Welcome to a new feature on Nats101.com, “Holding Court.” Written by Court Swift (@RCourtSwift) one of the most knowledgeable Nationals (and everything) fans I know. He’ll be writing a columns for us that not only get you up to speed on some baseball things, but also offering his sage like opinion on those same topics.
The World Baseball Classic: What is it. What’s wrong with it. And how to fix it.
Baseball’s World Cup
Sixteen Teams. Five Continents. One Cup. For All the Marbles(-ish). And I don’t even know if there is an actual cup…
When the World Baseball Classic began in 2006, I was pretty intrigued by the idea of a new World-Cup style baseball tournament. The Olympics had just dropped baseball – which only featured amateurs anyway – so MLB, in partnership with the MLBPA, decided to allow professionals to compete internationally for the first time ever. The WBC began in Spring Training of 2006 with 16 hand-picked countries, spanning 6 continents. Japan won that year, and again in 2009 with all the same countries competing.
For the 2013 edition, the tournament was opened to qualifiers. Winning a WBC game now qualifies you for the next tournament. The 12 countries that won a game in 2009 (Australia, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Korea, the United States, and Venezuela) automatically qualified. The four teams that did not win (Canada, Taiwan, Panama and South Africa) were part of a qualifying group of sixteen teams that played for the final four spots. Ultimately Canada and Taiwan returned to the 2013 WBC with Spain and Brazil being the two new teams to earn their way in.
The Timing-No One’s Ready
Sounds pretty cool, and in a lot of ways it is pretty cool. Unfortunately the timing of the event creates too many problems for the event to reach its potential. The MLB players just aren’t at their best yet.
I coudn’t sleep the other night and put on the Netherlands vs. Australia game. I really was just hoping to catch a Roger Bernadina at-bat, but I got sucked in when I learned the Dutch could advance with a win. The Netherlands were the Cinderella team of 2009 after they upset the Dominican Republic. This year, they had already beat Korea in their first game – a favorite to advance – and in this game they jumped on the Aussies early to secure 2nd place in their pool, which guaranteed they’d advance to the next round.
It got me thinking that I would really like to see what these guys could do against a stocked team of Americans playing to win. But that won’t ever happen as long as guys are there “just getting their work in”. I get it. As a Nats fan, I worry about Gio getting too amped up from WBC competition when he should be pacing himself to build up for the season. I don’t really want him going all-out-it is only March after all.
The WBC takes place during Spring Training for a number of reasons: MLB players are participating in exhibition games anyway, so if they warm up with their team or a National team it won’t much matter. Also, it doesn’t compete against the NFL season. It doesn’t conflict with Asian and Caribbean professional leagues, another big plus.
But the first versions of the Classic have shown that teams like Japan and Cuba have a competitive advantage against the countries mainly comprised of MLB players because they stay in late-season form (they are just finishing up) while everyone else is just getting started. MLB hitters don’t have their timing. Pitchers are still building arm strength and fine tuning control. How can you have a legitimate competition if guys are not at full strength?
Plus, all the MLB teams are worried about the increased workload for all of these players, so a proper format for baseball was sacrificed. Baseball is not a single-elimination game. It’s a game of series. Playing series during the WBC would be too many games for players just getting back into form, so we’re left with a semi-serious competition that is more about making a good show than playing hard.
How would I fix it? I’d play the WBC shortly after the World Series, and only during the week.
A lot of MLB players play winter-ball anyway, so getting them to play after the season shouldn’t be a big deal. Getting top pitchers to play is always going to a challenge, but playing the tournament after the season would not be much more of a workload for guys who don’t make the playoffs.
I’d Keep the 16 team roster and the entry requirements. I like the automatic qualification for the next tournament by winning a game. China had a dramatic come-from-behind win to beat Brazil so now China is in for 2017 and Brazil will have to qualify. I would scrap the pool play. Instead use a head-to-head bracket seeded based on the previous tournament and world rankings for the qualifiers. Have 3-game series for the rounds of 16 and 8 then go to a 5-game series for the final four and finish with a 7-game series for the Classic Championship.
MLB doesn’t want to go up against the NFL and I can understand that. But the NFL doesn’t play everyday. People talk endlessly about the NFL because there’s no much else to talk about. Plus, in the fall and winter, football is a weekend game. You could play the tournament Monday-Friday and not go head to head with it.
Also, instead of playing the tournament on opposite sides of the globe, play all the games in one region and rotate the WBC ‘site’ every tournament. That’s a good thing to steal from the World Cup – use multiple stadiums within a reasonable proximity and give different countries the opportunity to host the entire tournament, not just pool play.
At first you could alternate between regions of the US and Asia, but that could expand as the WBC grows.
The only good thing about playing the WBC during Spring Training is that the opening round games are played in small, intimate stadiums where fans are right on top of the action. But this should be kept for all rounds of the WBC. Fourteen thousand screaming fans is a lot cooler in a 12,000 seat minor league stadium than a 35,000 MLB arena. Find a handful of minor league towns within a 100 mile radius and let them host the different rounds. This would give places without MLB teams a chance to see stars in their own backyards. These changes would make the Classic more competitive, increase interest in the US, and would give the WBC a better chance to become something real.
I love the idea of the World Baseball Classic. Every other country loves it. I think the American players love it too. It’s fun watching games that matter and I hope all the Nats participating do well. Just move this thing to the fall so it can be a real competition.