Four years ago, I wrote a post on “Fixing the WBC” that revolved around one primary suggestion: move the timing of the event to mid-season. Many of the reservations that teams have about their players participating in the event have to do with the injury risks of getting away from a normal pre-season workout, and moving the event to mid-season — in that piece, I suggested just replacing the All-Star Game with the WBC and making the break a few days longer — would eliminate that primary concern.
However, it’s not a particularly realistic suggestion. The All-Star Game is a big money maker for Major League Baseball, and a sport as steeped in tradition as MLB isn’t going to simply cast it aside once every four years. While fully represented WBC squads playing meaningful games would almost certainly be more entertaining than any AL/NL All-Star clash, MLB’s preference is clearly for both events to be highly successful, rather than choosing one over the other. Just from a financial perspective, canceling the All-Star Game is probably a non-starter, so even if I think the WBC would work better mid-season, it’s probably not a feasible idea.
However, I do think that there’s one aspect of the mid-season WBC suggestion that could easily be ported over to the current timeframe and would make the event both more enjoyable and increase participation from MLB players: make the entire event a single elimination tournament, March Madness style.
The current setup for the WBC involves three rounds; a set of four round-robin pools with six games in each pool, then two second round double elimination groups with another six games apiece, and then the championship round that culminates with a three game single elimination finale. That’s 39 games spread out over 17 days. Most of those 39 games aren’t going to carry much weight, and unfortunately, they’re going to be ignored by a large population of the audience that MLB is trying to capture.
26 of the 39 games that were played in the 2009 WBC drew less than 20,000 fans in attendance, and many of those were in the 10,000 range. The first round matchups in Japan drew 40,000+ for each of the three games that involved Japan, then 13,000 for each of the three games that didn’t. In Toronto, they got over 40,000 for U.S. vs Canada, then topped out at 13,272 over the next five games. Even with powerhouses like Venezeula and the U.S. to watch, along with rooting on Team Canada, there was little interest in five of the six first round games. Even in the second round, the double elimination format saw match-up fatigue set in. The U.S. vs Puerto Rico drew 30,000 in their first game in Miami, then drew just 13,000 for their rematch three days later.
It just doesn’t need to take 38 games to eliminate 14 teams and leave us with a single game championship. It’s overkill, and it reduces the importance of each individual game. Yes, it increases the chance that the best teams will advance from each round, but I’m not even sure that’s actually in the sport’s best interests. The best moments in NCAA tournament history are the little guys storming the court after knocking off a top seed, and the fact that each game is a win-or-go-home affair adds a level of tension to each game that is essentially unmatched in any other sport.
Major League Baseball has already been wooed by the excitement of single game eliminations, and expanded the playoffs to ensure that we get two additional winner-take-all playoff games every year. They’re not very good indicators of team strength, and there’s an inherently unfair characteristic to having all that work decided by one game, but it’s absurdly exciting. And, let’s be honest, baseball could stand to be viewed as a more exciting sport.
Switching to a single elimination tournament would give us a 15 game schedule in the winner’s bracket, and would allow for the entire event to take place in a single week. Instead of having it spread out over the first half of March, imagine this WBC schedule:
1 vs 4: Japan vs Brazil
1 vs 4: Venezuela vs Chinese Taipei
1 vs 4: United States vs Spain
1 vs 4: Dominican Republic vs Italy
2 vs 3: Cuba vs China
2 vs 3: Korea vs Netherlands
2 vs 3: Mexico vs Australia
2 vs 3: Puerto Rico vs Canada
1/4 vs 2/3
1/4 vs 2/3
1/4 vs 2/3
1/4 vs 2/3
The whole thing takes a week. No team would play more than two days in a row, and if a top seed went the whole way, they’d have a day off between each game. The strain put on valuable arms would be significantly reduced, and each country would only need to bring three starting pitchers with them, as the Game 1 starter would have four or five days rest before the Championship game. From a practical standpoint, you’d probably be looking at no more than 12-14 innings from any one pitcher, well down from the 20 that Hisashi Iwakuma threw to lead all pitchers in the 2009 tournament. In the 2009 WBC, eight teams asked their pitchers to throw at least 45 innings, and Japan, Korea, and Venezuela all topped 70 innings apiece. Under this current system, where no team would play more than four games, you’d be looking at a maximum of 35-40 innings pitched for each country.
Each game would be highly meaningful and worth watching. Yes, a top team like the U.S. or Venezuela might end up going out in the first or second round, but people do not turn off the NCAA tournament simply because Richmond beats Syracuse or because Lehigh beats Duke. These massive upsets are celebrated parts of the tournaments history, and so it would be if Chinese Taipei took out Venezuela in round one.
People love the NCAA tournament, not because it’s fair or a good indicator of a team’s talent level, but because it’s an exciting sporting event that provides drama and memories. I don’t remember a single game from the 2009 WBC, to be honest. The stakes are not high enough for any game to be considered all that memorable until you get to the semifinals, the only single elimination part of the entire tournament.
A single city venue would make travel far more equitable for the teams, would allow fans to make a spring vacation and go nuts watching baseball for a week, and would almost certainly increase attendance for every game, creating a more lively atmosphere in the process. From a logistical standpoint, having access to two MLB stadiums would be ideal, so the event could rate between Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, D.C., and the Bay Area when it is in the U.S. Those larger population centers would attract more fans to the parks than the current sites in Phoenix and Miami as well.
The primary weakness of a single elimination tournament is that it requires a big spread in talent between teams to provide a fair result if the desire is determine the best overall team. But, I don’t really see that as the point of the WBC. We’re already pretty well aware of the fact that MLB has a few powerhouse countries, and then there are others who are just getting involved in the sport. Giving those underdog countries a chance to advance through a single upset or series of surprising wins would do more to promote the growth of the sport in that country than putting them through low interest round robin games from which they’re unlikely to advance, and shortening the schedule would increase participation and give the WBC a stronger group of talent to promote.
I’m looking forward to the WBC, and will be attending several Pool D games when I’m in Phoenix next weekend, but I would be far more interested in spending a week immersed in a baseball version of March Madness, where every game was winner-take-all and I could watch the beginning to end in seven days. That’s a tournament that would get people’s attention. That’s a tournament that would show off the excitement of the sport of baseball.
Quick addition: As noted by Zach Levine, teams might not be interested in flying across the world to play one game that they probably won’t win. Easiest solution: a consolation bracket, guaranteeing each team multiple games.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.