March 14, 2013
How to Make Winning the WBC Worthwhile
Doug Thorburn’s baseball obsession runs much deeper than the pitching mound, so he’ll be expressing his compulsive thoughts on other baseball topics in this new semi-weekly column. His regular column, Raising Aces, can still be found at the usual time and channel.
I sit in my baseball cocoon (a.k.a. “the office”), watching a live game of playoff-caliber baseball at three o'clock in the morning (PST), with two teams representing their home nations in front of a packed stadium. The home-field advantage leans toward team Japan, and the two-time defending champs are looking to punch their ticket to San Francisco with the top seed and a victory over the surprising team from the Netherlands. Every few years there is a small window of opportunity to watch important baseball games on a night owl's schedule, and I realize that it's a good day to see the sunrise.
There has been much contention over the state of the World Baseball Classic, with numerous suggestions to improve the tournament. The BP staff offered a half-dozen ideas to increase the appeal of the WBC, centered around key issues such as player participation and the seasonal timing of the games, and articles dedicated to “fixing” the tourney are relatively common at this time every few years. Behind this criticism lies a genuine interest in improving the product, because deep down every fan probably wishes that baseball had the kind of international recognition enjoyed by the sport that's played with no hands.
Broad-scope attitudes toward the WBC are often lukewarm at best, but the script changes when one experiences the action first-hand, thanks to the competitive intensity and national pride exhibited by the athletes as well as the fans. On Tuesday's episode of Effectively Wild, Ben Lindbergh expressed a new appreciation for the tournament inspired by his personal experience at this year's games. Ben's thoughts echo those of BP alum Joe Sheehan, who went through a similar conversion after attending WBC games in 2006.
My stance on the WBC is simple: gimme more. I can't get enough baseball, and nothing beats the opportunity to watch the best athletes from around the world as they demonstrate various styles and strategic approaches to the greatest game on earth. I was fortunate enough to enjoy a Sheehan-Lindbergh epiphany in the first year of the tourney, having attended the championship game of the inaugural WBC in 2006. Thanks to a good friend who shares a similar obsession for baseball, I had a great seat for the finale that pitted Cuba against Japan at San Diego's Petco Park, and the game ranks among the greatest that I have ever witnessed.
The biggest threat to the WBC could be the common perception of the tournament as an exhibition along the lines of the All-Star Game. Despite MLB's best attempts to increase the appeal of its annual summer diversion, the entertainment value of the event supersedes the competitive intrigue. The easy-going nature and offense-first approaches of All-Star games have rendered those by the NFL, NBA, and NHL nothing more than a mockery of their sports, with contests devoid of aggression that fail to capture the attention of their respected fan bases.
The WBC is designed to be quite the opposite, with World Cup-level aspirations for competition. The fate of the Classic is rooted in the tournament's capacity to boast the highest possible level of play. The games should feature hard-nosed athleticism, where hitters leg out every batted ball and fielders sacrifice their bodies to make plays.
The current level of on-field intensity at the tournament is legit, and despite the absence of premier athletes such as Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, several rosters are loaded with All-Star players. Consider the potential lineups for today's play-in game between the United States and the Dominican Republic:
The talent is so thick that makes it tough to hear the complaints about missing players. The American offense is ridiculous, particularly in the outfield, and though the presence Mike “Angel Fish” Trout would improve any lineup, the step down to Adam Jones shouldn't cause manager Joe Torre to lose any sleep at night. Team USA boasts a top-tier player at every position on the field aside from first base (apologies to Eric Hosmer, who could soon become one). The roster includes two of the game's biggest sluggers in Ryan Braun and Giancarlo Stanton, with the bonus option of using the skeleton key of Ben Zobrist to unlock myriad lineup configurations.
The Dominican lineup is nearly as intimidating as the US squad, with a team that is absolutely stocked with up-the-middle talent. The outfield is a relative weakness, with only two big-league regulars on the roster, which gives minor-league lifer Ricardo Nanita the chance for some playing time. But the rest of the lineup will give pitchers headaches at the plate and on the basepaths. That said, the DR is feeling a minor power outage without former participants Pujols, Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre, and David Ortiz.
