What to Watch For at the Tokyo Games

It isn’t easy to make it to the Olympics. The backstories of Olympians often inspire awe (and trepidation): athletes, sometimes quite young, dedicating more time to their sport than many adults do to their careers, sacrificing life’s frivolities for the sake of representing their country on a global stage, potentially to the long-term detriment of the young bodies they’re pushing to their limits in order to get there. And that’s before adhering to often-antiquated rules for participation that could see them unfairly removed from eligibility for reasons completely unrelated to their sport. Of course this year, beyond the hurdles of human achievement that always stand between athletes and the Olympics, there’s an unprecedented existential threat looming over the Games and indeed the world.

The Olympic trials and other qualifiers leading up to the Tokyo Games were minor skirmishes compared to the fight against COVID-19. Of course, the recent resurgence of the global pandemic has already made its impact known. Back in March, it was announced that international fans would be prohibited from attending; stadium capacities would be limited to 50% and a maximum of 10,000 fans would be permitted for any given event. But earlier this month that was walked back, with Olympic organizers deciding that Japanese fans would also be barred from attending Olympic events, an announcement that simultaneously discouraged excited potential spectators, added a significant amount to the overall cost of hosting this year’s Games, and caused would-be Olympic viewers worldwide to question how much sense it made to proceed with the Summer Games at all, given the state of the world.

The impact that COVID has had on the much anticipated (albeit fleeting) return of baseball to the Olympics predates this most recent audience restriction by well over a year. As I mentioned when I previewed Team USA’s roster, the qualifying tournaments began in 2019, with four of the six teams earning their Olympic spots at the end of that year before most of us had even heard whispers of a potential pandemic. Japan had an automatic spot in the Games thanks to Tokyo’s role as host city. Israel won the Africa/Europe Qualifying Event. The 2019 Premier12 Tournament saw the addition of two more teams: Mexico, which narrowly edged out the US to earn its spot as the tournament’s top finisher from the Americas, and South Korea, which finished second behind Japan, whose spot was already secured.

The six teams from the Americas that did not qualify at the Premier12 (the United States, Cuba, Canada, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic) were then scheduled to compete in the Americas Qualifying Event, along with the two top finishers from the 2019 Pan American Games (Colombia and Nicaragua). The event was originally set to take place in Arizona in March of 2020, but was halted due to the pandemic and eventually rescheduled for late May 2021 in Florida. The US ultimately bested the competition, earning its spot in the Tokyo Games, and sending the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to the Final Qualifying Tournament, where they were set to join the Netherlands, China, Taiwan (recognized by the IOC as Chinese Taipei), and Australia, to battle it out for the final spot in the six-team Olympic tournament.

That Final Qualifying Tournament was set to be held in Taiwan in June of this year, but a mid-May spike in domestically transmitted COVID-19 cases prompted new restrictions by the local government, resulting in the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) relocating the tournament to Pubela, Mexico. The last-minute venue change presented a brand new set of barriers for entry, ultimately forcing the withdrawal of three of the six teams set to compete at the tournament, as China, Taiwan, and Australia were unable to overcome the pandemic-related logistical issues surrounding international travel to Mexico (or out of their respective countries). Thus the tournament was dwindled down to only three teams: the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and the Netherlands. That any team’s Olympic dreams are dashed by factors outside of athletic competition is crushing; that this move completely eliminated Asian representation at the Final Qualifying Tournament, while also prohibiting the participation of Australia, a country where baseball is steadily rising in popularity, only compounds the heartbreak.

The Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic won that final qualifier and secured the sixth spot in the Tokyo Games, their first Olympic appearance since 1992. And while it would have been much more enjoyable had all the teams been able to participate, getting past the Dominican Republic’s offense would have been a tall order for any opposing squad. Most of the rosters at the Olympics this year feature recent MLB retirees and current minor league prospects, but the DR boasts some of the biggest names on both counts. Melky Cabrera and José Bautista are on the team, and while both spent much of their MLB careers in the outfield, only Cabrera is on the grass for Team DR, with Bautista spending his time at first base. Rather than fielding the 40-year-old slugger in right, the DR has Julio Rodríguez, the second best prospect in the Mariners’ system (No. 11 overall), who is slashing .280/.410/.500 with three home runs in his first 14 games at Double-A after being promoted earlier this season. The 20-year-old translated that minor league success to the Americas Qualifier, leading the tournament in both hits and runs scored, and coming in second in RBI to teammate and former big-leaguer Juan Francisco, who also led the tournament in home runs. The team features other notable prospects in Jeison Guzmán (the No. 9 ranked prospect in the Royals’ org), and Johan Mieses, who is tied with Jarren Duran for the most home runs among Red Sox minor leaguers this season at 15. Still, as impressive as their offense is, the DR’s pitching is middling, and may not be enough to withstand the competition in Tokyo.

