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March 10, 2009

Prospectus Today

Logistics

by Joe Sheehan

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While watching Panama get shut out on 11 hits over the weekend-that's in two games, folks-I started thinking about the WBC in a different way. The solutions I've proffered have been primarily about timing in an effort to garner greater participation among players, but I'm wondering if maybe I've been running at the problem from the wrong direction.

Let's make something clear: I've become a big fan of the event. I was skeptical three years ago, then swayed by the excitement of the two games I attended, by the love of baseball that I saw. I watched many of the first-round games over the weekend, a substantial statement for someone who is also a fan of March Madness. There was some terrific baseball, competitive baseball, high-quality baseball, with Canada nearly upsetting the United States, and the Netherlands actually pulling off the surprise over the Dominican Republic before giving Puerto Rico all it could handle. I'm no longer agnostic about the WBC; I want it to be a huge success.

The biggest problem facing the event is that it's trying to be two things, and those two things exist in conflict with one another. MLB wants to use the WBC to promote baseball around the world, and in particular in emerging markets. It's a marketing event, which is why China, Taiwan, and Italy, among others, are represented. There are no qualifying events for the WBC; nations are invited to participate, and not entirely based on their baseball prowess-any number of Central and South American countries would be more qualified than China or South Africa on that score. Baseball would like to sell jerseys and MLB.tv subscriptions worldwide, but they're focused on selling them where there's the most discretionary income.

However, by including the under-qualified nations, the event as a whole is weakened. There are a bunch of uncompetitive or marginally competitive games, and nearly half of the field had no realistic chance to advance to the second round. Now, if you compare that to the NCAA basketball tournament or the World Cup, you might reach a similar conclusion, but the difference is that the teams in those events have gone through a qualifying stage. They've done something to get there, even if that something is as little as win three straight games at the end of a lousy season. The WBC's lesser programs got there... by having some kind of baseball program and being favorable to MLB's end goals.

Take a look at the results so far. China, Taiwan, Panama, and South Africa have combined for two wins in two WBCs, those being China over Taiwan this year, and the reverse in 2006. Those teams have no wins over the other 12 teams in the field, and as much as I enjoyed South Africa's upset bid back in '06, we could go a very long time before they win a game in this thing. Those four teams have added very little to the event, but having 16 teams versus 12 drives the four-pool structure that is at the root of the WBC's problems.

What if the WBC had just 12 teams? Frankly, I'm not convinced that Australia and Italy are bringing a lot to the table, but their wins over the last few days have scuppered the argument for including them in the previously mentioned group of the least worthy. A 12-team, two-pool WBC would trade off a bunch of blowouts of teams that have no chance to advance in the event and haven't qualified for it for more games between competitive teams. Right now, we're playing for three weeks in the hopes of maybe getting a couple of great matchups at the end of the process. If you instead set it up like the Olympics, you could have more entertaining matchups, more drama, and more high-quality baseball.

What I like about this plan is that it condenses the schedule without providing less baseball. To bring it back to the Olympics, you'd have two six-team groups playing a five-game round-robin over six days. Eight teams, four from each group, would advance to a bracket, playing as many as three games to determine a champion. WBC teams currently are guaranteed three games, and the contenders six, with a maximum of eight. In this format, everyone would get five games, with a max of eight.

You could play this schedule in as few as eight days, but realistically, it would take 14. You play five games in six days in the qualifying round, held at two locations, most likely outside of the US. Take two days off, and have the final eight travel to one location for the quarterfinals, held over consecutive days. Take two more days off, then play the semis and final on consecutive days.

With the entire event down to 14 days, you can start it as late as March 26 or so, which means you have pitchers just about ready for the season, and you've dodged the craziest parts of March Madness. You should end up with greater participation, and the event runs almost right up to Opening Day; April 6 this season, using a schedule that includes no doubleheaders. If the WBC runs from March 26 through April 10, you can begin the season a week later on April 13, and build a schedule that includes three home doubleheaders per team to make up the lost dates. Mandate that one of them be a traditional doubleheader. If the World Baseball Classic is going to be the key event in the baseball calendar that Bud Selig wants it to be, he should be able to sell his charges on sacrificing two or three dates once every four seasons.

