! -- END HEAD -->
By its very definition, the World Baseball Classic is a global baseball tournament; it’s right there in the name after all. It also feels obvious: Japan won the WBC for the third time, led by the best player on the earth, with a lineup and rotation and bullpen full of NPB All-Stars, and did so by beating Team USA and its All-MLB roster. The United States is the sport’s birthplace and the home of its premier professional league, but the game long ago left its borders, and through the WBC, we’ve gotten to see just how strange and great and flat-out joyful it can be around the world.
If you’ve watched the WBC before, you’ve known this, or at least gotten glimpses of it. If this WBC was your entry point into baseball beyond our shores, then you saw it damn near every day — not just through Japan overcoming its competition but through Mexico almost upsetting them on the way to that title, or through the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and Venezuela playing with their motors revved all the way up, or through just how many times the United States, with Mookie Betts and Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado (I could literally just list the entire ridiculous lineup), was pushed up against a wall and forced to fight its way free. That they did is a testament not just to the absurd collection of talent assembled on that roster but also to how good the rest of the world now is, and while it’s too early to declare the results of this year’s tournament to be a sea change, it’s also no overreaction to note that the WBC is a genuine competition with multiple viable contenders and not just a slower version of The Dream Team stomping wildly overmatched countries by double digits.
That fact can get lost given the understandably and disproportionately heavy focus that the United States and MLB receive in the history of the sport. Baseball in other countries is framed primarily as “Here’s when Americans introduced the game,” and foreign players are usually assessed on a basis of “When will they come to MLB, and how good will they be?” (We here at FanGraphs are as guilty of the latter as anyone else.) The rest of the world, in the minds of most American fans, exists as a feeder for MLB, and by default, the rest of the world will always be a step behind, producing greatness but never overtaking the United States as the center of the baseball universe.
By virtue of the money it makes and the level of competition, MLB is the peak of the mountain, and no number of WBC wins by Japan or any other country will change that. Tuesday night didn’t provide a sneak peak at our new NPB overlords. But forget about that hierarchy and its demand that the only game that matters is the one that takes place from April to October on one continent, or the blinkered myopia that unless a team is hoisting a World Series trophy at the end, then it was all for nothing. There’s more to baseball than the narrow confines of MLB, and the sport itself will only grow and improve the more America’s place atop the pyramid is challenged — the more that places like Japan and Cuba and Mexico but also Great Britain and Colombia and Taiwan produce star players at any level.
More than anything, that was the message of the WBC: baseball is global, and baseball is better by being global. No culture, society or art has ever been better for being closed off, or for shunning the wider world. Baseball is no different. Diversity breeds innovation, and innovation keeps the game from getting stale. We should celebrate the version of baseball in which America isn’t the unquestioned champion, in which other countries get to see themselves finding the kind of success that this country tends to monopolize when it comes to organized sports. Spread the joy and receive plenty in return; open the world and delight in who walks in the door. Be happy when the competition gets better and stronger and pushes us to do the same.
The 2023 WBC was roaring Dominican and Puerto Rican fans in Miami, sellout crowds in Taipei and Tokyo, unexpected star turns from Czech and Nicaraguan and British players. It was a sign of how far the game has spread and how deep it lies in the DNA of so many disparate places, with no common culture or connectors other than a bat, a ball, and four bases. It was a celebration of all the different ways that fans enjoy the game, and if you ever doubt that, think about the brass bands and ringing chants in the stands backing Japan or the Latin American fans turning LoanDepot Park into a week-long block party or the videos of people around the world, watching in bars or at home in the darkest hours of the night or at dawn or in the middle of the afternoon, tuning into an exhibition in which the only prize was national pride. It was proof that baseball is more than MLB.
You saw that made plain on Tuesday night, when Shohei Ohtani struck out Trout in a moment so laden with symbolism that you could probably build a book around it, or at least a short 30 for 30 episode. (Fittingly and deservingly, it was Ohtani who was named the tournament MVP.) It’s too soon to tell if that at-bat is one of those hinge points in history, around which baseball empires fall and new ones rise and the course of the sport’s existence is inexorably and irretrievably altered. But that moment doesn’t have to be so lofty or ponderous. It can simply be a reflection of a truth that the WBC made crystal clear: Baseball belongs to the world.