Israel

While 29 years is a long time between Olympic appearances, it’s not the longest drought amongst the baseball teams competing at the 2021 Games. For both Israel and Mexico, this will be the first time they’ve ever competed on the Olympic diamond. Both teams are considered long shots to make it to the medal podium, but the Cinderella narrative is nothing new for Team Israel, which is ranked No. 24 in the world, according to WBSC; all the other competing nations’ teams are within the top seven. In recent memory, they’ve already proven their ability to upset more heavily favored teams on the field; in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, they were ranked 41st in the world, but managed to beat South Korea (then No. 3), Taiwan (No. 4), and the Netherlands (No. 9) in the first round of the main tournament, and Cuba (No. 5) in the second round, before placing sixth overall.

Israel’s Olympic pursuit is a continuation of that narrative. Not only is this Israel’s first time playing baseball in the Olympics, it’s the first time the country has qualified for any team sport since the Montreal Summer Games in 1976. Team Israel’s roster includes well known MLB veterans Ian Kinsler and Danny Valencia, along with a handful of lesser known former big-leaguers like catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who saw some MLB playing time earlier this season while Cleveland awaited the return of Roberto Perez from the Injured List. The Israeli pitching staff features a couple of current minor leaguers who’ve each done well for themselves in 2021 so far: lefty Jake Fishman has put up a 28.1% strikeout rate for the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (the Marlins’ Triple-A affiliate) and fellow southpaw Alex Katz has climbed from Low-A all the way up to Double-A within the Cubs system. The staff also includes Josh Zeid and Alon Leichman, who are both employed as minor league pitching coaches; Zeid is the Rehab Pitching Coordinator for the Cubs, while Leichman is a pitching coach for the Mariners’ Double-A affiliate.

Unlike the other Olympic rosters, Team Israel includes a large number of players for whom baseball is not a career. Pitcher Schlomo Lipetz, one of very few members of the team who was born and raised in Israel, is largely credited for building the culture of Israeli baseball that exists today but his “real job” is as VP of Programming and Music Director at City Winery in New York City. At the Africa/Europe Qualifier, the then-40-year-old (he’s had two birthdays since then) didn’t see any playing time until he was brought in to secure the final out in the game that sent Team Israel to Tokyo – a symbolic nod to his role as de facto captain of the team. He’s unlikely to see much playing time in Tokyo either but is nonetheless a welcome presence on a team whose intrigue stems more from their improbable path to the Games than their odds of medaling.

Mexico

Team Mexico’s first Olympic berth is somewhat less surprising (they’re currently ranked fifth in the WBSC rankings), though it has not been without its own controversy. Juan Castro had led the team that defeated Team USA in extra innings to secure Mexico’s spot at the Olympics, but in early June, he stepped down as manager. In a statement on social media, Castro chalked it up to in-house disagreements regarding the Olympic lineup, specifically around the inclusion of MLB veteran Adrián González, who had not competed with the team at any qualifying tournament and who came out of retirement only a few months prior (March 2021) in the hopes of playing at the Summer Games. Benji Gil replaced Castro as manager, and González was indeed included on the team.

As far as the roster goes, of particular note is the age of the players on Team Mexico, with the average being 31.04 years, the highest of any of the teams competing. It’s not by a wide margin (Team Israel and Team DR both have averages in the 30-year range) but it does speak to the type of player on the team. While there are some well known former big leaguers, including González and Oliver Pérez, the minor leaguers representing Mexico are largely in the mold of 29-year-old Joey Meneses, who has been in the minor leagues since 2011, as opposed to the more electrifying prospects featured on the Dominican Republic’s roster.

South Korea

The last time baseball was played in the Olympics, South Korea won gold, thanks largely to their pitching staff, which was headed up by future MLB All-Star Hyun Jin Ryu. Since then, MLB has scooped up a number of notable KBO pitching talents, including the Cardinals starter Kwang Hyun Kim and southpaw Hyeon-Jong Yang, who made his major league debut earlier this season for the Rangers. If Ryu, Kim, and Yang represent the three best arms out of Korea, then the fourth best would be Chang-mo Koo of the NC Dinos, who was the third overall pick of the KBO’s 2015 draft. Unfortunately for Team Korea, Koo is injured at the moment (elbow) and unable to represent his country on the national team. This leaves South Korea’s pitching staff rather depleted, particularly when it comes to the starting rotation. According to a KBO source I spoke with, the likely Game One starter will be 21-year-old Tae-In Wan of the Samsung Lions, who features a four-pitch mix (though he rarely uses his curveball), with a fastball in the 89-93 range. The more impressive arms can be found in South Korea’s bullpen; closers Sang-woo Cho of the Kiwoom Heroes and the LG Twins’ Woo-suk Go both touch 98 and are among the most likely KBO players to be posted to MLB in the near future.