Now, I don't mean to completely disenfranchise the teams left out of the event. In fact, my vision is that the eight quarterfinalists from the previous WBC are guaranteed spots in the event, and the other four are qualified for. I won't pretend to have a plan for the logistics of this, but the World Cup manages to pull it off, and I don't think organizing qualifiers for four slots among the maybe 12 teams that would participate would be a barrier, and eventually, you'll find that China, and maybe even South Africa, are reaching the big dance the old-fashioned way.

I'm excited about what this plan could mean for the WBC. It's already a fun, entertaining event with so many major leaguers not taking part, and not enough games among the competitive teams. By altering the structure and the schedule, you'd almost certainly get a higher percentage of the game's greatest players involved, and those players would be squaring off more frequently and at close to regular-season readiness.

MLB has already shown a willingness to work on the WBC format. With these changes, the WBC would make a huge leap forward on the path to establishing itself as baseball's World Cup.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  WBC,  Baseball In Italy

35 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

ElAngelo
(942)

Why is it being held every four years and not every two? Hasn't the Ryder Cup proven that people will be interested if we do this often enough?

Mar 10, 2009 12:28 PM
rating: -1
 
jdseal

Actually, it's every 3. Right? And to correct a comment in the article, I believe under the current format, the theoretical maximum is 10 games, not 8.

Mar 11, 2009 05:34 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

no - it's four - there were only three between the first two as the first one was a test-run of sorts and they bumped it forward to 09 so as not to conflict with Olympics and World Cup years

Mar 11, 2009 06:54 AM
rating: 0
 
jeffrey1681

I believe it will be held every 4 years from now on. The 3 year gap was to move it off of the Olympics and World Cup schedules so that they wouldn't compete.

And I think the maximum now is 8 games per team. 3 games in the first round (if you advance, going 2-1 or 3-0), 3 games in the second round (again advancing by going 2-1 or 3-0) and then semi-finals and finals games. Did I miss anything?

Mar 11, 2009 07:59 AM
rating: 0
 
jdseal

If you advance by going 2-1 (winning the "losers bracket") you still play a fourth game, against the 2-0 team, to determine whether you are a "1" or "2" seed in the next round. That could happen in both the first and second rounds. Theoretically, a team could play 4 in both those rounds, and then 2 in the championship round, for 10 total.

Mar 11, 2009 08:55 AM
rating: 1
 
sbnirish77

this meaningless game is still the weakness of the current format (see US Venz last night)

Mar 12, 2009 16:08 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Joe - interesting ideas - I would prefer to keep it at 16 teams, but open up the field for different countries to qualify through pre-tournaments. The previous event's 8 quarterfinalists should get a free ride into the next event and other interested nations should have to qualify through local tournaments. As the other 8 countries are generally not made up of MLB players (Canada's lineup notwithstanding), it should be easy enough to get their amateurs to participate fully in these tournies. I used to play in the Israeli men's league and half of my team were starters on the Israeli national team. Every now and then, they would go to Europe for tournaments (I think Germany was the big powerhouse there). Many other European countries have semi-pro teams that would be at least as competitive as Italy (without the ringers), South Africa, China, etc. The more countries that could qualify, the more interest the sport will drum up and the bigger the pool of athletes baseball will compete for.

Nothing to lose, everything to gain.

Mar 10, 2009 12:39 PM
rating: 2
 
WilliamWright

I'm not sure you can do a qualifying round without more countries wanting to participate. That would drive the need to do qualification. Remember that baseball was just kicked out of the next Olympics because not enough countries field teams. If other European countries wanted in on the WBC, that would drive the need for a tournament where Netherlands and Italy have to qualify for example. Does France have a team? England? Germany? Russia? I think you have to first raise the interest in these countries before you can do something like this.

