Monday, March 02, 2009

Baseball "Analyzed" Here

With the second World Baseball Classic upon us, I figured I should weigh in on the tournament. I wrote a fair amount (especially by my standards) about the inaugural WBC in 2006, as I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to watch meaningful baseball games in March. This post will read much more like mainstream media drivel than my usual style of drivel, so be forewarned.

How is the tournament constructed?

The sixteen countries are divided into four pools for the first round. Pool A will be played in Tokyo and features Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China. Pool B will play in Mexico City and includes Cuba, Mexico, Australia, and South Africa. The United States, Venezuela, Italy, and Canada will be Pool C in Toronto. Pool D is the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, and the Netherlands and will play in San Juan.

The first two rounds now have a double elimination format which is familiar to baseball fans from its use in the NCAA Tournament. The only difference is that a second championship game is not played; the team that wins the first is the pool winner. This final game will have no bearing on which countries advance (both will have secured berths in the next round), but it will determine how they are seeded.

The initial matchups in the first round will be the first team listed in each pool above against the fourth, and the second against the third. The winners will play each other for a berth in the second round, while the losers will play to stay alive. The loser of the winner’s game and the winner of the loser’s game will play for the right to advance to the aforementioned pool championship game (and also to the next round of the WBC).

The second round is constructed in the same manner, with the survivors from Pools A and B forming Pool 1, and the survivors from Pools C and D forming Pool 2. The initial matchups will be the winner of one pool versus the second-place team of the other. Pool 1 will be played in San Diego and Pool 2 in Miami.

The four teams still alive will then play single elimination semifinals (with the Pool 1 winner playing the Pool 2 second-place nation) and a championship game at Dodger Stadium on March 21-23.

What are the oddball rules in place for the WBC?

The rules that will have the most impact are those that define pitch count restrictions. No pitcher can make more than 70 pitches in a game in a first round, which increases to 85 in the second round and 100 for the final four (the limits have been bumped up by five pitches per round since the 2006 tournament). Additionally, a pitcher cannot pitch on three consecutive days; cannot pitch the day after making thirty or more pitches (a slight alteration for the final is that he cannot pitch in the final if he made 30+ pitches in the semifinal; since the semifinals are played on different days, this evens the playing field); and must have at least four days rest after making 50+ pitches.

The mercy rule ends a game after five or more innings at bat by the trailing team if their deficit is greater than fifteen, or after seven or more innings if the deficit is greater than ten.

The most controversial rule is the extra inning rule, which states that starting in the thirteenth, each inning will begin with runners at first and second. It has not yet been determined if this rule will be used in the final or not. The IBAF, co-sponsors of the WBC, have implemented an even more radical rule in their competitions. Starting in the tenth, the runners are placed at first and second and the team gets to choose the point in the batting order at which they’d like to begin (in the tenth only; after that, runners are on first and second, but the batting order is followed).

I would detest the idea of altering the current extra inning format in MLB, but given the pitch restrictions on WBC pitchers, I don’t consider it a terrible idea in this case. And the odds of a thirteen plus inning game aren’t that high anyway.

What happened in 2006?

The pools were constructed a little differently, and the format was round robin rather than double elimination. The tiebreakers were ludicrous, but in the end, the teams that advanced out of the first round were essentially the favorites. Japan, Korea, the United States, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela advanced to the second round.

Then it got interesting. The US won its first game against Japan, but losses to Korea and Mexico knocked the Yankees out of the tournament. Korea handed Japan a second defeat, but both still managed to advance. On the other side, the spot most had penciled Venezuela in for went to Cuba instead.

There was no cross-seeding, and so on their third shot, Japan finally got the better of Korea, while Cuba upset the Dominican Republic. Japan defeated Cuba 10-6 behind some pitcher named Daisuke Matsuzaka to win the world title.

