Three years have passed since Japan and Korea stole the thunder of the first World Baseball Classic; Korea went undefeated until they were beaten by Japan in the semi-finals, while Japan escaped three losses to beat Cuba in the final. This year’s tourney features the same 16 teams that played in 2006, again grouped into four pools of four teams each. Unlike in 2006, though, teams will not play a round-robin tournament, but will instead play in a double-elimination format, with the top two teams from each group advancing. That will create two more four-team groups, who will again play a double-elimination tournament with the top two teams advancing from each group. The final four will then play single-elimination games to decide the winner.
The overwhelming majority of players in the WBC either do now, or have, played in the US major or minor leagues, for whom we have extensive, reliable data that describe their contributions pretty effectively. We also have good data for the leagues in Cuba, Japan, and Korea, so the players from those countries and leagues aren’t entirely mysterious to us. That still leaves four teams-China, Taiwan, South Africa, and the Netherlands-with a significant number of players who have not played in a “top” league. Not surprisingly, they rate as the four weakest teams in the tournament, and were a combined 2-10 in the 2006 tourney.
Because of the quality of the data, we can use the performance of players in the majors, minors, Cuba, Japan, and Korea to build a solid composite rating for each team. Even the teams with few players from known leagues have at least some players, and we can reasonably assume that they are among the best players from their countries. We can use those composite ratings to play the WBC a million times, following the scheduled format of games, and see who wins.
The strongest team in the tournament, by these ratings, belongs to the United States. Other teams have top players that equal those on the US roster, but none can match the depth of the US at every position; all of the backups, combined, would be the fourth- or fifth-best team in the tourney. If they have a disadvantage, it’s that their four-team pool is the strongest overall; the fourth-best team in their group, Italy, would rank third in any other pool. That holds the Americans’ chances of getting out of the first round to 85.8 percent, only the fifth-best figure in the tournament, but those figures zoom to 65.9 percent to get out of the second round, with a 29.4 percent chance to win it all. That does assume that their top two starters, Jake Peavy and Roy Oswalt, are healthy and pitch like their usual selves.
The Dominican Republic team has a 91.9 percent chance of advancing from the first round, 59.7 percent in the second, and 18.8 percent of finishing up as WBC champions. This is the product of an equally stacked roster, starting with Hanley Ramirez and David Ortiz, but grading down to a relatively weak Willy Taveras in center field. Their pitching should be strong, but it’s just solid across the board, as opposed to overpowering; Edinson Volquez is the only man on the roster who stands out as potentially dominant.
Defending champion Japan sends out a team that looks even stronger than the 2006 version, and they place third in the rankings for this year. Thanks to the extreme weakness of China and Taiwan, they’re the closest thing to an absolute lock to escape the first round, at 99.0 percent; they also have a tournament-best 66.7 percent chance of getting out of the second round, and a 16.0 percent chance of winning it all. Their pitching rates are the best of all 16 teams; while we know Daisuke Matsuzaka, they have another pitcher in Yu Darvish who is just as good, while Kyuji Fujikawa may be the best closer on any team here. The offense is solid but unspectacular; their best hitters, like Ichiro, have aged since the last tourney, and no one new has stepped up to play at that level.
Mexico (83.7%, 45.6%, 8.2%) rates a surprising fourth from among the entire field. Their lineup is stocked with familiar faces-Adrian Gonzalez, Jorge Cantu, the Hairston brothers-but it’s the pitching that leads me to a rating that is about 12 games better than the one I gave them in 2006. Their closer, Joakim Soria, ranks with anyone else here, Luis Ayala is a worthwhile set-up man if he can keep his arm intact this time around, and the bullpen is generally very good. Starting pitching will largely depend on which Oliver Perez shows up.
Cuba (87.1%, 45.2%, 7.6%) is next up, coming out of the same division as Mexico. I have my doubts about this rating, and think it may be a little low. In particular, their pitching may be underrated, as only a few of their pitchers have experience doing regular relief work; in the Cuban league they’re almost all starters. Generally speaking, there’s an advantage to working in relief, so their ratings should be adjusted upwards when working in the role, and in this exercise I haven’t done that. The offense features some true mashers in Frederich Cepeda, Alfredo Despaigne, Michel Enriquez, and Yulieski Gourriel.
Venezuela (69.2%, 30.5%, 7.4%) actually rates as the fourth-best team overall, but being in the Group of Death with the US puts them in serious danger of being upset and quickly escorted from the tournament. Their offense ranks among the best, led by a trio of Tigers: Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen. Their pitching, which features the possibility of aces like Carlos Zambrano and Felix Hernandez giving way to Francisco Rodriguez, is clearly strong at the top, but lacks the depth of other squads.
Puerto Rico (81.0%, 31.1%, 6.1%) is a good team that is chock full of major leaguers, but it lacks the stars you find in such profusion on the other Caribbean teams. Any team that begins with Carlos Beltran is off to a good start, though, and with Alex Rios beside him on one corner, the outfield defense will probably be the best among all the teams in the tourney, regardless of who stands in left for them. The starters are pretty good, led by Javier Vazquez and Ian Snell, but thy don’t have an established closer.
Eighth is Korea. Like Japan, they should sail through the first round, making it through 97 percent of the time; they’re 37.7 percent likely to make it through to the single-elimination games, and have a 4.9 percent chance of winning. Their team is basically the same as the one that went undefeated through the Beijing Olympics last year, and they’re led by their pitching, notably 20-year-old ace lefty Kwang-hyun Kim.
Canada (31.5%, 9.1%, 1.3%) is the only one of the remaining teams with a meaningful chance at success. Their roster boasts some impressive individuals-Russell Martin, Justin Morneau, Jason Bay-but the team lacks depth. More importantly, they lack starting pitching, and they have to contend with the US and Venezuela.
The remaining teams, in descending order of strength:
- Australia (29.2%, 4.7%, 0.2%) benefits from being in the same division with South Africa.
- Panama (18.6%, 1.7%, 0.1%) would have to upset either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic to advance.
- Italy (13.5%, 1.6%, 0%) has a few Italian players, but is largely Italian-American.
- Netherlands (8.6%, 0.5%, 0) looks a lot weaker than they did in 2006-when they won one game.
- Taiwan (or “Chinese Taipei”) (3.1%, 0.2%, 0)
- China (0.6%, 0, 0)
- South Africa (0,0,0) does not appear to have any chance of even getting through the first round.