By Cliff Corcoran
For many, baseball represents a rock of stability in a sea of uncertainty -- but as much as we cling to the game's consistency, it, too, is constantly changing. As 2016 draws to a close, here is a chronological look at five of the most significant ways (both good and bad) in which Major League Baseball changed in 2016, as well as a look forward to some changes to come in 2017 and beyond.
MLB takes the lead on domestic violence policy
Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association announced their new domestic violence policy in August 2015. However, the policy, which gives the Commissioner full discretion to punish players accused of domestic, sexual or child abuse independent of any legal case brought against that player, was not put into action until March of this year. That's when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman would be suspended without pay for the first 30 games of the 2016 season as a result of an alleged incident at his Davie, Fla., home on Oct. 30 of the previous year that involved the repeated discharge of a firearm. A 52-game suspension for Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes and an 82-game suspension for Braves outfielder Hector Olivera followed in May. That Olivera was the only one of the three to face a criminal trial (he was found guilty in September) sent a strong message that, in direct contrast to the NFL, which has repeatedly come up short in disciplining domestic abusers, MLB would no longer tolerate such behavior on the part of its players.
Home run rates spike to a record high
The 5,610 home runs hit during the 2016 regular season were the second most in history, amounting to 98.5 percent of the record 5,693 homers hit in 2000. On a per-game basis, which allows us to compare all seasons equally regardless of the number of teams in the league, 2016 again ranked second with 1.16 homers per game to 2000's 1.17. On a per-plate-appearance basis, 2016 topped even 2000, with 3.04 percent of all plate appearances ending in home runs to 2000's 2.99 percent.
Contrast that to two years ago, when the league-wide home run rate was just 2.28 percent, the lowest in 22 years, while league-wide run scoring reached its lowest level since 1981. Both rates increased in 2015 but were still below the levels seen as recently as 2012. The 2016 spike seemed to come out of nowhere and was so evenly spread around the league that the only possible explanation would seem to be a change in the ball itself or simply a statistical blip. Whatever the reason, 2016 will go down as one of the most homer-happy seasons in history.
Emerging great Jose Fernandez dies in a boating accident
In a year that will be remembered in part for notable celebrity deaths, baseball suffered one of the cruelest. In the early-morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 25, Fernandez, the effervescent 24-year-old ace of the Miami Marlins, and two of his friends were killed when Fernandez's speedboat hit a jetty off the coast of Miami Beach. Baseball has known its share of tragedy over the years, but it has never lost a player quite like Fernandez, still in the early stages of his Major League career who had nonetheless established himself as one of the true greats of his generation.
The National League Rookie of the Year and third-place finisher in the National League Cy Young Award voting for his age-20 season in 2013, Fernandez lost most of the next two seasons to Tommy John surgery, but he had returned to the top of the league's pitching ranks this year, making his second All-Star team and leading the Majors in strikeout rate (12.5 K/9) and deserved run average (2.23). We'll never know if Fernandez's arm would have held up long enough for him to realize his full potential, but he inarguably had the talent to be one of the great pitchers in the game's history, and his death left a hole in the game that will never be filled.
The Chicago Cubs end 108 years of futility
As recently as Halloween, no living baseball fan -- well, maybe a few -- had seen the Cubs win a World Series. That changed on Nov. 2 (or, really, after midnight on Nov. 3), as the Cubs, a 103-win juggernaut led by young hitters, veteran pitchers and some of the game's best baseball minds, completed their comeback from a 1-3 deficit in the World Series to defeat the Cleveland Indians, 8-7, in a 10-inning Game 7 that will stand as one of the greatest games in history. That victory altered the character of one of the game's signature franchises and fan bases and appears likely to set the stage for the further redefinition of the Cubs. Indeed, all signs point to the North Siders following in the footsteps of team president Theo Epstein's Red Sox teams of the previous decade by following a curse-breaking championship with subsequent World Series victories.
Relief pitchers make unprecedented impact
Prior to this offseason, no relief pitcher had signed a contract for more than four guaranteed seasons since B.J. Ryan signed a five-year deal with the Blue Jays in November 2005. No reliever had ever signed for more than the $50 million the Phillies guaranteed to Jonathan Papelbon in November 2011, and the only reliever ever to draw a $15 million salary in a single season was the great Mariano Rivera, who last did so in 2010. In December, free agents Mark Melancon, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen all broke Papelbon's record, the latter two doing so on five-year deals that included salaries matching or exceeding Rivera's. Those three contracts represented an overdue market correction for ace relievers, with Chapman's five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees representing the new standard.
Those contracts ($80 million, five years for Jansen; $62 million, four years for Melancon) followed a regular season that saw relievers face 36.7 percent of batters, a Major League record, and a postseason that saw managers break their closers -- including Chapman, Jansen and Melancon -- out of their ninth-inning boxes to great effect. It remains to be seen if the more creative and effective usage of closers as proper multi-inning relief aces in the postseason will carry over to the 2017 regular season, but those contracts speak loudly to the increasing importance of reliable, high-leverage relievers in today's game, and give their respective teams good reason to try to get the biggest bang for their buck.
New Collective Bargaining Agreement to impact 2017 and beyond
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the fifth in a row ratified without a work stoppage, will bring numerous noticeable changes to the game in the coming seasons. The 15-day disabled list had been reduced to 10 days, All-Star Game rosters have been trimmed to 32 players and home-field advantage in the World Series will now go to the team with the better regular-season record. Players making their Major League debut in or after the 2017 season will not be allowed to use smokeless tobacco, the first step in phasing out on-field tobacco use by players. Starting in 2018, Opening Day will be earlier and mid-week, a move designed to add four off-days to the schedule, and more attention will be paid to scheduling day games for teams on getaway days before significant travel.
The new CBA will also strengthen MLB's existing domestic violence and performance-enhancing drug policies and adds an anti-bullying and anti-hazing policy governing workplace behavior. Other behind-the-scenes changes that will benefit players but remain largely invisible to fans include improved standards for food and amenities and a requirement for every team to employ a sports psychologist.
The largest impact of the new CBA, however, will come in the areas of player acquisition and compensation. The new deal is far stricter with regard to competitive balance tax penalties, strengthening the tax's intended effect as a de facto salary cap. It has also placed hard caps on spending for international amateur talent, the definition of which was expanded to include any player in a foreign professional league under the age of 24, a change that is likely to delay the arrival in the Major Leagues of two-way Nippon Professional Baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani. The qualifying offer system of Draft-pick compensation for free agents has been softened -- first-round picks will no longer be at risk starting next offseason -- but compensation will also be tied to whether or not a team has exceeded the competitive balance tax threshold, providing yet another deterrent against exceeding that limit, which will increase a mere 11 percent over the five years of the agreement.
The impact of those changes will take years to play out, but the new CBA is evidence that baseball will continue to evolve.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.