Who are the best or most notable players on each team

This is not intended to be a through or precise exercise, and obviously it is much easier to do this for the teams with a lot of major leaguers than for others. Nonetheless, here are two or three key players for each country, organized by opening round pool:

China: OF Lingfeng Sun, C Yang Yang
Japan: P Yu Darvish, P Daisuke Matsuzaka, OF Ichiro Suzuki
Korea: OF Shin-Soo Choo, OF Hyun-Soo Kim, P Kwang-Hyun Kim
Taiwan: IF Chih-Hsien Chang, OF Che-Hsuan Lin (both Red Sox prospects), P Fu-Te Ni
Australia: P Travis Blackely, IF Justin Huber, OF Chris Snelling
Cuba: OF Leslie Anderson, 2B Yulieski Gourriel, P Yunieski Maya, C Ariel Pestano (not necessarily one of their best players, but playing his final season in international competition)
Mexico: 1B Adrian Gonzalez, P Oliver Perez, P Joakim Soria
South Africa: P Barry Armitage, IF Gift Ngoepe, IF Anthony Phillips
Canada: OF Jason Bay, C Russell Martin, 1B Justin Morneau
Italy: IF Frank Catalanotto, P Jason Grilli, IF Nick Punto (all “ringers” of course; among natives, P Alex Maestri, a Cub farmhand, is probably the biggest name)
United States: 3B Chipper Jones, P Jake Peavy, 3B David Wright
Venezuela: 1B Miguel Cabrera, P Felix Hernandez, OF Magglio Ordonez
Dominican Republic: SS Hanley Ramirez, SS Jose Reyes, 3B Alex Rodriguez
Netherlands: OF Greg Halman, P Sidney Ponson, P Rick VandenHurk
Panama: P Manny Corpas, OF Carlos Lee, C Carlos Ruiz
Puerto Rico: OF Carlos Beltran, 1B Carlos Delgado, C Geovany Soto

Who do you think is going to win?

I don’t like making predictions, and particularly not for a handful of games. If sixteen MLB teams were pitted in a tournament like this, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. The saving grace for a prognosticator looking at the WBC is that the teams aren’t anywhere near uniform in strength. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that China and South Africa are hopelessly outclassed by the likes of Japan and Venezuela.

The first round pools are divided in such a way that there are two clear favorites in each. That’s not to say they are locks, but one has to like the chances of Japan, Korea, Cuba, Mexico, America, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico--the same eight teams that advanced to the second round in 2006.

After that, I’m not going to hazard a guess, except below when I try to pitch the idea of a WBC office pool.

Who exactly is on the US team?

Obviously the US team will get the most attention from American fans. I think this is regrettable, just because I think that the best feature of the WBC is the spotlight it shines on baseball around the world. Nonetheless, I’ll certainly be rooting for the USA, and if I were in charge, the players would primarily be used as follows (understanding that they will want to get some playing time for everyone on the roster):

C--Brian McCann, 1B--Kevin Youkilis, 2B--Dustin Pedroia, 3B--David Wright, SS--Jimmy Rollins, LF--Ryan Braun, CF--Curtis Granderson, RF--Shane Victorino, DH--Chipper Jones

Bench--C Chris Iannetta, IF Mark DeRosa, IF Derek Jeter, OF Adam Dunn

Starters--Jake Peavy, Roy Oswalt, Ted Lilly, Jeremy Guthrie

Relievers--Brian Fuentes (unavailable until second round), Jonathon Broxton, Scot Shields, JP Howell, Matt Thornton, Brad Ziegler, Matt Lindstrom, Joel Hanrahan, LaTroy Hawkins, JJ Putz

I’m sure Jeter will play a much more prominent role than I would advise.

I saw a couple of comments on BTF speculating about how many games Team USA would win were they a regular major league team. 90 was a number that was tossed around by a couple posters. I’ll have some of what they’re having--this team would be the best team in baseball on paper by leaps and bounds. I don’t care if you have to run out a replacement level starter every fifth day, this would be an amazing team. The starting pitching is strong, the bullpen and bench are otherworldy, and the lineup is great. Anyone who thinks that, on paper, this team would not be pennant favorites over a 162 game campaign is out of their mind.

Why should I care about the WBC?

I can’t answer that. It’s up to you, and of course you are free to think it’s a big waste of time and watch NASCAR races instead.

