The WBC – Where quality starts go to die

As Spring Training continues across Florida and Arizona this week, some (but not all) of baseball’s best players are away from their teams playing for their countries in the World Baseball Classic.  Several Dodgers players are among those participating: Adrian Gonzalez, Sergio Romo and Alex Verdugo (Mexico), Ike Davis (Israel), Kike Hernandez (Puerto Rico) and Rob Segedin (Italy).

As the tournament takes place during Major League Spring Training, it comes with certain limitations on pitchers.  No pitcher can throw more than 65 pitches (unless needed to finish a plate appearance) in the first round, 80 in the second and 95 in the Championship Round.  In addition, any pitcher that throws 30 or more pitches in a given game is ineligible to pitch the next day.  If they throw 50 or more pitches they must sit for four days.

For a tournament that hopes to match the best of the best, too often games are decided by pitch counts and forced pitching changes.  Each of the United States first two games stand as examples of games decided in large part by pitch limits.  In their first game against Columbia, Columbia’s starter Jose Quintana was throwing a gem, no-hitting the Americans through 5 2/3 innings.  However, after Brandon Crawford got the U.S. first hit, Columbia manager Luis Urueta was to remove Quintana because he had thrown 63 pitches, despite holding a slim 2-0 lead.  Under normal regular season conditions you would never even consider taking him out at that point.  And of course, the U.S immediately capitalized against reliever William Cuevas as the next three batters reached base and the U.S. tied the game.  They would go on to win 3-2 in 10 innings. Thus pitch limit potential cost Columbia a huge victory and possibly advancement in the tournament.

The next night the U.S would be on the other end of the spectrum.  American hurler Marcus Stroman was keeping an incredibly talented Dominican Republic team at bay, allowing just three hits in 4 2/3 shutout innings.  But, when Starling Marte lined Stroman’s 64th pitch into left field for a two out single it was American manager Jim Leyland’s turn to be forced to make an ill-timed pitching change.  While Tanner Roark would get the final out of the inning to preserve a 3-0 lead that would increase to 5-0 in the top of the sixth, Roark would not be so lucky in the bottom half allowing the Dominicans back into the game – a game the D.R would ultimately win 7-5.

Now maybe these outcomes would have been the same had Quintana and Stroman remained in their respective games, but unfortunately we will never know.  As fans we were robbed of watching players at the top of their craft showcase their full talent to conclusion.  But, that’s what you get when you try to hold a meaningful tournament during the preseason.

What would be my solution?  I see no reason why MLB can’t take a page out of the NHL’s book.  Starting in 1998 the NHL has taken a two to three week break in February to allow their best players to participate in the Winter Olympics. Those years the NHL forgoes having an All-Star.  My suggestion is that if baseball truly wants to showcase their best talent in an international competition, every four years just expand the All-Star break to three weeks and hold the WBC in place of the All-Star game.

Traditionalists (who I usually consider myself to be) will argue for the sanctity of the only truly watchable All-Star game and I understand that.  But, how many times has baseball broken from tradition – the DH, Wild Card playoff teams, instant replay – that I think not having an All-Star game every four years is acceptable.

Maybe then, when it does interfere with their preparation for the season, more of the truly top players like Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout would be willing to play.  But of course, that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

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