altitude environment and crushing their will to live, and it’s not like they can copy the blueprints of other teams that have tried it.

This isn’t exactly the 2015 Mets, but it’s a start:

  • Tyler Chatwood, 26, 134 ERA+
  • Tyler Anderson, 26, 147 ERA+
  • Jon Gray, 24, 111 ERA+

Chatwood isn’t missing as many bats as the Rockies would like, Anderson is a late bloomer, and Gray is in a bit of a slump at the moment. But if you’re wondering why the Rockies didn’t trade Carlos Gonzalez or Charlie Blackmon at the trade deadline, this will do as an explanation. They think they have the pitchers to contend next year, with just a few tweaks.

They might be right. And considering the lineup had five players with an OPS+ over 120 before Trevor Story was lost for the season, you should expect them to hit a little bit, certainly enough to contend. Even though the Rockies have spent much of their existence actively irritating me, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the snapping sounds you hear when a plan starts to come together.

Tommy Joseph, possible first baseman of the future

Joseph has a .299 on-base percentage this year, and he’s already 25, so there’s a very, very good chance that we’re looking at a limited defensive player with a lower ceiling than you might want from a corner infielder.

However, the goal of the Phillies’ season is to identify interesting players who might be around for the next contending Phillies team. Joseph has hit 15 dingers in just 244 plate appearances, so he certainly qualifies. Ryan Howard’s contract will finally end after this season, and while the troll in me wants the Phillies to re-sign him to a one-year deal, I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen. The job is wide open.

What makes this one of my favorite stories, though, is that there was a chance that Joseph wasn’t going to play baseball in the majors at all. After coming over from the Giants in the Hunter Pence trade in 2012, Joseph was limited to just a handful at-bats every year (never more than 198) because of concussions sustained while playing behind the plate.

Dr. Robert Franks, a concussion specialist at the Rothman Institute in Philadelphia, started the deeper look into Joseph’s condition. Concussion-related problems can include balance and memory issues and headaches. Franks determined that Joseph's brain injury, or injuries, had caused a series of ocular motor problems. In short, Joseph's eyes weren’t moving normally and that caused serious issues tracking the ball as it moved toward him. That’s a big problem for a baseball player, whether he’s in the field or at the plate.

It’s easy to look at Joseph’s career 733 OPS in the minors and wonder what the big deal is, except that ignores that his eyes weren’t moving normally because his brain was injured. The concussions could have cost him a chance at a normal life. Instead, they just cost him his career behind the plate. Which isn’t such a bad gig at all. Seems like all that gear is really hot.

Edwin Diaz, late-inning scorpion god

One of the best sights to behold in baseball is a pitcher who can throw 100 mph right down the middle and still mess hitters up. Another one of the best sights in baseball is a pitcher who can throw a slider as fast as some other pitchers throw a fastball. With Edwin Diaz, we do not have to choose.

This is because he is a late-inning scorpion god who emerged from a golden egg after the Queen of Sliders sat on it for 700 years. The 22-year-old rookie has faced 136 batters this season and struck out 60 of them. I’m probably more amazed that the other 76 batters made contact.

If there’s a caveat, it’s that Diaz has never posted strikeout rates like this in the minors, so maybe it’s folly to expect him to continue at this same pace. On the other hand, there is a precedent, with Francisco Rodriguez improving in that regard while thriving at the major league level as a 20-year-old phenom. It’s possible that this is the real Diaz now.

And if so, what a weapon. Craig Kimbrel is still excellent, as is Kenley Jansen, but the world needed a fresh, new right-handed arm to humiliate unprepared hitters. He came out of nowhere, and if you’re not a Mariners fan, he serves as a reminder that your favorite team’s minor league system probably has an arm like this, only buried under layers and layers of inexperience and poor control. Except one day, it might click.

It clicked for Diaz, who tops my bullpen-watchability power rankings after just a handful of innings in the majors. Every team should have a pitcher like this, but it’s easier to appreciate him when you know that some teams will go decades without a pitcher like him.