Mar 10, 2009 12:40 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

All of those countries have national teams

Mar 10, 2009 13:21 PM
rating: 2
 
R.A.Wagman

http://www.baseballeurope.com/

Mar 10, 2009 13:21 PM
rating: 3
 
R.A.Wagman

43 European national baseball associations, each with representative teams at the standard age groups.

Mar 10, 2009 13:23 PM
rating: 0
 
leicester
(664)

For example, the next IBAF World Cup is in Europe and there will be 22 teams competing in it, in what must be the oddest format ever for a baseball tournament. More to the general point of the article, it seems that international baseball, at it's highest (WBC-intended) level, is roughly where Rugby Union was in about 1998. I wonder if the Dutch performance (as well as the Australian and, to a lesser extent, Italian performances) will actually grow the game, or perhaps lead to a "golden generation" in a few years, much like Argentina rugby. This lead, in Argentina's case, to a 3rd place finish at the last RWC and has generally raised the profile of the game to new highs in "non-traditional" markets. Having a "good" team in Europe could only help out Europe as a whole as it will give the other teams someone to shoot at, hopefully raising their level of play too.

But I guess we will just see.....Until then, I'm just going to enjoy the games!

Mar 10, 2009 13:29 PM
rating: 0
 
Kyle E.

I've done some googling in my spare time, there look to be decent youth organizations in Australia. Hopefully those kids were watching.

Mar 10, 2009 21:16 PM
rating: 0
 
wonkothesane1

I'm thinking that a place like Columbia could probably put together a decent team (Orlando Cabrera, Renteria, Fruto). I've been surprised that they haven't been invited, but maybe the MLB has something against that country.

Nicaragua is probably an okay candidate. Greece has fielded an Olympic team before.

There is a World Cup for baseball. The have 5 groups of 4 teams each (in the 2009 edition) with Czech Rep., Spain, Sweden, and Nicaragua being the extra four. I wonder how teams qualify for that.

Mar 11, 2009 12:02 PM
rating: 0
 
Ryan V.

Even though I know this will never, EVER happen (and is basically a non-starter idea...), I'd love to see the WBC as a two-week event. However, I'd like to see it replace the All-Star game in years that it's played (would anyone really miss the All-Star game once every four years?!). And to extend the All-Star break to two weeks, the season would be shortened to 154 games during WBC years.

The downside to this (setting aside that MLB would NEVER pare down the schedule to 154 games, even if it's only once every four years...) would be I'm not sure how you keep non-roster players sharp during that two weeks. But ultimately, I don't know that a two week break is really going to be THAT detrimental to professional ballplayers, and the rust would be shaken off within a couple of days of resuming play.

Mar 10, 2009 12:53 PM
rating: 1
 
Tderrick17

Use the all star break for just the final round... the first round, with all 12/16 teams, plays in late March. Those teams that win then play their games during the traditional 3 day All-Star break, with the traditional all star break cancelled.

Upside here is there will be more games for the public to watch over the 3 day all star break (three games, four if you have a 3rd place game), the pitchers are in mid-season form (thus teams will be less likely to have them sit), you can pick any city in the Northern Hemisphere to hold the finals (paging New York) and you will not have to compete with March Madness. There's no need to cancel any regular season games, no need to put pitchers on a pitch count (unless requested by the MLB club, obviously). Revenues will go through the roof for the finals.

Mar 10, 2009 16:31 PM
rating: 3
 
bennoj

I doubt Bud would ever be able to mandate "traditional" double-headers, the owners are never going to give up the revenue. But I've been thinking that double-headers, whether sold as one ticket or two, would be great for the inter-league part of the schedule where one game would be played under National League rules and the other under American League. In non-WBC years this can shorten the schedule a bit to avoid having the World Series extend nearly to Thanksgiving, and in WBC years makes up for the late start to the season.

Mar 10, 2009 12:58 PM
rating: 3
 
HonusCobb

I'd like to see the Czech Republic in the WBC. I studied in the Czech Republic for 3 months 2 semesters ago. Met some American Baseball players there (I assume they weren't good enough to play in the minors).

But recently I saw that the Indians signed a 16 year old from the Czech Republic. He'll play in the CR and Australia during the summers until he graduates.