MIAMI – You could hear the airhorns blocks away from LoanDepot Park, and the music, too: salsa, bachata, reggaeton, merengue — all blasting at artillery strike volume, echoing down the nearby residential streets lined with two-story pastel-colored houses and under the soft gray skies of a rainy Wednesday in south Florida. Small throngs of fans — women with their hair colored electric blue and cherry red, men with platinum blond dye jobs to mimic the stars of Team Rubio — became bigger clusters, all pooling around the stadium, taking over adjacent parking lots for impromptu tailgates. Everyone’s back bore the name of an icon of Caribbean baseball: CLEMENTE, GUERRERO, MARTINEZ, MACHADO, BÁEZ, SOTO, LINDOR. Tens of thousands of fans, some of whom had paid up to $400 per ticket on the secondary market just to get in the door, were here for the main event of Pool D in this World Baseball Classic: the win-or-go-home group stage finale between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
A clarification, first: It’s not accurate to call this event the World Baseball Classic — not here, at least, in Miami, where Latin American teams made up 80% of the pool’s members. (Team Israel probably picked up plenty of excellent Spanish slang in its week-long stay.) No, this was el Mundial, because all week, this hasn’t been a baseball tournament; it’s been a beisbol tournament. Every day featured a good-sized chunk of this city’s large Dominican and Puerto Rican populations setting up shop at the park and spending close to a dozen hours partying and dancing and playing panderetas and güiros and tamboras and those ubiquitous horns. Throughout the week, the west plaza of LoanDepot Park has functioned as a fanfest space, complete with a DJ on a giant stage and access to a team store stocked full of PR and DR shirts and a beer vendor seemingly every 10 feet. Long before each game every day and well past the final out each night, this is where Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Venezuelan fans (and a handful of Nicaraguans, supporting their country that had qualified for the WBC for the first time) met, laughed, crushed 20-ounce Heineken and Stella Artois cans, and celebrated together. This was their tournament, and Wednesday night’s heavyweight prize fight between Pool D’s superpowers was as close as they could get to their own Super Bowl. Read the rest of this entry »
MIAMI – The assignment facing Nicaragua’s Duque Hebbert was as nerve-wracking as he could imagine. As the 21-year-old right-hander warmed up before the top of the ninth inning of Monday’s Pool D game between Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, Juan Soto waited, watching from the on-deck circle. Up after him: 2022 AL Rookie of the Year and five-tool phenom Julio Rodríguez. Should he manage to survive both of those elite hitters, he would have to contend with six-time All-Star Manny Machado, who had homered in his last at-bat and come a combined three or four feet short of going deep twice more.
Against that terrifying trio stood Hebbert, 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, the youngest and last man picked for a Nicaragua squad that qualified for its first-ever WBC and, as its reward, drew a spot in the tournament’s Pool of Death alongside the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Hebbert and his teammates came into the day with two losses in two group stage games so far; down 6–1 against the DR, that would soon become three in three. Then again, no one had expected Nicaragua to win a game in this pool, much less advance. They were in Miami with the goal of growing and getting better and putting up a respectable fight against rosters full of legends and superstars. So as Hebbert finished his warm-up throws and Soto stepped in, the task in front of him was simple yet immense: end the day on a positive note for Pool D’s resident underdogs by retiring three of the best hitters in the entire world.
Nineteen pitches, four batters and three eye-opening swinging strikeouts later, Hebbert had done more than that, going from anonymous Nicaraguan reliever to baseball’s newest viral sensation. He set Soto down with three straight strikes, the last a diving changeup that he swung right over; the future Hall of Famer flashed a smile back at the mound as he walked out of the box. Rodríguez fared no better, fouling off a 90 mph fastball and that devilish changeup before eventually whiffing on a slider down and away. Machado, too, waved through a slider and was down 0–2, only to smash a double to left, bringing up Rafael Devers. No sweat for Hebbert, who fell behind one of the majors’ top sluggers 3–1, got him to foul off two pitches, then dispatched him with — what else — a changeup to finish the inning. Read the rest of this entry »
MIAMI – It’s unlikely that, in the history of Christopher Columbus High School baseball, it’s ever hosted so many superstars. The Catholic all-boys prep school, located amidst the sprawl of southwest Miami not far from the airport and which counts Jon Jay and White Sox manager Pedro Grifol among its notable alumni, has won a pair of state championships and was ranked No. 1 in the country back in 2009. But on Sunday afternoon, its field and gym were the practice space of choice for the Dominican Republic’s World Baseball Classic squad, and its enviable, mind-boggling collection of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers — baseball’s answer to the Dream Team.
At least, that was the narrative coming into the group stage. The mighty Dominican Republic and its titanic lineup, hard-throwing rotation, and deep bullpen was favored even in the Pool of Death with Puerto Rico and Venezuela. But that was before the Dominicans turned in a listless, uneven effort against Venezuela on Saturday night, stranding runners and squandering opportunities and looking nothing like the Home Run Derby Globetrotters you were hoping for.
