Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 World Yakyu Classic

The World Baseball Classic invokes a number of reactions from baseball fans. Many (particularly in the United States) are indifferent. Some, like the author, love it and consider it a huge bonus--competitive games being played throughout March as the initial thrill of exhibition games begins to dull towards counting down to Opening Day. And others hate it for one reason or another--the threat of injury to key players and a dislike of any sort of display of national pride, regardless of how benign it might be.

The latter viewpoint is the one that I am unable to comprehend for a number of reasons that aren’t really germane to a baseball post. I will simply say that I see no evidence that any of the effects that one might view as particularly harmful have come to pass or are likely to come to pass. I don’t see riots between opposing countries’ fans in the stands, nor a bleed-over of passions stirred by the World Baseball Classic to the regular major league season in a harmful manner. There is much more ample evidence of senseless, tribal conflict between fans of the Yankees and Red Sox than there is of fans of Country X and Country Y.

Organizing teams of ballplayers by country is no less arbitrary or silly than any other manner of doing it. In fact, one could advance the argument that American pro sports have one of the most bizarre means of assigning players to teams, since veteran players are acquired under a completely different structure than young players, teams are placed in cities by the sometimes irrational decisions of a cartel, and these teams have been locked into an organizational structure that is so entrenched that moving a team from one league to another long after the distinctions between leagues have been eroded still can invoke fan meltdowns.

One element of the WBC that is more difficult to defend is the constantly changing set of rules that determine which teams play (and the name, which is beyond awful). These changes have not all been bad by any stretch. For instance, in the initial two Classics (2006 and 2009), the sixteen teams were pre-selected by MLB, but in 2013, four spots were filled through qualifying tournaments. The twelve countries that won games in the 2009 tournament were automatically qualified (Australia, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, The Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States, and Venezuela), and four modified double-elimination tournaments (modified in that the game between the winner’s bracket winner and the loser’s bracket winner served as a decisive championship game rather than a must-win solely for the loser’s bracket winner) filled the remaining four spots. These tournaments, held in the fall of 2012, resulted in Brazil (over Colombia, Nicaragua, and Panama), Canada (over the Czech Republic, Germany, and Great Britain), Spain (over France, Israel, and South Africa), and Taiwan (over New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand) qualifying. The net result relative to the first two tournaments was replacing Panama and South Africa with Brazil and Spain.

The countries have been divided into four pools for the first round, which once again has a new format. In 2006, the first round was conducted as a round robin between the four teams, which require the use of arcane tiebreakers. In 2009, this was modified to double-elimination, which was much easier to understand. However, the 2013 format has returned to round robin and all of the confusion that goes with it. If you want to keep your sanity throughout the tournament, then root for each pool to have one team go 3-0, another 2-1, another 1-2, and some poor country 0-3. Or two 2-1s and two 1-2s, although that is less likely given the often wide variations in team strength.

The teams with the two best records will advance. If there is a tie, a modified run differential (runs/innings batted - runs allowed/innings pitched) that for some reason the IBAF calls “Team Quality Balance (TQB)” will be used to break the tie. Only the games between the tied teams will be used to figure TQB. If there is a three-way tie, then the TQB tiebreaker will be applied, and if two teams remained tied, their head-to-head result will be the determining factor. If all three teams have the same TQB, then a TQB based on earned runs will be used and the process will begin again (this may be the single stupidest rule in baseball history)...at least until you read down to the next tiebreaker, which repeats the process with batting average. Batting average.

The likelihood of teams being tied after the TQB step is low, but that doesn't make it any jarring to read earned runs and batting average spelled out officially as components of a championship determination process.

A brief capsule on each first-round pool follows; the ranking listed for each team is their IBAF world ranking. These rankings are based only on international competition and thus provide no insight on these specific rosters; I’ve simply provided them for amusement. These rankings are especially harsh on countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela that often do not field teams for the second-rate international tournaments. Of course, given the non-existent sample size of the tournament, any predictions are beyond worthless (witness the Netherlands two victories over the Dominican Republic in 2009), but that doesn’t prevent one from making vague assertions on team strength. Dates are EST.

