The World Baseball Classic has come to represent a welcome bit of chaos in an unwieldy baseball calendar. It is a needed riposte to the supposed sacredness of a 162-game marathon, and a complement to the traditional rhythm of the season.
Besides being just plain fun, the first week of WBC action has offered several teachable moments. Here are the six biggest takeaways:
Nicaraguan pitcher Duque Hebbert, a 21-year-old who had never played affiliated baseball, struck out the top of the Dominican Republic lineup in his first inning of work Monday. After fanning Julio Rodriguez, Juan Soto and Rafael Devers, a scout for the Detroit Tigers offered Hebbert a minor league contract on the spot.
An outfielder who recently converted to pitching, Hebbert won the Nicaraguan Winter League’s Rookie of the Year award last season. That league isn’t a hotbed for scouting. The WBC, which was postponed until this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Nicaragua won’t advance out of pool play, but one of its players will have a chance to advance his career.
Maybe the most beautiful aspect of the in-person WBC viewing experience is seeing fans from around the world meet players not where they are, but where they came from. For the Japanese hitters, that means nine customized jingles – one for every man in the lineup – written and performed by the fans before every at-bat, almost like college fight songs.
Shohei Ohtani hasn’t heard a personalized fight song on a daily basis since he left Japan prior to the 2018 season. He is accustomed by now to chants of “M-V-P” at Angel Stadium, but so is Mike Trout.
My proposal to Angels fans is simple: make a unique fight song for Ohtani, and sing/chant/hum it before each of his at-bats at Angel Stadium. He will be the only player in MLB afforded this tradition – a unicorn treatment for a baseball unicorn. More than that, it will honor Ohtani’s heritage in a way that makes him feel right at home. It might just become the most compelling non-monetary reason for Ohtani to re-sign in Anaheim if the Angels miss the playoffs again.
Logan Webb, Clayton Kershaw and Nestor Cortes each committed to pitch for the United States in the months leading up to the tournament. Each backed out for various reasons. The result: a good-but-not-great American starting rotation led by Adam Wainwright, Nick Martinez and Lance Lynn.
It is not Kershaw’s fault if, in fact, the sum total of his past injuries effectively required him to pay out-of-pocket to participate in the WBC. Cortes is presently injured, while Webb decided he needed to be in the San Francisco Giants’ spring training camp full-time in order to effect a “culture change.”
During the inaugural WBC, in 2006, the U.S. was eliminated in pool play in large part because of subpar starting pitching. This year, Team USA’s #AllIn social media hashtag seemed apropos as several top-of-the-rotation starters committed to pitch in the WBC, breaking with tradition. Now it appears little has changed in 17 years.
The pressure to perform for one’s MLB team, whether implicit or overt (from managers, general managers and other team officials), remains higher among American-born players than their foreign counterparts. If the U.S. wants to be counted as the true WBC favorite, it could use a culture change of its own.
Hebbert’s big inning, and Mexico’s 11-5 win over the United States, were not the only pool-play surprises.
Israel pitcher Jacob Steinmetz, a 19-year-old Arizona Diamondbacks prospect, struck out Manny Machado, Jeremy Peña and Gary Sanchez in his WBC debut. Garrett Stubbs, a 29-year-old backup catcher with only 208 major league plate appearances to his credit, delivered the game-winning RBI double in the bottom of the eighth inning of Israel’s only win – against New York Yankees reliever Jonathan Loaisiga of Nicaragua.
Reynaldo Rodriguez, a 36-year-old who hasn’t played affiliated baseball since 2016, homered against Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias in Colombia’s upset win against Mexico on Saturday. Ondrej Satoria, a Czech pitcher who has never played affiliated baseball, struck out Ohtani on three pitches.
For all its faults, the WBC has the potential to elicit moments that simply cannot happen at any other time on the baseball calendar.
After flipping back and forth between WBC games without a pitch timer, and spring training games with one, I’ve made up my mind: A well-played game of baseball doesn’t need a clock to sustain the viewer’s interest. A poorly played game of baseball can’t end soon enough.
Some WBC games have been excellent. Mexico’s 2-1 win over Great Britain, a game in which the Mexican bullpen catcher drove in both runs, ended right on time Tuesday after 3 hours, 5 minutes. Cuba’s 13-4 win over Panama – all 4 hours, 9 minutes of it – was not as compelling.
On the whole, the pace the pitch timer yields has been a welcome change in spring training. The exact numbers will vary depending on how you calculate them, but the average exhibition game time is roughly half an hour faster compared to last year. I don’t need to wait more than 20 seconds between pitches for a Double-A reliever to find his command in the ninth inning – a feature many spring training and WBC games share.
When the drama is high and the talent level is higher, baseball’s dead moments tend to melt away.
Some of the WBC’s biggest fans, including those in MLB’s central office, have cited soccer’s World Cup as the ideal template for a global sporting event. The World Cup leaves plenty to be desired from the WBC. Would a shorter MLB regular season help?
I’ve posed this question before in the context of expanding the MLB postseason by two teams and one round. Adding playoff games without subtracting regular-season games elongates what is already the longest season in North American sports. When the baseball calendar ends in November and begins in February, there is simply no good time to stage a WBC.
Besides that, players now face an unusual amount of pressure to preserve their bodies for the long haul. It’s perhaps the main reason why teams hesitate to give their pitchers a green light to play in the WBC, and why one minor injury can knock a star player out for the entire tournament.
A two- or three-week break in the middle of the season, in lieu of the All-Star Game every three or four years, might be the most sensible time to stage a WBC. That would require sacrificing some regular-season games but, in light of the expanded postseason, I don’t think fans would miss it – particularly if the WBC comes to represent each country’s best players at their best.