Why Team Israel Isn’t a Surprise

If nothing else, Team Israel looked like a nice little story for the World Baseball Classic. It was their first time qualifying for the event, but they lacked the name recognition on their roster to be considered a serious threat. Being thrown into a pool with Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, and South Korea — teams that feature players from high-level professional leagues — felt nearly insurmountable. But here we are, with Israel already having qualified for the next round following wins over Korea and Taipei. Their showdown tonight with the Dutch team’s loaded infield may be something of a reality check. Nevertheless, Team Israel’s success shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re legit.

There isn’t a prototypical star on Israel’s roster. They weren’t able to bring in a top-tier Jewish talent like Ryan Braun. But what Team Israel does boast is the benefit of having more than a few big-league players in the lineup — and some of the best players in the minors, as well. Ike Davis isn’t hitting 30 homers in the big leagues anymore, but he’s still better than most of the professional players in the world. Cody Decker, Nate Freiman, Sam Fuld, Ty Kelly, Ryan Lavarnway, Jason Marquis, and Josh Zeid are better than most of the professional players in the world. They’ve reached higher highs than most of their competition.

It’s important to remember this one, all-important thing: baseball is hard. Being good enough to play in the leagues in Korea and Taipei is really hard. Being good enough to get even a single plate appearance in Major League Baseball is probably even harder. The teams from Korea and Taipei are largely All-Star teams, the best of the best of highly competitive leagues. But they’re not fully stocked, either.

Korea lacks Jung-ho Kang. They don’t have Jae-gyun Hwang or Hyun-soo Kim or Byung-ho Park, either. The players of the KBO are good — probably about Double-A level on average — but the team doesn’t have the best eligible players on the roster. Baseball in Taipei is probably the rough equivalent of A-ball. Israel doesn’t have a domestic league. Their national team, however, is composed largely of Triple-A and MLB talents.

Our initial biases are shaped by the fact that we know that baseball thrives in Asia and that the concept of a Team Israel is an unfamiliar, without a known impact talent on the roster. The names of Team Korea and Team Chinese Taipei are unknown to us, but because we know of the existing leagues, we assume their talent and supremacy over players who have fallen out of grace in the big leagues, or have never been able earn a long-term call-up.

Before September call-ups, there are 750 jobs for players in Major League Baseball. That’s a large number. But it also represents just the tiniest fraction of professional ballplayers in the world. We mentally discount players in American organized ball for not being one of those 750 guys or for being merely a half-prospect like Team Israel member Tyler Krieger. We’re spoiled, in a way, by the big leagues. We forget that the 25th man on the worst team in the league is still incredibly accomplished — and likely better at baseball than 99% of the world.

Team Israel is good at baseball. It’s composed of talented players who’ve have played at a high level. The teams from Korea and Taipei are, too. But we forget just how good Double-A is and how good Triple-A is, even though, at times, those levels are cast in the light of baseball purgatory.

The Netherlands will be a mighty test for Israel tonight. But whether or not the latter club wins, they’re in. They’re moving on to the next round. And goodness knows they’ve earned it.

Team Israel wasn’t an underdog. They were an underappreciated force of baseball, and they’ve claimed their stake in the Classic.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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Barney Coolio
5 years ago

Yeah, pretty much. It would be cool if Team Israel won the whole tournament. It will also be cool if Jason Marquis can use the WBC exposure to return to the bigs. Same for Bruce Chen of team China. Chen also represented Panama in the past.

I wonder what percentage of Team Israel players have ever been to Israel?

Barney Coolio
5 years ago
Reply to  maumannts

Oh, nice, they took a team trip to Israel in January. Still, it is really weird for “Team Israel” to be composed entirely of players who have never lived in Israel. Same deal with Italy.

5 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Hey now, Shlomo Lipetz was born in Tel Aviv.

Tom Jitterbug
5 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

There are a handful players on Team Italy who were born and raised in Italy. An infielder named “Alessandro” … something … comes to mind. I remember him as one guy that Anthony Rizzo drove in on a go-ahead double in 2013.

5 years ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

Good question. Israel has a lot more talent than most other teams in the tournament. As long as players elect to play for them, they will not be underdogs. Kind of the exact opposite of the Cuba team!