Pool A

Location: Fukuoka, Japan
Dates: March 2-6
Participants: #1 Cuba, #3 Japan, #18 China, #20 Brazil

Cuba and Japan are obviously the huge favorites to win here. The two countries have already built quite a history at the WBC, with Japan defeating Cuba in the 2006 title game. In 2009, they met in the first game of the second round, with Japan winning; after Cuba beat Mexico and Japan lost to Korea, they met again in a game to determine which would advance to the semifinals. Japan ran their record to 3-0 over Cuba en route to winning a second championship. Unfortunately, their meeting will be the final game in Pool A and both may already be assured advancement, and will be played at 5 AM EST. Japan has opted to go with all NPB players this time, so the names will not be as familiar to American fans (now 38 year-old Kazuo Matsui is the most recognizable).

Pool B

Location: Taichung, Taiwan
Dates: March 1-5
Participants: #4 Korea, #5 Taiwan, #7 Netherlands, #10 Australia

Pool B should be compelling as it is the only pool that features four teams with a relatively decent chance of beating any of the others. Korea, who lost in the 2006 Semifinals and 2009 Final to Japan, is the favorite along with home-standing Taiwan. Taiwan suffered an embarrassing sweep out of the 2009 tournament, including a loss to China, and national baseball pride will be on the line. The Netherlands continues to improve, bolstered by the now-burgeoning talent pool in Curacao. They will not have Jurickson Profar or Kenley Jansen, but Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, Roger Bernadina, and Andruw Jones are all familiar faces. Australia went 0-3 in the 2006 Classic, but got their first win in 2009 against Mexico and lost 5-4 to Cuba before being knocked out in a rematch with Mexico.

Pool C

Location: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Dates: March 7-10
Participants: #8 Venezuela, #12 Puerto Rico, #13 Dominican Republic, #16 Spain

Pool C may have the lowest composite IBAF ranking, but it is the pool in which it is toughest to pick two winners and perhaps the strongest in talent. While Spain has no legitimate change to advance, the top three professional Caribbean powers should make this must-watch beisbol. Much has been written about the decline in Puerto Rican talent, and it’s true that the names aren’t as impressive as those for Venezuela and the Dominican, but if Puerto Rico can patch together a pitching staff (or in a short tournament with pitch restrictions, get one good ensemble performance), they could easily advance. It’s impossible to quantify home field advantage, but it shouldn’t hurt.

Pool D

Location: Phoenix
Dates: March 7-10
Participants: #2 United States, #6 Canada, #9 Italy, #11 Mexico

I’ll have more to say below about the US team and its performance in previous tournaments. The draw here is such that the US is the strong favorite, but as 2006 showed, Mexico and Canada are more than capable of beating the US in a single game. Italy is fortified by American players of Italian heritage, but not to an extent that makes them a strong threat (although they did send Canada home in Toronto in 2009). The key game here on paper would appear to be Canada/Mexico.

The two surviving teams from each lettered pool will advance to the second round, where the pools will be numbered and will follow a modified-double elimination format. Pools A and B will combine into Pool 1, played March 7-12 in Tokyo, while Pools C and D will merge into Pool 2, played March 12-16 in Miami. The second round will begin with the winner of one pool against the runner-up of the other pool. The winners and losers will meet; the winner of the winner’s game will punch their ticket to their semifinals, while the loser of the loser’s game will be eliminated. The remaining two teams will play for the other semifinal berth, and that team will then play the winner’s bracket winner for the pool title, which will only matter in determining semifinal matchups. (This all makes a lot more sense in bracket form). If the favorites were to win, this means Pool 1 might feature Japan, Cuba, Korea, and Taiwan, while Pool 2 would feature the United States, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.

The final four will be played in San Francisco, with the semifinals on March 17 and 18 and the championship game on March 19. The semifinals will feature the winner of one pool against the runner-up from the other.

A few other points on the tournament:

Rules

* The tiebreaker rules were covered above, but there are a few other noteworthy rules. The pitch limits are oft-discussed and too detailed to repeat here, but the key rule is that pitchers are limited to 65 pitches/game in the first round, 80 in the second round, and 95 in the final four. Pitchers cannot work more than two consecutive games, and must have a day of rest if they exceed thirty pitches and four days of rest if they exceed fifty.

* Mercy rules are in place that will halt the game if the lead is fifteen after five innings or ten after seven innings in the first two rounds.

* Starting in the thirteenth inning, runners will be placed at first and second base, and should they score will not be considered earned runs (I only mention this last part due to the silly earned run TBQ tiebreaker).