The afternoon after that loss to Venezuela, the Dominican team assembled at Christopher Columbus High for an off-day practice — an optional one, said manager Rodney Linares, but one that was fully attended nonetheless. There, he spoke to his players, and they spoke to each other. The message? Be calm. Stay cool. Put the nerves and the frustration of Saturday night behind you. As Linares put it, “Try to control the situation, and don’t let the situation control us.” Read the rest of this entry »
MIAMI – Welcome to the Pool of Death. Three of the World Baseball Classic’s best teams — the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela — came to Miami last weekend knowing that only two of them would still be there past Friday. (Apologies to Israel and Nicaragua, the minnows unceremoniously chucked into the shark tank.) And by dint of the schedule, it was Venezuela that seemed to draw the shortest straw, opening pool play against the powerhouse Dominican Republic on Saturday night, then facing Puerto Rico, the 2017 tournament runner-up, just 24 hours later. The options before Venezuela: sink or swim.
“When you speak about the pool of death, when you say that Venezuela had the most complicated journey, we Venezuelans are used to that, right?” said manager Omar Lopez before Sunday night’s game. “We are used to complications, tough moments, adversities. Somehow we overcome those obstacles, and this is the same way we are going to play here.”
And that’s exactly what Venezuela did. Buoyed by big bats and some stellar pitching, Lopez’s squad grabbed back-to-back wins over its fellow Latin American super-clubs, taking control of Pool D and virtually guaranteeing the team a spot in the quarterfinals and a date with the Pool C runner-up in Miami a week from now. On Saturday, Venezuela stymied a stacked Dominican lineup and touched up NL Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara in his home park in a 5–1 shocker. On Sunday, they pounded out seven runs in the first two innings en route to a 9–6 win over Puerto Rico. The weekend was a raucous Caracas block party, soundtracked by thousands of fans in red, blue and yellow going wild with every homer and strikeout — outdone only by the Venezuelan players who came spilling out of the dugout to celebrate virtually every hit. Read the rest of this entry »
Earlier today, Jason Martinez examined the state of left field. Now we turn our attention to those who roam center.
Center field is jam-packed with interesting depth charts. Magisterial superstars? We’ve got those — Mike Trout and Ronald Acuña Jr. feature prominently. Marvelous defenders? Byron Buxton is more than just that, but he certainly fits the bill, and Harrison Bader might be his equal with the glove. Exciting rookies? Julio Rodríguez and Riley Greene are both projected to play. Bounce-back candidates, 2021 breakouts who will be trying to prove it again, sketchy defenders who play the position anyway for want of better options — the center field landscape is truly diverse. Sure, Trout tops the list, and sure, the Rockies and Royals bring up the rear, but don’t judge a book by its front and back cover: this might be the most interesting collection of projections in this entire exercise. Read the rest of this entry »
For both the Braves and Brewers, postseason success shares a similar blueprint: length from the starters, timely hits from the lineup, hope for the best with the bullpen (albeit at different times). Milwaukee executed that to perfection in Game 1 of this NLDS; in Game 2, it was Atlanta’s turn, with the Braves drawing the series even with a 3–0 win.
The difference on Saturday was Max Fried, who out-dueled Brandon Woodruff with six shutout innings, striking out nine against just three hits and zero walks. The lefty needed only 81 pitches to record his 18 outs before giving way to three relievers, who dodged plenty of trouble but managed to secure the final three frames with no damage. Like Corbin Burnes in Game 1, Fried didn’t so much beat opposing batters as brush them aside; Willy Adames was the lone Brewer to make it as far as second base against him on a sixth-inning double. Most of his outing was whiffs and soft contact, with Adames’ double the only ball in play he allowed to crack the 100 mph exit velocity mark. At-bats and innings were over in flashes.
The explanation for Fried’s success is simple: He threw strikes. Of his 81 pitches, 58 were in the zone, a 71.6% rate, which he pounded with his four-seamer — humming in at 95 mph on average — before busting out his slider and curve to finish things. Not normally a big swing-and-miss pitcher, he racked up a dozen whiffs on the day, six on the slider, to go with a CSW (called strikes + whiffs) rate of 40%; of his nine strikeouts, seven were swinging. By the time the middle innings rolled around, he’d found a groove: The final 10 Brewers hitters he faced all started their at-bats with a strike, and just two of them reached base. Read the rest of this entry »
I come here not to bury MLB, and not really to praise it, but to wonder what else it could have done. On Friday, the league announced that it would be pulling this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta in the wake of Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature passing a law that would, among other things, impose burdensome new ID requirements on voters, limit absentee voting, and give the legislature wide latitude to intervene on state and county election boards. It was a move both correct and frustratingly limited, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise both doing the least and also the most it realistically could in the moment.