The relative lack of pitching depth perhaps explains why many of Korea’s offensive powerhouses were left off the Olympic roster: with the assumption being that the team’s pitching staff is likely to allow a high percentage of balls to be put in play, the roster construction efforts seemed to put an emphasis on defense over power. SSG Landers infielder Jeong Choi, who has a 1.028 OPS and 20 home runs on the season, was left off despite having the third highest WAR in the KBO. Outfielders Shin-Soo Choo and Sung-bum Na were also surprising omissions, given Choo’s MLB past and Na’s status as one of the league’s best hitters. Instead, defense-forward center fielder Hae-min Park made the cut, despite his underwhelming hit tool (his OPS and wOBA both sit around league average, and his average exit velocity is roughly 83 mph). That’s not to say that Team South Korea has no offensive pop, but they could likely have afforded more. Euiji Yang, the 34-year-old catcher for the NC Dinos, leads the KBO in OPS this year with 1.111 (in fact, he hasn’t finished a season with an OPS below 1.000 since 2017). Also on the team is slugger Baek-ho Kang, who, in the words of my source, “tries to hit it 600 feet, and does,” and Jung-hoo Lee, a center fielder with a good feel to hit.

But lest we forget about the pandemic, COVID has had a recent impact on South Korea’s roster. Within the last few days, Hyun-hee Han and Min-woo Park were both removed from the team due to COVID violations, having broken South Korea’s nation-wide protocols by socializing in a group larger than four people. The disappointment that comes with being removed from Olympic contention would be a profound all on its own, but in the case of the South Korean team, there’s an added incentive to make it to the Olympics: the country mandates military service for every male citizen, but that requirement is waived for those who receive an Olympic medal. Upon their removal, Han and Park were replaced by the Lotte Giants 19-year-old lefty Jin-uk Kim and former big-leaguer Seunghwan Oh.

Japan

The odds-on favorite to win gold in Tokyo is Team Japan, the No. 1 team according to the WBSC. Not only are they playing on their home turf, but their roster is also one of the least-affected by MLB-related roster restrictions. Unlike MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball takes a season break to allow its players the opportunity to represent their country at the Olympics (the KBO similarly takes a break). While several other squads that would be vastly improved by access to the players who are ineligible due to their current major league status are limited to players who are either just before or just after their peak playing days, NPB provides Team Japan with players who are in the midst of their primes. The most notable name on the roster (from an MLB-centered perspective) is undoubtedly Masahiro Tanaka. This will be the first chance many American viewers will have to see Tanaka pitch since the ace opted to return to NPB instead of pursuing further MLB options. But while he may be the most recognizable player to a Western audience, Tanaka’s 2021 hasn’t been as impressive as some other members of Team Japan’s pitching staff. Koyo Aoyagi, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Masato Morishita have the three lowest ERAs in the NPB (1.79, 1.82, and 2.29, respectively). In terms of offense, Yuki Yanagita leads the league with 22 home runs and has the second-most doubles with 23, while Masataka Yoshida is slashing .343/.431/.559 and has only struck out 19 times, while drawing 46 walks (only five intentional).

To be fair, Team Japan isn’t the only roster that benefits from NPB allowing current players to represent their countries in the Olympics. Team USA gains Tyler Austin, who is slashing .315/.413/.603 with 19 home runs for the Yokohama DeNA Baystars this season, along with closer Scott McGough, who has the fifth most saves of any pitcher in NPB with 16 for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Meanwhile, the Chibe Lotte Marines’ Brandon Laird, representing Team Mexico at the Games, has put up an impressive slash line of his own, going .284/.358/.529 with 18 dingers so far in 2021.

All in all, there is a lot to watch for when the Olympic baseball tournament kicks off next week. The first game is between the Dominican Republic and Japan, scheduled for Wednesday July, 28 (with the time difference, that’s Tuesday the 27th here in the States). That’ll be followed by Israel vs. South Korea, and Mexico vs. Dominican Republic on Wednesday, with Team USA’s first game scheduled for the following day against Israel (4 AM Eastern Time on Friday, July 30).





Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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Thizzle13
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Thizzle13

“Pitcher Schlomo Lipetz, one of very few members of the team who was born and raised in Israel”

Although fantastic for Israeli baseball, it’s not good for European baseball. Not a single player born on European soil will be attending the Olympics.