How to Improve the WBC

I want to like the World Baseball Classic. I want to get into, I do. Really!

Major League Baseball wants to grow the sport. An international tournament is an ideal way to do that. One needn’t look far for successful models. World Cup soccer and Olympic hockey, for instance, both draw the casual American audience to the television. There’s something engaging about a country rooting for the name on the front of a jersey in a tribal and nationalistic way. The passion and joy of the Dominican Republic team has made for compelling theater in past tournaments.

I want to really look forward to this event. I want to fill out a bracket after reviewing Craig Edwards’ WBC roster analysis, and put some money down. I want to. But I can’t. Not in its current shape and form.

I do believe Rob Manfred is right to want to continue the event despite reports of its potential demise.

I do believe baseball is wise to grow the sport, internationally, where it can. I do believe there is some growth opportunity with regard to the event, but like a worthwhile flip-for-profit project, it requires some rehabilitation.

So let’s fix this thing, shall we? I don’t think we can fix it in time for this year — the tournament begins on March 6 — but if there’s to be a tournament in 2021, it could be better.

A Mid-Summer (World Baseball) Classic

The big thing, to me, is where the event occurs on the calendar. Others have proposed moving the Classic to the middle of the summer, which makes a lot of sense. Ideally, baseball would borrow NHL’s approach to the Olympics. The NHL takes a hiatus in the middle of the season, forgoing the All-Star Game every four years. Baseball could employ a similar model, with the All-Star game and its declining ratings replaced every four years by the WBC.

There are a number of problems caused by holding the event in March. Players are just getting into shape, college basketball tournaments are underway and draw sizable media and public focus, and baseball fans might be more interested in the goings-on of their team’s spring-training camp than WBC competition. There are too many distractions. Clearing some space in July, though, before the NFL season begins and after the NBA season concludes, would allow the WBC — and baseball and its best players — to reside alone in the media spotlight.

Would moving the event present scheduling challenges? Sure. But the NHL still found a way to complete a full schedule in 2013-14.

Compel (or Coerce) the Best Players to Play

In this once-every-four-years event, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw are absent from the U.S. roster. Quite simply, for the sake of legitimacy, the best players need to play. I understand the injury risk that comes with extra games, but if this is an event that can help develop the sport’s international appeal, then small injury risks should be outweighed by a greater good: growth of the game.

Play the Event in a Host Country

Like any well-intentioned international sporting event, countries should bid to hold the games and be forced to engage in spending on white-elephant projects to build facilities and event space… Or, OK, maybe not all that. But allowing a country to take ownership of the event — an idea for which Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo! advocated back in 2013 — would allow for all athletes to be gathered in one space, where a sort of opening ceremonies could occur. That would be a positive for marketing and travel tourism.

Change the Format

The event is much too dependent on tiebreakers due to the round-robin format of the first two rounds.

A modest proposal: perhaps the WBC should borrow a page from an underrated event — the NCAA college baseball tournament — and employ an opening round of four, four-team pools where clear winners emerge through double-elimination play. Such a format adds elements of strategy in deciding when to hold or employ an ace pitcher. The semifinals and finals could be, say, a best-of-three series. The maximum number of games a team could play would be 10 in a two-week period.

Eliminate Pitch Limits

I’m aware of the Tommy John epidemic and interested in smarter ways to evaluate fatigue and workload to better keep pitchers healthy. But the pitch limits put in place automatically erode credibility from the event. Pitchers are limited to 65 pitches in the first round, 80 in the second, and 95 in following rounds. Jay Jaffe has everything you need to know about the WBC and rules changes here.

Yes, managers and coaches involved should have clear understanding of what constitutes pitcher abuse. And they should be expected to act responsibility. But if the event were played at a different time of year, such as in the middle of the season, pitchers would also not be in the process of stretching out their arms. They would be in midseason form and capable of shouldering a greater workload.

If you build it differently, more people will come out for the WBC. People would tune in for Kershaw working into the seventh inning of a meaningful game against the Dominican Republic, in the middle of summer, with national bragging rights at stake. At a time when All-Star viewership is declining and when the game wants to increased exposure internationally, dramatic changes to the WBC are worth exploring and, possibly, implementing. If the event is worth holding, it’s worth being done in as compelling manner as possible.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Barney Coolio
6 years ago

Host Country: Sounds cool. But I think MLB wants guaranteed attendance money. US, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Canada could do this pretty easily. Puerto Rico and Cuba to a lesser extent. Puerto Rico only has 6 teams in their league. Italy and the Netherlands would be awesome, but I doubt they have enough high caliber stadiums. Maybe having the WBC throughout the European continent would be awesome.

July: This would take too much time away from baseball for the players who are not participating. And it would lengthen the season, which is already seeming too long as the World Series sometimes creeps into November.

6 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

“US, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Canada could do this pretty easily.”

That’s all you need. Probably more realistically, have it cycle between 1) US 2) Far East 3) other western hemisphere.

6 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Netherlands has three stadiums that they can expand to about 15000-30000 seats. The fourth biggest stadium is this:

6 years ago
Reply to  chaokang

I’d vote for the Netherlands. Great place, great people.

6 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

“July: This would take too much time away from baseball for the players who are not participating.”

This is true, but it also falls under the compel/coerce category. Currently, players can avoid the WBC and instead play in ST games. If there’s no viable alternative, and they’re already in game shape and want to avoid rust, perhaps Kershaw/Trout/etc would be more likely to suit up.