* For some reason which I do not understand, there is a rule that says “Players shall not lie down or sit on the bases when time is called on the field.” This apparently is not in the MLB rulebook, but thankfully we will be spared the horrible sight of players lying down on the bases.

United States

The US team, as you know, has not acquitted itself particularly well in the WBC, needing a runs allowed tiebreaker to advance past Canada in the 2006 first round, then losing to Mexico and Korea in the second round. In 2009 the US was mercy-ruled 11-1 by Puerto Rico in the first game of the second round. After beating the Netherlands, the US needed a dramatic ninth-inning rally to slip past Puerto Rico and qualify for the semifinals, where they lost 9-4 to Japan. Overall, the US was 3-3 in 2006 and 4-4 in 2009.

This has led to a lot of armchair psychology, which is to be expected and isn’t really worth commenting on. It’s certainly not outside of the realm of possibility that the US players have a more casual mindset towards the WBC than players from other countries, or that the genius managing of Buck Martinez in 2006 was more spring training in style than competitive, or that the Asian players in particular are closer to their top physical condition in early-to-mid March.

However, it has also led to two ridiculous strains of argument that can be addressed factually. One is that the WBC results somehow demonstrate that the United States is not the #1 source for baseball talent in the world. (Obviously, this argument is only unreasonable when expressed in terms of bulk rather than per capita talent--but the construction of the argument is inherently a bulk argument, since it’s based on the performance of each country’s “best” roster). This is obviously absurd as the results of a small sample size tournament do not even begin to provide a counterpoint to the wealth of available data from major league play (as well as the performance of players crossing between professional leagues, particularly MLB and NPB).

The second is that the US WBC rosters have been unimpressive aggregations of talent, a second-rate collection of players that is inferior to the rosters used by the other top contenders. While it is undoubtedly true that no WBC roster for the US has featured the best possible roster, it is nevertheless silly to pretend that the US rosters have been less than sterling collections of talent. If the US team were instead a MLB roster, it would be my choice to win the World Series.

For a crude illustration, look at the possible US lineup for 2013 compared to a similar group from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, the other top western contenders for the WBC title, the 2012 AL and NL All-Star starting lineups, and the Tigers, who are projected by Baseball Prospectus to lead the majors in runs scored. I’ve listed OPS and an average OPS as projected by CAIRO; obviously OPS is a crude metric and averaging it as I have is crude, but for the purpose here it should suffice just fine:



In this illustration, the US team does not rise to the level of an all-star team, but compares favorably to the Dominican and Venezuelan teams as well as the team projected to have the best offense in MLB. Could the US team be better? Sure...you could replace Mauer with Posey, Teixeira with Fielder, Jones with Trout, etc. But it’s still a really good lineup.

On the pitching side, there is a more pronounced lack of top stars. The US team does not have the services of Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Stephen Strasburg, Jered Weaver, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, David Price, Cole Hamels, and the list goes on. And one could certainly argue that the strongest aspect of a theoretical perfect US team would be the starting pitching depth which swamps what any other country can offer.

And yet, the US still boasts two of the top NL Cy Young vote getters in RA Dickey and Gio Gonzalez, and solid major league starts behind them in Derek Holland, Ryan Vogelsong, and Ross Detwiler. The US bullpen features a number of solid arms, in Steve Cishek, Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Luke Gregerson, Mitchell Boggs,... It’s not an all-world group, but it’s a strong real-world unit on paper.

One can argue that the relative dearth of high-profile starting pitchers participating in the WBC benefits the US, since it also hits the Dominicans and Venezuelans: the Dominicans only established major league starters are Wandy Rodriguez and Edinson Volquez, while the Venezuelans have Anibal Sanchez, Jhoulys Chacin, and Carlos Zambrano.

One thing that has been disappointing about the WBC from the US perspective is the failure of the first two tournaments to produce two of the three high profile potential matchups. US/Japan has happened twice, but we have yet to see the superpower showdown of US/DR or the politically-charged US/Cuba matchup. From a US-centric perspective, I’d say those are the three most intriguing WBC matchups. Other interesting games like Japan/Korea and Dominican Republic/Venezuela have occurred as the brackets have set them up.

Making predictions about who will win the WBC is a degree sillier than making predictions on playoff series, but on paper, the United States should be the favorite.

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