Tuesday, March 03, 2009

WBC Addendum: The 2006 US “Embarrassment”

This should have been part of the World Baseball Classic preview post, but it was running too long as it was. I am sure you will see a lot of stories that talk about how the USA team is seeking redemption, or was embarrassed in 2006, and the like. I would like to offer a little bit of a rebuttal to the underlying premise behind articles of the latter type, assuming they materialize in large numbers. If they don’t, consider this a pre-emptive strike if you are generous and abuse of a straw man if you are not.

It was certainly a disappointment that the United States failed to reach the final four in the 2006 WBC; they were the favorite or at the very least one of the favorites, and it is always disappointing when a team has the potential of winning it all and comes up short. So I am not disputing the redemption angle; it’s a natural rallying cry for any team which feels they didn’t achieve their goals.

However, I don’t think the 2006 version of Team USA has anything to feel particularly embarrassed about. The expectations for the USA team (and for any other particular team that was favored, like the Dominican Republic) were set too high. I think there were a few factors at play:

1. Ignorance by many media members and by most fans of the quality of international baseball

I am pretty confident that the average American has a very limited idea that baseball is one of the major national sports in Korea or Taiwan. The success of the Hideo Nomos and the Ichiros has gotten the point across about Japan, but fifteen years ago there would have been a similar level of ignorance. And even so, when people looked at the Japanese team there was probably still a strain of thought along the lines of “Who are these guys? If they were any good they would be playing in MLB, not for the Hiroshima Carp and the Orix Buffaloes.”

Thus, a lot of people see Korea defeating the United States in baseball and they look at it as if a Division III school had beaten Alabama in football. It seems somewhat unfathomable. But in reality, it’s much more like a minor Division I school upsetting Alabama (let’s say Troy)--relatively rare, surprising, but far from unfathomable.

2. A lack of recognition of the small sample size of the tournament

The US played six WBC games. That’s 1/27th of a major league season, and hardly enough to make any sort of judgment. Of course, the better a team supposedly is relative to its competition, the less games it should need to demonstrate its superiority. Still, I think anyone who expects the six games to definitively answer questions about the strength of each team is making a miscalculation somewhere along the line.

Since there are sixteen teams in the NL, same as the WBC, it makes for an interesting thought experiment. Let’s say you arranged the NL teams like this:

Pool A: Cubs, Brewers, Marlins, Pirates
Pool B: Mets, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Nationals
Pool C: Phillies, Braves, Astros, Giants
Pool D: Dodgers, Cardinals, Padres, Reds

Would you feel any degree of confidence predicting the outcome of this National League Baseball Classic? Would you be able to tell me that the Pirates had absolutely no chance to advance out of Pool A, or that the Mets were a lock? If you would, then I would love to make wagers with you on the outcome of the tournament.

Of course, it goes without saying that there is much more parity between the teams of the NL than the international teams. South Africa and China are far more outclassed by the United States and Japan than the Pirates and Nationals are by the Cubs and Phillies. Nonetheless, the point about small sample size remains, and the teams that the US lost to were not the no-chancers: they were solid fairly solid teams (Canada, Korea, Mexico).

3. Magnifying the difference between winning and losing

This is related to sample size, but not exactly the same, as this factor is still present in some people’s analysis of the results of a 162 game major league season. If the Phillies edge out the Mets for a playoff spot, some people want to believe that there was some great inevitable force at work, and that the victory, no matter how narrow, proves that the Phillies were a “better team”--whatever that nebulous term even means.

One has to tread carefully when addressing this viewpoint, because if you just start throwing the word “luck” around without any sort of technical definition of what you mean by it, it can seem as if you are disputing the fairness of the outcome.

That’s not my intent here at all. The fact of the matter is that in the second round, Japan, the United States, and Mexico all went 1-2, and Japan advanced on the basis of the tiebreaker. This was absolutely fair; the rules of the tournament defined the tiebreaker before hand, Japan had the best performance under the umbrella of those rules, and thus they advanced and they deserved to advance.

My objection comes when the narrow margin is magnified into a massive difference between the contestants. Believing that because the Phillies edged out the Mets by a narrow margin and Japan won a tiebreaker from the US, those teams are markedly superior. In fact, the margin is razor thin, and not particularly significant in terms of future prediction. Again, it is not to say that the result is unimportant; games and pennants are decided on narrow margins all the time, and the winners are worthy. But the narrow margins prevent their triumphs from demonstrating any sort of fundamental difference in the quality of the two teams, or even arguably in the quality of their performance during the season.

I know that there are some of you out there reading this who believe that the argument I am making is born out of a loser’s sour grapes. You can believe that, but it’s not--I am not particularly emotionally invested in Team USA’s performance (I’d like to see them win, but I’m not going to lose any sleep about it), and had the tiebreaker tipped the other way I would not hold it up as any sort of indication of US superiority in second round play.

