On Monday, in the wee hours of the morning here in the U.S., the World Baseball Classic (WBC) began in Seoul, South Korea. The first game pitted the lowest ranked international team in the competition, Israel, vs host South Korea. The game was tied at 1 until the top of the 10th inning when Israel drove in the winning run, upsetting the host nation. That game began a 2-week international competition aimed at engaging other countries in the sport of baseball awhile providing an opportunity for players to represent their home nations. The tournament will culminate with a title game in Los Angeles on March 23rd, but does anyone even care? Should you even care?
The WBC is an attempt to expand the reach of baseball internationally and for that alone I give it the tip of my cap. Any increased interest in baseball internationally is a great, but how does this impact those in the U.S. and Canada who already have easy access to the sport? Ultimately, it may hurt. Let me explain…
The timing of the WBC is squarely in the middle of spring training. Top stars from around the world have now left their MLB teams to practice and play in high-leverage games around the world with just 2 weeks of training behind them. Normally, these players ease into competition for a month before even thinking about really pushing themselves hard in games that matter. Throwing off the rhythm of a big league ball player could spell disaster as the very long baseball season wears on. It could result in injuries during the tournament or injuries caused by playing several more meaningful games very early in the year, especially for those on teams who reach the finals. The last WBC was in 2013 and the MLB saw a spike in DL stints during the season (521) compared to the season prior (485) and the season following (476)*.
Injuries are bad for baseball, especially if the injured players are stars or well-known commodities. The majority of ticket buyers pay to see their favorites players on their field, not to watch their minor league back-up get some MLB action (even if that young kid is the future). An unknown player won’t sell jerseys and apparel that make the MLB a boatload of money; ultimately reducing revenues, hurting baseball. Realistically the impact is likely small in the scheme of things, but if for example Andrew McCutchen gets injured in the tournament and can’t play for the Pittsburgh Pirates for awhile, that hurts the game of baseball.
I’m sure the WBC really does increase the interest in baseball globally and allows fans in places like South Korea, Mexico, and Japan to see MLB players play live, but for me, a fan of the MLB in the U.S., it feels unnecessary and potentially harmful to the overall product.
If you are a crazy baseball person like me and want an underdog story to follow, look no further than team Israel. Ranked 41st in the world, they made the 16 team tournament as tremendous underdogs. The next lowest ranked team is 19th ranked Columbia. As of writing this post, they are 2-0 in group play, beating host South Korea and Chinese Taipei. They have 1 game left in pool play vs. powerhouse Netherlands and are almost assured a spot in the final 8 with their first 2 wins. Their roster is filled with mostly minor-league prospects and just a few somewhat familiar names (Ryan Lavarnway, Sam Fuld). Just making the tournament was an accomplishment, forget finishing in the top-half. I’m a sucker for a good underdog story!
*DL stint information provided by www.baseballheatmaps.com.