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.
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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?
Nothing to lose, everything to gain.
But I guess we will just see.....Until then, I'm just going to enjoy the games!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.