Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Meanderings

* There is always some grumbling about September roster expansion, and the supposed ills it inflicts on the game, but it seems to have reached a fever pitch in September 2012. There are a lot of calls for some kind of reform, whether it involves severely curtailing the practice or (most popularly) forcing a manager to declare 25 active players at the start of every game.

I don’t have a problem with roster expansion, myself--my preference would be to keep the status quo. I will also admit to not having read all of the pieces that have been written about this, so it is quite possible that someone has prominently beaten me to the punch with the following suggestion. Rather than having the manager declare a 25 man active roster, why not simply limit the manager to using 25 players in a particular game?

Such a rule would give a manager in-game flexibility that would be absent in the case of a pre-declared scratch list. In a close game, he would be free to use extra players in situational roles. In a blowout, he would be able to use his mop up relievers and get young players into the game. But he would not be able to use any more players than he could during the rest of the season.

There are a couple of drawbacks to this rule that come to mind. One is that 25 players is still an increase over the number that is typically deployed during the rest of the season, even in fairly unusual cases. The four excess starting pitchers usually are excluded from game action, especially in the American League. I’d argue that this is a good thing--it allows for some additional substitutions while preventing abuse, but if one is concerned about any change in the behavior of managers, it’s a valid criticism.

The other is a logistical issue rather than a baseball issue, but it would be a little harder to keep track of. Announcers would be completely bewildered as a team approached the substitution limit, and while the omnipresent lineup cards should be sufficient for managers and umpires to keep up, it’s not hard to imagine some confusion arising.

* Everyone has an opinion on Stephen Strasburg. I don’t, really--I certainly agree with the principle of being cautious with pitchers, particularly young pitchers, those who have prior injury histories, and those of extraordinary talent--all three of which fit Strasburg. What I do have an opinion about is the intestinal fortitude of Mike Rizzo and anyone else who took responsibility for the final decision. I consider it a pretty bold stance to take, given that there is almost no outcome in which they do not receive heavy criticism.

If Washington fails to win the World Series, the question of how they might have performed with Strasburg will be raised incessantly. Even a quick sweep in the Division Series in which one win would have not stemmed the tide will not get them off the hook, because psychological factors will be raised (“Strasburg could have won game one and completely changed the momentum”, “The Nationals players would have been more confident with Strasburg available”, etc.) And if they lose a seven game World Series in which Edwin Jackson gets roughed up a couple of times--well, if I was Rizzo, I’d consider hiring a food taster at that point. So far I’ve only discussed the 2012 on-field consequences. A bigger outcry will come if Strasburg gets hurt again, particularly if it’s in the next two years.

What’s remarkable about this decision is the near certainty with which it will be judged as a failure by mainstream observers. Perhaps my imagination is too limited, or my faith in sound reasoning on behalf of mainstream observers artificially low, but it’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario in which the shutdown is considered to be a success. The odds are very good that Washington will not win it all, with or without Strasburg. Steven Strasburg is quite unlikely to have an injury-free career. The takeaway for me is that Rizzo must really believe he’s made the right call.

* I am an unabashed supporter of the World Baseball Classic, so I’m taking it as my duty to update you about the upcoming qualifying tournaments. The existence of these has largely gone unremarked upon.

For the first time, four spots in the sixteen team field will be up for grabs. The twelve countries that won games in the 2009 WBC are automatic qualifiers (Japan, Korea, China, United States, Mexico, Italy, Netherlands, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba, Australia, and Puerto Rico). The first two qualifiers open up next week.

The qualifiers are four-team double elimination tournaments, the format of which will be familiar to those who watched the 2009 WBC or follow the NCAA Tournament. In Jupiter, FL, South Africa will play Israel and Spain will play France. In Regensburg, Germany, Canada will play Great Britain and Germany will play the Czech Republic. In November, the other two spots will be decided. In Panama City, Panama will play Brazil and Colombia will play Nicaragua. In Taipei City, the Philippines will play Thailand and Taiwan will play New Zealand.

Handicapping these tournaments is silly (after all, the Netherlands beat the Dominican Republic twice in the 2009 WBC). Speaking broadly without knowledge of the actual makeup of the teams, there are clear favorites in the Germany and Taiwan qualifiers, as Canada and Taiwan are much stronger baseball nations than the second-tier European and Asian countries, respectively.

The other two are fairly wide open. WBC rules allow people who could be but are not citizens of a country to play, which allows Israel access to Jewish players. Israel will be managed by Brad Ausmus, and faces a very weak field, so they may be the favorite. Panama played in the first two WBCs without much success. Colombia and Nicaragua have both produced their share of major leaguers, and even Brazil now has their own big leaguer in Yan Gomes.

Just to provide a general sense of how the participating countries have performed in recent international tournaments, here is each country’s rank in the IBAF World Rankings divided by qualifier. (These rankings don’t do justice to countries with strong baseball that don’t field teams in many international tournaments such as the Dominican Republic, and obviously are based on tournament results and don’t tell one anything about the quality of WBC team being fielded. Nonetheless, it’s kind of fun to look at--and it’s even more fun to look at the full ranking list, which includes countries such as Bolivia, Myanmar, and New Caledonia, which I had to look up on Wikipedia. Also note that the top-ranked non-participant, Netherlands Antilles, is included with the Netherlands for the WBC):



It is also worth noting that the IBAF website states that it will now bestow the title of world champion on the WBC winner rather than the soon to be defunct World Cup winner.

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