Among baseball fans, there seem to be four main strands of objection to the WBC. I’ll respond to these, not in attempt to dissuade anyone who holds these views, but to explain why I don’t:

1. It’s just an exhibition

From the perspective that MLB is the center of the baseball universe, sure. And I don’t claim to know the mindset of Japanese fans; they may well consider the NPB pennant race much more important than the WBC as well. But I’m sure the Cuban players are pretty excited about the opportunity to play against a sampling of the best players from the other baseball powers instead of the usual array of minor leaguers and collegians.

I’ll accept the premise, though. I still don’t care. It’s March. I haven’t seen a meaningful baseball game since October (with the brief exception of the Caribbean Series, at which most of the same criticisms could be leveled). I’ll take what I can get, and at least there is a claim that something is on the line here; the MLB exhibitions we’ll see over the next month are as meaningless as it gets from a team perspective. But I’ll watch some of those too, and enjoy by myself.

2. Players are going to get injured

They might. But they might get hurt playing spring training games too. Is in the injury risk increased as a result of the games meaning something instead of absolutely nothing? Probably so. But is the difference in probability of injury significant? I don’t see any compelling reason to believe that it is, certainly not for position players.

Imagine how much less colorful the history of the game would have been had everyone wrung their hands similarly in the 1920s or 30s. Barnstorming trips to the hinterlands of the country without baseball? Exhibitions against Negro League teams? Trips to Japan after the season? No way, somebody might get hurt. We should probably do away with winter ball too--sorry, Dominicans, it’s too big of a risk to our MLB teams to allow any player to participate in your silly little league.

Granted, barnstorming, winter ball, and non-spring training exhibitions have seen cutbacks in scope and participation as time has marched on. But I’m sorry, I just don’t see a maximum of ten games played by any particular player once every four years as a cause for hand-wringing.

If you start from the perspective that MLB is the only baseball competition that matters, then you are going to wring your hands for sure. If you start from the perspective, as I do, that the MLB season is the most important baseball competition, but not to such an extent that any outside competition with even the slightest possibility of altering the pennant race should be forbidden, then I think you’ll consider it no big deal. And if you take the seemingly radical view that maybe someday this tournament could be viewed as of the utmost importance, like soccer’s World Cup (relative to it’s own sport--I'm not suggestion that baseball will ever dominate the world sporting scene as that insipid game does), then you will embrace the WBC regardless of any potential effect on MLB races.

Proponents of the injury argument are fond of personalizing it: “What if Shin-Soo Choo or Mark DeRosa got hurt playing in this thing and damage the Indians’ chance to make the playoffs?” While I can’t be positive what I would think, since it hasn’t happened and probably won’t, I’m pretty confident my reaction would be a shrug of the shoulders and a recognition that stuff happens--like Grady Sizemore injuring his groin in spring training workouts. Perhaps that’s an indictment on my status as a “true fan” of the Indians, but so be it.

3. It’s silly to group players by nationality

I don’t think it’s any more silly then ordering MLB teams in order of losing percentage, 1-30, then assigning the rights to players on that basis, and having that process play a large role in the composition of the teams. I don’t know that it’s any more or less silly than any other way of distributing players outside of a completely open player and franchise market.

Some of the more extreme proponents of this point of view are American leftists horrified at the prospect that any American could have any sort of pride in their country outside of Barack Obama’s presidency, and thus wring their hands about international tournaments promoting nationalism and jingoism.

If this was international soccer, and scores of people were compelled to riot because of the outcome, then I might be sympathetic to the possible dangers of national pride twisted into something else. But I didn’t see any of that at the World Baseball Classic. I didn’t see any of that at the Caribbean Series. I saw people from all over the world rooting passionately for their countries and celebrating the world’s greatest game. I am willing to bet that more pointless animosity was caused by the 2006 games between the Red Sox and Yankees than by the WBC.

The biggest danger I see, if you want to call it that, is that people will use the results of a tournament to draw unwarranted conclusions about the overall quality of baseball in the participating countries. After the US flamed out in the second round in 2006, there were a lot of snarksters scoffing that “we couldn’t even win at our own national pastime”. Regardless of the outcome of the WBC, the United States is still the world’s number one producer of baseball talent (from a gross perspective), and I believe that a team of the best American players would win the pennant in a 162 game “world league” campaign more frequently than any other nation. Whether they fail to win the WBC because of the small sample size of the tournament, lack of motivation, rebuffs by players who would improve the team, or any other factor is not going to do anything to convince me otherwise. Of course, if you want to switch from “total or top talent” to a per capita measure, then the US is not the shoe-in world #1. The point is: the WBC will determine who wins the WBC, and the result shouldn’t be extrapolated too far outside the scope of the tournament itself.

