I’ve been a big fan of the World Baseball Classic since it began back in 2006. Prior to that I was always confused why something like the WBC didn’t already exist.
Baseball has long been a strong global sport with top-level talent in North America, Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and East Asia.
There are 4 traditional power-house countries in recent history- they are the Dominican Republic, Cuba, United States, and Japan. Making up the 2nd tier of traditional baseball strongholds are the countries of Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, and South Korea.
The World Baseball Classic has a ton of potential to become a truly great event, but until they fix some deeply flawed format issues the tournament won’t be able to achieve the prestige it ought to.
The quality of an event like this is largely hinged on the ability to deploy a format that will produce a ‘true champion’- that is to say a format where the best teams/ nations will rise to the top and the Finals of such a tournament will almost always feature 2 of the very best National Teams.
When we look at the World Cup of Soccer, or the European Championships (soccer), or the Winter Olympics (hockey), these tournaments are enormously important for just that reason. Their formats allow for the best teams to rise to the top and in order for an underdog nation to be successful they have to really earn it.
There are 2 very major flaws with the World Baseball Classic that are currently arresting the development of a great International Baseball Championship.
Sample Size is far too Small
Baseball is a sport that has it foundations largely in pitching and pitching depth. The 4 or 5 man starting rotation is as deeply foundational for baseball as any aspect of the sport.
The WBC’s 3-game 1st round is simply too short. Baseball is not soccer, nor football. A major tournament that wants to crown a global champion should never be reduced to just a few games. There’s a reason Major League Baseball has always had a schedule more than 150 games. It’s a sport that requires a greater sample size than most others for the best teams to rise to the top. Its fundamentally incorrect to hold a critical Baseball event with such a small number of games.
It leaves too much room for a one-time oddity of an upset to disturb the entire tournament. It does not allow the National Teams to use the full complement of their pitching staffs and pitching depth; both in the starting rotation and the bullpen.
A great example of this problem in 2017 is Israel winning their group and in doing so, a much better baseball nation in South Korea did not advance on from the 1st-round. (Israel beat South Korea 2-1).
Israel is essentially a team of American Jewish players, whereas South Korea is truly a team of South Koreans. This point touches on a whole other problem, but the main takeaway here is that a longer 1st-round likely would have seen Korea move on instead of Israel. Again- this is not soccer or football where 3 games is a sufficient sample size.
Timing of the Tournament
Holding the tournament during Major League Baseball’s spring training causes a few major problems, which deeply flaw the WBC.
#1- The large majority of players are not in their best form. This leads to a compromised quality of play. Ideally a Global Championship would take place when the players are at their peak form.
Of course, this would require the co-operation of Major League Baseball, and I believe it would be in MLB’s best interest and specifically, the sport of baseball’s best interest to hold this thing once every 4 years and have it during a summer month.
Of course there would be a lot to work out; topics like- Would the all-star game get cancelled? Would the MLB season start earlier and/or end later?
Certainly many more issues to figure out but this is doable, and most notably, look at the concessions other sports like soccer and hockey have made to ensure that the sport’s greatest events- the global competitions of best-on-best are legitimate formats to crown an international champion.
#2- Due to conflicts with MLB’s spring training and preparation for the regular season many clubs put pressure on certain players not to play for their International teams. When some of the best players are not representing their countries it begins to devalue the WBC. The draw in this type of event for fans is the best-on-best element which leads to the excitement of proving which Nation is best at Baseball.
The best example of this problem in the 2017 World Baseball Classic is the United States. The following superstar players are all missing the event:
Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaard, Zach Britton, Wade Davis, as well as many others.
All of the aforementioned players are MVP and Cy-Young candidates. A list of absentees such as this one should place an asterisk on any non-USA team that wins the event because any United States fan can flash a list of the no-shows and say, “Well, we sent our B-Team”.
Hopefully Major League Baseball starts to work with the World Baseball Classic in order to produce an event in the future which lives up to its reason for existence- to hold a competition that results in the very best players playing for the best baseball nations, resulting in the Crowning of a legitimate World Baseball Champion.