The big drain in the WBC talent pool becomes more obvious when we change the focus to the mound:
The Americans have a solid staff, but where is the elite talent? We want to see studs like Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Stephen Strasburg—pitchers whose value exceeds the price of admission. Historically, the Dominican Republic has not been able to balance its offensive prowess with similar success on the mound (Pedro Martinez aside), as reflected by a three-pitcher rotation whose number-two starter led the National League in walks in 2012. This team would certainly benefit from the services of Johnny Cueto or Ivan Nova. The situation is similar for Venezuela, a team with a Miguel Cabrera-fueled offense that rivals any club’s, but with a pitching staff that was missing its King in the WBC.
The integrity of the tournament is lost if the WBC fails to feature the best athletes on both sides of the ball, and though I believe that players should retain the right of refusal, it would behoove MLB’s decision-makers to take measures that will strongly encourage participation.
This is the part in the show where I am supposed to come up with my own idea to save the WBC and proceed to tell MLB how it should act in order to serve my personal interests as a devout basebaholic. So here it is:
I propose that the country that wins the WBC title earns the hosting rights for the following Classic.
Some of the suggestions to improve the tournament have focused on financial incentives for the players, but what if we rewarded the countries instead? There could be huge financial windfalls for the winning nation, and the top players would be further driven to compete in the name of helping their home country win a title. I realize that the MLB owners would not likely agree to hand away profits, but opening up the hosting rights would spark the initiative to better market the game internationally, simultaneously expanding the owners’ reach and creating long-term revenue streams. As for short-term profitability, I'm sure that the league can leverage its exclusive broadcast rights to attract new advertisers and to generate more subscriptions from those international fans who want to watch the action on MLB Network or MLB.com.
There are potential issues, such as a country which might lack the facilities or the conditions to host the event, but that problem might be remedied by broadening the spectrum of “hosting rights.” A winning country could retain the ability to transfer the rights, or to select a location from a list of proper alternatives. The option would allow countries to maintain the convenience of a geographical advantage even if they lack the means to support the final round. The option could also be used by the winning nation to host earlier rounds of the next tournament.
The issue of geographical convenience is easily taken for granted. This lifelong resident of California has been particularly spoiled, thanks to WBC finals being held in San Diego (2006), Los Angeles (2009), and now San Francisco (2013). But it struck me as the announcers were saying that the fans in the Tokyo Dome will be waving farewell to the home team and cheering from afar as the players make the trek across the Pacific. The heavy clock adjustment and long flight times are why Group 1 has already begun the process of travel and acclimation, while their opponents from the Western Hemisphere continue to battle pool play in Group 2.
The point was further driven home when the announcers acknowledged that the players from team Japan would have to re-acclimate again once the tournament is over, as they make a quick return to begin the NPB season. We hear a lot of talk about the inconvenient scheduling for MLB players, but it is easy to forget that some international opponents are going further out of their way in order to compete in the WBC. For a team like Japan, the competitive advantage of hosting the WBC finals might be nearly as alluring as the financial rewards.
Timing is certainly an issue, and the event will have no luck luring more pitchers unless the tournament is pushed back until later in the season. The reality of the WBC is that pitchers are held to strict pitch counts, minimizing the risk involved, and teams would be less reticent to offer their pitchers for a dozen innings if the arms were in mid-season form, so I agree with the suggestions to move the games to the middle of July. An ideal scenario might involve a summer tournament every two years, with the WBC alternating with the Olympics with their four-year rotations (if MLB can prove the validity of its international competition to the Olympic committee, that is).
An approach that literally allows the winner to bring the WBC title home would be a boon to the international marketing of the tournament, creating legitimacy in the eyes of other nations while spreading baseball awareness to lands that are new to the sport. The marketing angle of “winner hosts next time” parlays no fewer than three advantages: 1) winning teams will want to further bask in the glory of their victory, promoting the tourney through the historical preservation of their performance; 2) winning teams will be encouraged to hype the strength of the competition in the WBC, to further assert the legitimacy of their success; and 3) the winning nation will have a head start on marketing the next WBC tournament, with tremendous incentive to get the nation's fans excited to defend their championship on their own turf.
Dropping a cash prize probably wouldn't do much to incentivize players who are making upwards of $20 million a year, but the athletes could be inspired by the opportunity to make such a positive contribution to their home countries. The strategy might not do much to fix American apathy toward the WBC, but the country of baseball's origin can look the other way for only so long while the sport continues to expand on the international radar.