Now some of you may read that and ask, “Isn’t the belief that it proves little if anything an argument against having a tournament at all?” Fair enough, but I’d say the same thing about the World Series. Striking a balance between the desire for drama and marketing potential against the desire to have a sufficient test of strength is an ever-present challenge in all sports. And since international competition is subordinate to the MLB season itself, the difference between the two is even starker in the case of the WBC. I choose to accept the compromise and enjoy it.

4. The WBC is intended to promote baseball on a global level, but so what?

For my money, I’d like to see as many people as possible around the world exposed to baseball, and I hope they take up the game in some capacity, whether as a player or a fan. Baseball could be enjoyed and was when it was limited only to a small area of the United States, but I’d rather see the higher quality and more diverse style of play that will come with a larger talent pool.

Will the WBC be an effective way of spreading baseball? There I have my doubts. In many of the nations involved, baseball is already a major sport and I’m skeptical as to whether the WBC will increase its profile. It might help more in a country like Australia or South Africa, but how much exposure will it get there? Of course, you have to start somewhere, and nothing will be gained by not trying.

Hopefully this tournament will be as enjoyable to watch as the 2006 edition. If it is, then the seemingly presumptuous title of “Classic” will have been well-earned.

Why don’t people have WBC office pools?

Asked tongue-in-cheek, of course, but why not? As a certain other March sporting event has demonstrated, there’s nothing better to stimulate interest in a sporting event than a little friendly wagering. Your co-workers may not know anything about the Taiwanese baseball team, but how much do they know about Southwestern Arkansas A&M at Pine Bluff? The same amount--nothing. And sure, the WBC bracket is not as straightforward to fill in--you have to have the wherewithal to drop teams into loser’s brackets and reseed in the next round and the like. But come on, it would be fun, right?

So in the spirit of fun:

8 comments:

  1. My pick to win the WBC is South Korea. At the moment, they are beating the crap out of Chinese Tapei. It is already 6-0, and they are still batting in the 1st inning.

    I rooted for Korea to win the last WBC. I remember that they had unbelievable pitching for the first 6 games of the 2006 WBC.

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  2. Korea's pitching has been unbelievable again in this year's WBC. How about 3 shutouts in 4 games. I don't know how they managed to give up 14 runs to Japan in the other game. All that matters is that they moved-on, and they can take comfort in the fact that they beat Japan the 2nd time around. The Koreans definitely need to improve their baserunning. I watched them run into 4 outs in their last game against Japan.

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  3. How on earth do you manage to run into a 6-5-2 double play?

    Notes on other WBC stuff:

    The commentators last night were going on and on about how good Cuba looked yesterday. I must have been watching a different game. Obviously I accept that Cuba is a good team and their track record demonstrates this--I'm not attempting to judge their true quality on the basis of one game. However, the Cuba/South Africa game in isolation does not look that good in isolation:

    * 8-1 is hardly some massive blowout final score, although the game was never in doubt and it seemed worse than that. But the US beat SA 17-0 in 2006. Mexico and Australia combined to score 24 runs in the same park against much better pitching.

    * They hit six home runs, but at a high altitude in a park with short fences in the corners. A couple of them looked like medium-deep flys off the bat, and kept carrying over the fence. I wasn't impressed by the raw number of home runs.

    * Their baserunning was atrocious as well. Two guys picked off in the first two innings, and a runner thrown out by a mile going for second.

    * Norge Vera did indeed look untouchable, but again, it was South Africa.

    --Venezuela's strategy of using two of their better pitchers (Silva and King Felix) to beat Italy seemed questionable at the time and looks like a monumental blunder now.

    --Speaking of dumb baserunning, how about Taveras getting thrown out at third with one out in the top of the ninth and Hanley at bat? And the DR pinch-ran for Big Papi in the 7th when he was the trailing baserunner, thus ending up with Jose Bautista at the dish with two outs in the ninth.

