March 1, 2013
The Asian Equation
A Guide to Asian Prospects in the World Baseball Classic
In the first two editions of the World Baseball Classic (WBC), Asian teams have consistently outperformed their foreign counterparts. Japan won both the 2006 and 2009 tournaments, and Korea’s 12-4 record is the best of any country. Korea won a bronze in 2006 and a silver medal in 2009’s extra-inning, all-Asian final against Japan. There are several reasons for this apparent dominance, mainly arising from how much more seriously the Asian teams view the tournament than their Western counterparts.
Major-league players and managers see the tournament as an extended spring training, or an exhibition akin to an All-Star Game. Players are substituted not for strategic purposes but to ensure that everyone “gets their work in.” Instead of using an active manager, the U.S. team has been coached by two managers—Buck Martinez and Davey Johnson—who hadn’t worked in several seasons, making rapport with players more difficult. Additionally, many major-league players declined to participate, leaving the best players off the rosters of Western teams.
Asian teams simply care about the tournament more, driven not only by a strong sense of nationalism but also by the desire to prove that their leagues and players are every bit as good as their MLB counterparts. Substitutions are made for strategic reasons, even the unusual (but effective) ones used by South Korean manager In-Sik Kim in 2009, when he sent in pinch-hitters or defensive replacements in the second and third innings. The managers themselves are typically active, and Japanese players have been at spring training a week or two longer than their Western counterparts.
This year, the East-West balance has shifted slightly. Japan and Korea are fielding the only WBC teams without a single active MLB player, China joins Cuba as the only WBC teams with just one MLB player, and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) is the only WBC squad with just two players. This disparity will make this tournament the best comparison yet between Eastern and Western talent.
No one knows that more than MLB clubs, who will be scouting the WBC to see if they can spot the next Yu Darvish or Hyun-Jin Ryu, both of whom made positive impressions in the 2009 tournament. To get Baseball Prospectus readers ready for the 2013 WBC, I’m highlighting the players who could be the next to jump across the Pacific and into the major leagues.