Welcome to Circling the Bases, a weekly column where writers Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski participate in a discussion on one baseball topic. This week, the two tackle the World Baseball Classic.
Steve Garczynski: It’s that magical time that comes around every three or four years…The World Baseball Classic. The best players that Major League Baseball is able to strongly encourage to participate, button up the uniform of their country (or country that they’re linked to by Ancestry.com) and compete for the WBC Championship Trophy.
As Brewers fans, we have a vested interest in the tournament this year as 15 players were named to national teams, and around 13 will participate. Ryan Braun is one of the headliners for Team USA, and he’s joined by Jonathan Lucroy. John Axford, Jim Henderson and Taylor Green are suiting up for Team Canada. Team Mexico has Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada in the starting rotation.
As someone who sees Spring Training as a grind, I’m looking forward to the World Baseball Classic. After the first few Spring Training games, the predictable substitutions and lack of starting talent relegates most games to background noise. If it wasn’t for Gameday, I’d rarely be able to recall what happens in those games.
With the WBC, we get the chance to watch some actual competition. Sure, pitch counts strip some of the reality out of the game, but the Team USA is going to trot out an outfield of Ryan Braun, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton. That’s elite firepower in the outfield and now is our chance to watch what they can do.
So what do you think, Ryan? Are you ready to wave that flag and cheer on Team USA?
Ryan Topp: I almost feel bad that I don’t care more about the World Baseball Classic than I do. Almost, but I really don’t even feel bad about it. Mostly, I just feel indifferent.
I’m right there with you with the idea that anything that breaks up the relentless monotony of spring training being a good thing. Anything that raises the stakes of baseball in March has a lot going for it from an interest perspective. Still, much like the St. Louis Cardinals under Tony LaRussa, there are just too many obnoxious things about the tournament for me to totally get behind it.
I understand that there really isn’t a good time to hold this thing, but sticking it right in the middle of spring training when the players, especially the pitchers, are still getting ready for the season isn’t really conducive to getting high quality baseball. No, I don’t have an alternative, but just because there isn’t a good time to hold it doesn’t make the negatives about the timing go away.
There’s also something that’s a little bit harder to put my finger on about the WBC, something inherent in the structure of the competition, that bothers me. Baseball is a game where the real differences between teams only become clear over lots of games, not just one or two. It’s enough of a problem every postseason with 5 and 7 game series and it’s only heightened by the format of WBC play. The goal of any competition should be to try and determine who is best, and the less it does that, the less interesting it generally is to me.
Not to be a snob, but the US clearly produces the best talent in world baseball wise, and it’s really not all that close. So the fact that it hasn’t even made the final game in the first two WBC’s just diminishes the whole thing in my eyes, fair or not.
SG: The idea of pitchers getting ready for the season is overrated. Yes, they need to build up arm strength for a full start, but other than that, what else are they really doing? We don’t see repertoires expanding once a guy makes it to the major leagues. Get the feel of your curve or change-up and you’re ready to go. And don’t even bring up “working on new pitches.” No one is ever successful in adding a new pitch, especially when they work on it the six weeks leading up to the season.
So that leaves us with the injury and under performance issues. Fans worry that their guys are going get off to a slow start, assuming they even make it through the grind of the WBC (which conveniently becomes a more intense brand of baseball when it has to fit the narrative). Corey Hart and Mat Gamel laugh at your WBC injury concerns because they’re perfectly capable of getting injured before and during Spring Training. Curtis Granderson also showed us that forearms are just a susceptible to getting broken by a fastball in the spring as they are once the regular season starts.
Baseball Prospectus published an article about a month ago on the myth of the down seasons for WBC pitchers. In 2006, most guys didn’t reach their projections for the season, but in 2009, we saw starters and relievers outperform their projections. At best you can make a case that the jury is still out. We’ll get some more data to sift through after this run through the tournament. Let’s all keep in mind that certain players get off to slow starts when they go through a standard Spring Training Schedule.
As far as your problem with the tournament style, major league baseball players are the only guys who no longer play round robin tournaments to determine champions. College Baseball is a minor national spectator sport, but their round robin tournament is still able to drum up excitement every year. It’s a different way of doing things, and I’d much rather watch something like that than the ridiculous Wild Card Play-In Game. That’s a much bigger mistake than the round robin.
RT: Well, guys do actually add new pitches to their repertoire all the time, and those new pitches often do drive breakouts, both early and late in guys careers, but I get what you’re saying. Everyone is always tinkering with new stuff in spring training, and a very small percentage of that stuff ever really pays off in any noticeable way. So that is an aspect of spring training that often gets overblown, even if it’s not totally meaningless.
The injury issue is a tricky one, and you make some good points about the fact that guys get hurt during and even before spring training without the WBC. Still, just because risks outside of the WBC exist, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore potential risks created by the WBC, especially to pitchers who may not quite be ready to dial up the intensity yet but are expected to do so.
Imagine for a moment a scenario where Yovani Gallardo came out in the first inning and his velocity was down and it only got worse as the inning went on. Yet, because he was facing a weak team that didn’t hit him he was allowed to struggle through his full allotment of pitches by the coaching staff whose main concern was winning, not protecting him. 2 weeks later he’s visiting Dr. Andrews in Birmingham and is done for the year. Whether or not it was the fault of the coaching staff, this would be a disastrous situation and it seems like only a matter of time before it happens to someone and a team’s season is significantly undermined under questionable circumstances.
SG: Wow…that’s an awfully specific scenario with a predetermined response that allows you to make your point. I’m calling strawman shenanigans on that one. I will acknowledge that regardless of the type of injury and whether it’s just as likely to happen in Spring Training as in the WBC, fans will be quick to condemn the tournament.
Dave Cameron of Fangraphs yesterday gave a couple suggestions for the WBC moving forward that might have the best impact on finally bring you around Ryan. First, make the tournament single elimination and play it in a week. The whole thing will move fast enough that it won’t have to work to hold onto fan attention. Second, start in mid to late-March. Pitchers will be further along in the Spring Training schedule and ramping up for the regular season. Their arms are probably in better shape to start throwing in a more competitive setting at that time.
For 2013 though, we get a double elimination tournament that last a few weeks. Just embrace it for what it is, a fun diversion before the real games get underway April.