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  4. I meant 6-2-5 on the double play, of course.

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  5. Nice recap. Sorry it took me so long to respond. Right after I posted, my uncle called and informed me that my cousin's wife passed-away. The death was unexpected. She was in good health. I didn't ask, but I am assuming the cause of her death was a bad batch of heroin or crystal meth.

    Anyway, I have never seen a 6-2-5 DP before. I will have to check my Retrosheet database to see if any have occurred over the last 50+ years. A 6-2-5 DP is probably rarer than an unassisted triple-play.

    Cuban baseball has always been overrated in my opinion. Even before the WBC, I remember announcers raving about how great Cuban baseball is when the Cuban's played MLB teams in exhibition games. Off the top of my head, I believe Cuba has done fairly well in these exhibition games against MLB teams. But you can't really take the results of exhibition games very seriously. Perhaps you could 50 years ago, when MLB players approached these games more seriously.

    Bad baserunning has been a key theme of the WBC so far. I have no idea why it has been so bad. Perhaps you can offer an explanation for the poor baserunning thus far.

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  6. Sorry to hear that.

    If I had to try to explain the baserunning gaffes, it would sound like mainstream media "analysis". One possibility I'd raise is that it's spring training still and guys aren't 100% mentally prepared. Of course, that excuse doesn't work for Cuba as they play over the winter.

    The other explanation I'd offer is guys trying to do too much to help their country win. Especially out of frustration like in the case of the DR v. Netherlands.

    Of course, undercutting that theory is that in both Netherlands games, a Dominican and Puerto Rican runner has FAILED to score on a wild pitch.

    I was really disappointed to see Italy defeat Canada yesterday. The Italian team is a joke with all of their American players. I don't mind when there are a couple player on a team who are not actually residents/citizens/natives/whatever (as is the case with Ian Snell and PR or the Hairston brothers and Mexico), but to have a team made up by a majority of those guys that would not be remotely competitive without them is obnoxious.

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  7. Honestly, I didn't think Korea had any chance of winning the WBC. I just picked them because they are my favorite international team. What did you think about the comeback in bottom of the 9th of the championship game? Down to their last strike, Korea managed to get a RBI single to force extra-innings. In the top of the 10th, I can't believe Korea didn't intentionally walk Ichiro with runners on 2nd and 3rd and 2 out. Up until the finals, Ichiro's performance in the WBC was lousy. But he managed to break-out of his slump when it counted the most, going 4-6 in the championship game.

    I hope the format changes in 2013. As much as I enjoy watching Japan and Korea battle each other, I think 5 matchups between the same 2 teams in the same tournament is overkill. After the first round, Korea and Japan should have been sent to separate brackets. I do like the double-elimination format better than the previous round-robin format with the ludicrous tie-breakers.

    It's ashame that we have to wait until 2013 until the next WBC.

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  8. I was extremely disappointed they didn't walk Ichiro too, just because it gave Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips something to crow about for the rest of time :)

    The 5 meetings between Korea and Japan is problematic, but I don't anticipate seeing a solution to fix it, other than possibly splitting up the Asian pool in the first round. But I don't think that would be a winning financial move as the Korean and Japanese fans don't seem to care that they are playing each other all the time.

    Obviously you could divide the second round pools in such a way that you had Pool A winner, Pool B loser, Pool C winner, Pool D loser, but that would eliminate the certainty of where teams will be sent. And that is bad for ticket sales too...Korean fans knew their team would be in San Diego and thus could buy ahead of time.

    The thing that really caused the Korea/Japan issue is that Cuba and Mexico aren't that good. Cuba was kind of overseeded as a result of their strong performance in '06 and the necessity of keeping them out of Miami.

    For the next tournament, I believe they've expressed interest in a first round pool in Santo Domingo. Tokyo, Santo Domingo, San Juan, and Mexico City sounds okay. Then for the second round I'm sure they'll be back in SoCal with one, and since the turnout in Miami was underwhelming, maybe they could try Houston or Dallas (or Phoenix again). I think a potential USA/Mexico matchup there would be well-received.

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