Two Ways to Improve the World Baseball Classic

To start with, I like the World Baseball Classic. It’s fun, and it was genuinely tremendously exciting when Great Britain qualified. I also think most of the standard criticisms are a little overplayed. But at the same time, I am way more apathetic about it than I am about almost any other international tournament. It’s fun, but I was shocked when players were comparing it to the World Series. I would rather see the Royals when the World Series than… well, almost anything, actually. Insofar as the World Baseball Classic is meant to be a World Cup, it does not stand close to the Football, Rugby, or Cricket versions. I was thinking about why that is, and how MLB can make it better. Obviously this is my personal take on it; clearly a lot of people love it as-is and I don’t want to dismiss that. But I think there are a some lessons that MLB could learn from the three big World Cups (especially the Rugby World Cup, because I think that’s probably the closest analogue) that would make it better, even for the people who already love the tournament.

The biggest issue is that the World Baseball Classic is not localised. There is no host nation or nations like for other World Cups. I get the reason why; this way teams like Japan and Korea can play in front of their home fans, which otherwise never happens. That’s pretty cool! But the big problem with this was highlighted by a Tweet this morning from JP Morosi

Statistically this could be a coincidence, of course. Five straight is not many. But at the same time, it is a 13 hour flight between games. It would be like if the Cricket World Cup had a quarterfinal at Old Trafford and the winner had to play the semifinal at the SCG five days later. That’s ridiculous in any tournament, or even just a normal tour. At this stage no team should have a structural advantage. That doesn’t mean Japan won’t overcome it (though as I write this they trail 3-0), but it’s not a hurdle they should have to face.

I also think there’s an underrated aspect to how much having a host country makes it an event. The spectacle of seeing all the players converging on one spot, a big Opening Ceremony, and that sense of ‘the eyes of the world are on this’. There’s also the aspect of matches being on a pretty regular schedule. As a fan you can settle into a nice pattern of just looking to see what game is on in what time slot that day and I think that makes it a lot easier to watch and see new teams. For instance, during the Rugby World Cup if I look and see that the match on in the most watchable time slot is Romania v Tonga, then I’m watching Romania v Tonga, never mind that I don’t know any of the players. The distributed nature of the WBC doesn’t allow this; in this WBC I turned on Israel v Venezuela in the sixth inning because I had no idea what times the games were on.

This seems like the easiest place for the WBC to improve. The number of potential hosts is much closer to cricket or rugby, so hosting would be a once-in-a-generation thing, not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You can grow the game and improve the tournament, and I really think MLB should do this for the next edition.

Another thing MLB might look at is the timing. I feel less strongly about this than the hosting of the tournament, but I do think running concurrently with Spring Training hampers the tournament a little bit. Not only are the tournament games not the only ones being played, you also still have things like pitch limits as players still build up for the regular season. If this is meant to be a World Cup, then there can’t be those sort of restraints. Of course, the clubs who actually pay the players and have the biggest stake in their health would never buy into letting them go 100% in mid-March. So maybe play it in late November/early December instead. It’s not ideal, but baseball players are so professional now that if they wanted to—and it’s clear that a lot of them do—there’s no reason they couldn’t still be conditioned at that stage of the year.

The obvious counterpoint is that the weather sucks in November and the players will be tired after a long season. But there are domed stadia in the northern hemisphere and if someplace like Australia hosted then the weather would be fine. And I don’t think the players being tired is worse than the players being not yet fully conditioned. The latter is something that can be worked through, but the former gives the group-stage games a very Spring Training feel. It’s also worth noting that the Rugby World Cup does actually take place near the beginning of the northern hemisphere season and it’s not really an issue. Playing in April might actually be the long-term solution, but in the short-term I don’t think it’s feasible to adjust the MLB schedule enough—there’s not enough leeway—and there would certainly be a lot of pushback. I think November/December would be best; there’s no other baseball on then and the human rights abuses World Cup last year showed there is a niche for a big tournament at that time of the calendar.

This does get to the limit of what baseball can learn from other World Cups though. All World Cups are unique because all sports are unique, but there are a lot of things about baseball that just don’t have an analogue in any other sport. One is the marathon, every day, nature of the baseball season. This makes scheduling the tournament hard, but it’s also an integral part of the game that—much like Test cricket—does not lend itself to a knockout tournament. Also, rugby and cricket have many domestic leagues that all have about the same stature, which adds to the global feel of any international match. Baseball really just has MLB* and with all the best players already in the same competition it does take some of the uniqueness away. The WBC is way better than the All-Star Game, but also there’s a reason the All-Star Game is a shell of what it used to be**. Approached smartly, I don’t see either of those as being things that will make the WBC worse, just different. But MLB does not have a great track record of approaching things smartly, and one glance at the history of the Cricket World Cup shows a number of ways things could go very badly.

*There’s a case to me made for the Japanese leagues being comparable to MLB. Obviously this is something that can’t really be quantified, so your mileage may vary, but since the best Japanese players still come to MLB I don’t think the Japanese leagues currently have the same stature. It’s not obvious though.

**I actually think one of the cool things about the WBC is that it taps into some of what made the ASG cool before the differences between the leagues were eroded. But it does make for a bit of a caution for MLB to not let this go the same way.

Lastly, I do want to make it clear that I don’t think the complaints about injuries have legs. This is the kind of tired complaint I always hear and I think it’s pretty short-sighted. I’m sure Mets fans disagree and I don’t really blame them because there’s no reason they should care about anything other than what is good for the Mets, it’s in the definition of ‘fan’. I’m sure I would be furious if Bobby Witt Jr, Brady Singer, or Salvador Perez got injured. But I would hope I would also rememeber that Salvy also got injured slipping carrying his luggage a few years ago. Someone—and I forget who—got injured falling through a roof one offseason. Weird things happen and weird injuries happen and you can’t blame the context. The WBC is a good tournament, and I think some small changes could take the it from a good tournament to a more universally-recognised centrepiece of the game.

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