I agree that we could see some better competition if central european countries got involved. Is it really better to market to South Africa than central Europe?

Mar 10, 2009 13:23 PM
rating: 0
 
leez34

I like your ideas, Joe, and I like rawagman's qualification as well. It might be wishful thinking to hope the WBC turns into the World Cup (soccer is way more popular worldwide, after all), but whoever said there was something wrong with dreaming?

Mar 10, 2009 14:04 PM
rating: 0
 
Kyle E.

A sign of hope - the World Cup didn't receive the participation it nows does in its infancy.

Mar 10, 2009 21:18 PM
rating: 0
 
rmorgan93

The issue with qualifying tournaments would be MLB/NPB players being available for them. If teams aren't even releasing pitchers for the actual tournament, I can't imagine them doing so for qualifiers.

Mar 10, 2009 14:28 PM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

The qualifiers would be limited to amateur players - that would have the added bonus of showcasing the best talent from those countries - for the countries who are not already in the WBC, how many professional ballplayers are there? How many above the low minors?

Mar 10, 2009 15:34 PM
rating: 0
 
Pietaster07

HonusCobb - that probably won't happen for awhile, but if teams like Italy and the Netherlands continue to do well in the WBC, it should only help baseball in Europe. I think if we had a 32 team 3 week tourny with 8 pools (not likely to happen, but since when is more baseball a bad thing) it would really help to include countries like the Czech Republic and other European teams, along with allowing more Latin American teams lieke Colombia, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica into the WBC.
rawagman - Having an Israeli team I think would be really cool, and I'm not even Jewish, but for some reason I'm worried that suddenly we might have to worry about terrorism if they do well, which wouldn't surprise me at all. Israel always seems to overperform at world sporting events.

Mar 10, 2009 14:59 PM
rating: 0
 
Clonod

Joe, I like the idea of qualifiers as well. Right now, South Africa has no reason to get excited. They didn't do anything to get in other than have a large population that seemed to be a good opportunity for MLB to market towards.

If they qualified, though, that's an achievement. And achievements are excited and get people interested. Chattanooga earned the right to a #16 seed last night, and they have virtually no shot to even win a game in the tournament. But I would have loved to have been on that campus last night.

Mar 10, 2009 15:17 PM
rating: 0
 
Evan
(47)

I think the WBC actually has it right using a double-elimination system over a round-robin system.

In a round-robin tournament, you invariably get some games at the end of the round where one or even both participants don't have any incentive to win the game. The double-elimination tournament they're using now prevents that.

Mar 10, 2009 15:52 PM
rating: 0
 
leicester
(664)

Except that MLB decided that they MUST have a pool winner (even though 2 advance), so they actually play 6 games. The last game is essentially meaningless! I'd much prefer the format if the winner of the winner's bracket was called "pool winner" and they only had 5 as opposed to 6 games in each pool. Still, I think your point still holds in it's essence..

Mar 10, 2009 16:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I think this is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. What incentive do countries have to establish qualifier leagues if there's no guarantee that their team would be in the WBC, and thus, get the worldwide exposure?

In the meantime, the Olympics also includes undercompetitive and marginal teams. Those undercompetitive teams though do draw interest in their home countries, thus increasing the strength of the program. If countries are disqualified outright, you run into a bit of a BCS problem where teams that are competitive don't get a game at the big table. Also, as they say in a short series, anything is possible and one of those rare upset wins just might be enough for a country to increase its ability and focus on baseball.

The only other thing I could suggest is something like a tiered system. There are 16 total spots. Award 10 of those spots where baseball has been deemed "well established and competitive", like the USA, Cuba, Japan. Award 1 spot to the country that ranks highest in the Olympics without having a spot, another spot to the Pan Am games, another to the Caribbean league, and another to the Little League World Series (why not if it generates interest?). For the last two spots, conduct a mini-WBC the year prior to the WBC inviting any countries without slots to compete, and the best two records get the last two slots.

As an alternative, you could split the mini-WBC over the two preceding years and award one spot each year. That could drum up more interest (and resources) for baseball in those countries.

