Why I love the World Baseball Classicby Jeff Sackmann
March 12, 2009
When the inaugural World Baseball Classic got underway three years ago, I could hardly contain my apathy. Like most everyone else, I was skeptical of Bud Selig's latest plan—one that, coincidentally, overlapped with MLB's international marketing efforts. Out of curiosity, I tuned in for a game or two of the first round at the Tokyo Dome and—boom!—I was hooked.
From that point on, I watched nearly every game of the last WBC. It was all great: the upsets, the all-star teams, the first glimpse of Daisuke Matsuzaka. The tournament packed a season's worth of drama into a few weeks, with narratives of Asia versus the West, small ball versus the long ball, and Roger Clemens versus South Africa. It wasn't exactly the same as a major league pennant race, but to me, it was even better.
I was hardly alone in getting WBC fever three years ago. But with the novelty worn off, it wasn't not clear whether the tournament will retain that initial spark of enthusiasm, especially from fans in the United States. Waves of withdrawals certainly aren't helping the cause. I'm convinced, though, that the WBC is a winner. Or, at the very least, I know that I love it.
Double elimination means triple the drama
A double-elimination tournament isn't a very good way to determine the best baseball team in a small field. If you're reading this site, you've probably heard the arguments against best-of-seven playoff series, and the double-elimination format is far worse.
For all that, from a fan's perspective, you can't beat it. In the space of a handful of games, the format exposes you to every team in a pool. It forces every squad to go fairly deep into their pitching staff, often creating situations where the best pitcher isn't available for what turns out to be the most important game.
College baseball fans are already familiar with the double-elimination format, as it is used at most levels in regional and national tournaments. By the end of a week of double-elimination play, most teams have played multiple games with their backs to the wall. It isn't the sort of baseball most of us would savor in August, but when at least one manager is making decisions like it's game seven, it's a whole lot more exciting.
Yeah, I'll say it: The players care
In the free-agent era, we can all identify with Jerry Seinfeld's joke that we're "rooting for laundry." In a sense, that's even more true of the World Baseball Classic, as players don a uniform for two or three weeks that they may never wear again. National affiliation or no, I don't feel a particularly strong bond to, say, John Grabow.
But on the other hand, of course, this is a different kind of laundry. Unsurprisingly, players quickly made it a cliche to say how proud it makes them to represent their country, and I don't doubt that they are. It's obvious after watching a few innings that most of the competititors see these games as much more than exhibitions, even when hamstrung by pitch counts and lopsided rosters.
Again, the similarity to college baseball is apparent. Even though, in college, a team will entirely turn over in three or four years, the laundry is a huge source of pride. The fans are rabid, and the players are visibly invested in the outcome.
It would be easy to segue now to a screed against the spoiled, blase millionaires playing Major League Baseball, but that isn't my point at all. Give the Yankees a short season, a couple more intense rivalries, and a series of double-elimination rounds to get to the World Series, and you'd see a lot more emotion on the field. Whether it's nationalism, the tournament format, or some combination of both, there's no doubt the players are invested in the outcome, and that makes it a whole lot of fun to watch.
In part, this mitigates the effect of all the withdrawals, especially on Team USA. Sure, it'd be nice if every single healthy player made himself available. But by accepting pressure from MLB teams and the weak excuses that keep some players out, Team USA ensures that the guys on the field want to be there. That again, makes the games much more enjoyable.
Just like Strat-o-Matic!
Of course, if there were no World Baseball Classic in March, I'd be spending the month with my head buried in a spreadsheet. (That's what I do from April to October, anyway.) While the number of games played in the WBC limits the kind of analysis we can do with the results, the tournament certainly creates a lot of interesting (and unlikely!) matchups.
I've already revived the Clemens-South Africa matchup, but the one that intrigued me this time around was Mark DiFelice against Venezuela. DiFelice is now competing for a spot in the Brewers bullpen, but a couple of years ago he was pitching in an indy league. A few days ago, he shut down (for four innings, anyway) a lineup including Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, and Magglio Ordonez.
Anyone who has spent enough time playing a simulation game can tell you how entertaining it is to come up with arbitrary teams, based on letters of the alphabet, birthdays, or (you didn't see this coming, did you?) countries of origin. For all the free agent movement each offseason, there are all sorts of "what-if" questions that will never get answered in a Major League campaign. A Korean all-star team against a squad made up entirely of Mexican players? A decade ago, I wouldn't have known to investigate that matchup, but it turned out to be an intriguing one.
Baseball in March
Last year in mid-March, the available baseball excitement was monitoring some injuries and wondering how Brian Burres pitched in a split-squad Grapefruit League game. This is better.
There are plenty of reasons to object to the World Baseball Classic, from the fear of injuries to a visceral hatred of Bud Selig. But dramatic, Major League-quality baseball can overcome just about any drawbacks. I know I'll be watching.
Jeff Sackmann is the creator of MinorLeagueSplits.com. With Kent Bonham, he founded CollegeSplits.com. Jeff and Kent blog about college baseball and the draft, and you can follow them on Twitter for bite-sized snacks of minor league and college stats. Jeff also has an email address.