The tiebreaker itself was almost too close to call; in the case of a three-way tie as was present in the US/Japan/Mexico pileup, the determining factor was runs allowed per inning in common games. Mexico allowed 6 runs to Japan and 1 to the US in 18 innings (3.5 RA); the US allowed 3 runs to Japan and 2 to Mexico in 17 innings (2.65 RA); and Japan allowed 4 runs to the US and 1 to Mexico in 18 innings (2.50 RA). You can see that had the US allowed one fewer run (2.12 RA) or Japan one more (3 RA), the outcome would have been reversed.

But consider the fact that had the US been the home team against Mexico, and managed to prevent Mexico from scoring in the ninth inning, then the US would have allowed 5 runs in 18 innings, and it would have been a tie. I’m not sure what the next level tiebreaker would have been, but I’m going to guess that it would have been the head-to-head result between the US and Japan, which would have favored the US. So in the end, the tiebreaker came down to which team was designated as the home team one of the games.

Other tiebreakers, which make more sense to me, would have favored Japan. For instance, if the tiebreaker would have been run differential in common games, Japan’s five-run win over Mexico and one-run loss to the US would have given them a +4, while the US had a one-run loss and a one-run win for a 0 RD. I point this out to once again emphasize that I am not arguing that the tiebreaker was unfair to the United States, which could just as easily have benefited from a silly tiebreaker (However, the tiebreakers in place were silly, and that is one of the main reasons why the second WBC will feature a straightforward double-elimination format.) The point is that the margin between a “humiliating second round elimination” and a trip to the semifinals was next to nothing, and doesn’t really tell us much about the performance of the United States relative to Japan in the tournament. Had the US won the tiebreaker and gone on to defeat Korea and Cuba as Japan did, the losses to Mexico and Canada wouldn’t have been any less perplexing, but the US would be the champions nonetheless. Granted they may have lost to Korea again rather than follow the Japanese path.

4. Less-than-tangible factors

I listed these last because they are next to impossible to quantify, yet are still worth mentioning, even if one is skeptical about how much of an effect they actually had. If we accept that the WBC is played at a time in the baseball season prior to players becoming fully ready for high-level competition, then it stands to reason that this factor would reduce the value of any talent disparities, and thus make the underdogs a little less so.

If we are going to put any stock in national pride and motivation, then it’s possible that this favors the underdog as well. Mexico has a lot more to prove as a baseball country than does the United States or the Dominican Republic. I personally don’t put much stock in this, though; I’m not a sociologist and motivation can only do so much.

I should also mention a factor that would seem to favor the United States: home field advantage. Obviously the WBC venues were not truly home sites, as Team USA is not a team that plays 81 games a year in one park; however, it would be pretty hard to spin the United States playing games in Arizona and California as an explanation for poorer than expected performance.

In summation:

Should the United States have expected to have a better than .500 record in the 2006 WBC? Yes.

Should the best-guess expectation for the United States in the 2009 be a better than .500 showing? Yes.

Was the showing by the United States in 2006 shocking, embarrassing, or particularly compelling evidence that the US team was not the “best” (which I define as the most likely to perform the best over an infinite number of runs) team in the tournament? No.

3 comments:

  1. I don't disagree with anything you wrote. But one thing I did feel embarrassed about was the way in which the US team was managed. To me, especially in the first round, the games seemed to be treated as pure exhibition games, much like all-star games or spring training games. Each pitcher had a dedicated inning they were responsible for--almost without respect for how they performed--all they position players received substitutions in the 6th inning, etc. You didn't see the same from the other teams, at least not to the same degree.

    I know it is taking place during spring training, and I know there are safeguards (like the pitch count issue) to prevent teams from treating it like a postseason game. But I'd like to see the games managed to win more than just managed to get everyone paying time. That's my bias anyway...
    -j

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  2. That's a good point, and it appears as if you may get your wish in this iteration. I believe that yesterday in their exhibition against the Yankees, every starter played nine innings except McCann and Youk.

    It seems as if the plan is to have everyone play, but on different days. So Chipper plays 9 innings today and Wright plays 9 innings tomorrow, or what have you. I don't think that's a bad plan since the dropoff to the reserves isn't that big.

    To me though, the most embarrassing managerial decision was walking Seung-Yeop Lee intentionally in the fourth inning against Korea. I was yelling at my TV when it happened and after Hee Seop Choi hit a homer I pretty much switched my allegiance to Korea for the rest of the night :)

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  3. I hope so--time will tell. I certainly would at least prefer no substitutions--the dropoff in pinch hitter/reserve performance is big enough deal that it unnecessarily could cripple the team.

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