In any event, I think it'd be a good idea to keep the number of teams, but move some qualifiers to the year prior and/or use established tournaments like the Olympics and the Pan Am teams to generate more interest.

Mar 10, 2009 17:53 PM
rating: 0
 
RallyKiller

I like the 12-team concept and qualifying process, but the tournament is just pure fluff and not worth holding--unless each country can put forward its best players, including pitchers. Otherwise, teams drawing from a deep pool of accomplished players have a huge advantage. Canada, for instance, suffered greatly this year from the absence of its best pitchers.

The only way to accomplish this is to hold the tournament during the regular MLB season. Start the season a week earlier, do not play an All-Star game that season and break for three weeks starting in late June. Mandate that teams cannot hold back pitchers unless on the DL. Have MLB cover the insurance costs of its players.

Do this once every four or six years. Only then would the tournament be a true world classic. Only then would comparisons to the World Cup have real meaning.

Mar 10, 2009 19:27 PM
rating: 2
 
Cory Schwartz

Joe, not to be snarky, but do you still stand by this column now that the Netherlands has upset the D.R. not once but twice, joining Canada among the surprise eliminations? We've already seen more upsets in the "15 vs. 2" vein in this year's WBC than we did in all of 2006; doesn't that justify the larger field?

Mar 10, 2009 19:34 PM
rating: 1
 
Aaron/YYZ

Joe, one comment I have after being to the past few games in Toronto (Sun, Mon, Tues) is how the compressed schedule is really punishing to the more fringy teams that don't have a ton of depth in the bullpen even if they have a couple of elite starting pitching talents to anchor the staff.

For example, in Venezuela vs USA, the relievers after Galarraga was out of the game were all guys with 5.00+ ERA's and 1.5+ WHIP's (often more Walks than K's) in the Mexican League. Those were the guys the USA teed off on to run out to that big lead.

Similarly, Italy (correctly) went all-in with it's lefties and Grilli against Canada and really had nothing left against Venezuela after their starter was out of the game. Again, that's when the game was broken open.

The sharp talent drop-off really made it hard to watch at times. I'd rather see things hinge more on the performance of the best talents than what kind of performance you get from the 12th guy on the staff. They're softer on the teams in October than this.

Mar 10, 2009 19:45 PM
rating: 0
 
Dave Pomerantz

Wasn't Venezuela's lack of pitching against the USA more a product of bad managerial decisions? I thought I saw that they had burned their best pitchers against Italy (including Felix Hernandez), leaving the scrubs to pitch to a vastly superior US lineup.

Mar 11, 2009 11:15 AM
rating: 1
 
Aaron/YYZ

Sure, but beyond about 3-4 guys, all the had was scrubs. That's my point.

Mar 11, 2009 11:57 AM
rating: 0
 
eighteen

Seems to me qualifying rounds run counter to the goal of increasing baseball's exposure and popularity,

People in countries where the game is in its infancy are much more likely to watch if their team's playing; and their athletes are more likely to choose to play baseball if there's some prospect of near-term reward and recognition.

Mar 10, 2009 19:54 PM
rating: 1
 
royalsnightly

The current format has to change. Look at what's going on in the Mexico City pool. If Australia loses tonight to Cuba, they play Mexico in an elimination game. After beating Mexico by 10 runs, Australia got to play Cuba, while Mexico was gifted with a game against RSA. The difference between Cuba and RSA is like comparing the Red Sox to a Single A team.

The gap between the #1 seed and the #4 seed is so large that its hugely unfair to have the #2s s not playing the same quality of opponents.

Mar 10, 2009 20:30 PM
rating: 2
 
Darsox64

Given the success of the Netherlands, I hardly think there is a sharp line between the "winners" and the "losers". Insisting that the Netherlands is a clearly demonstratively better team than Panama is a silly post-hoc hypothesis, or dare I suggest, a suspicious reading of small sample sizes.

With the small number of games, they are all in it, or at least as much as is needed for the competition to drum up interest worldwide.

Mar 11, 2009 23:33 PM
rating: 0
 
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