Argue if you’d like that MLB’s decision is as much about optics as doing the right thing. (You’d be correct.) Feel free to think that, regardless of the reasoning, a good decision remains a good decision. (You’d once again be right.) MLB had no choice here; holding a marquee, vote-driven event in a state where voting itself is under attack would be tone deaf and wrong. Nor should a league set to celebrate the life and career of Henry Aaron at the Midsummer Classic do so in a state whose new voter law disproportionately affects Black voters. That’s how you look both stupid and wrong, and for as much as MLB has been both in the past, stepping in this particular mess was a mistake easily avoided.
The Braves, meanwhile, put out a statement saying they were “deeply disappointed” in MLB’s decision, claiming that by moving the game, it was robbing the team of a chance to “use this event as a platform to enhance the discussion.” Before we examine the league’s actions further, it’s perhaps worth digging into that particular nugget of PR babble for a second. How exactly does an All-Star Game lead to a “discussion” about voter suppression? What is there even to discuss? Were the Braves planning on turning the home run derby into a TED talk about whether it’s bad when a state decides to make it harder for people of color to exercise their rights? The whole thing reads rather callously coming from a team that abandoned a perfectly functional stadium in a majority-Black city for a brand-new one, built at great expense to local taxpayers in one of Atlanta’s white suburbs, and yet claims that Atlanta is “our city.” It’s worth mentioning that the Braves didn’t make a statement about SB 202, as this Jim Crow-aping bill is called, when it was conceived, debated or passed. It all suggests that fans in Atlanta and Georgia can count on their baseball team speaking out only when it is directly impacted. Read the rest of this entry »
After nine seasons, three division titles, a pennant and an historic World Series championship, Theo Epstein is saying goodbye to the Cubs. That surprising news came Tuesday afternoon, announced jointly by the team and its outgoing president of baseball operations. “I believe this is the right decision for me even if it’s a difficult one,” Epstein wrote in a statement released to the press. “And now is the right time.” Chicago will now be under the control of Jed Hoyer, the team’s general manager and Epstein’s long-time second in command, but the fate of both the franchise and its departing boss is less clear.
Taking over the Cubs in October 2011 after leaving the Red Sox under a cloud (and disguised as a gorilla), Epstein helped transform Chicago from National League also-ran and frequent cellar dweller into a juggernaut, culminating in the 2016 World Series win that ended a century-long title drought. He and his lieutenants drafted, developed or acquired virtually every important piece of that ‘16 roster, from Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo to Kyle Schwarber to Jon Lester to Jake Arrieta, and set the stage for what looked to be a dynasty. But diminishing returns and short postseason stays have left the Cubs in the championship cold over the last four seasons, and now their architect is moving on.
Those recent struggles may be part of Epstein’s decision to leave, though in a letter he sent to team employees and acquired by The Athletic, he claims that a decade at the helm was all he had in mind from the start. “Bill Walsh’s theory that in the sports industry a change in leadership after about a decade can be beneficial for both the organization and the individual has always resonated with me,” Epstein writes. Those of you blessed with the gift of being able to do basic math will note that 2020 minus 2011 equals nine, not 10. But per Epstein’s letter, a number of factors came into cutting his reign short by a year, including the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the team’s finances; the presence of Hoyer, who joined the club as GM when Epstein arrived; and, as Epstein put it, “decisions this winter that carry long-term consequences … best made by someone who will be here for a long period.” Read the rest of this entry »
The pivotal and most crucial decision of Game 5 of the World Series was attended by a wave of boos, even as Dave Roberts got it right.
Amid the carnage and chaos at the end of Game 4 a scant 20 hours prior was the realization that the fulcrum of the series was now the left arm of Clayton Kershaw. That he would be the man on the mound was already known, as he’d been announced as the scheduled starter for Game 5 well before then, but the circumstances surrounding his turn swung as sharply as Game 4 itself. In the moments before Brett Phillips overturned the world, Kershaw was going to take the mound as the man to end Los Angeles’ three-decade run without a title. In the moments after, he became the man who would have to overcome his checkered postseason past to break the deadlock and put the Dodgers on the doorstep of a championship. If he couldn’t, Los Angeles would be facing the end of the road in Game 6.
It’s both unfair and tiresome that the playoffs always seem to swing around Kershaw, but he warps the series around him, a gravity well that sucks up matter and turns it into white-hot takes. There’s also the fact that the Clayton Kershaw Postseason Narrative™ has, for the most part, accurately reflected his October body of work, full of struggles and heartbreaking losses. The irony of these playoffs is that, one weak NLCS start aside, Kershaw has looked more like his regular-season self. Coming into Game 5, his 2020 postseason body of work consisted of eight runs allowed in 25 innings — a 2.88 ERA — and 31 strikeouts, and he was superb in Game 1, holding the Rays to one run in six innings. This is the Kershaw we all know and love. Read the rest of this entry »