For as global a sport as baseball has become, the World Baseball Classic isn’t quite as popular as the quadrennial international championships in other major team sports: the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic tournaments in basketball and ice hockey. That’s not only because the WBC doesn’t have decades of tradition to fall back on, either. Not all the best players go, it takes place during spring training, going all out this early in the year is a dicey proposition for the best pitchers, and China’s bringing one player I’ve heard of: 39-year-old Bruce Chen, who played for Panama in the first two editions of the WBC and has been retired for almost two years.
The WBC isn’t perfect, but it’s awesome. Here’s why you should watch it when it starts next week.
1. It’s a safe outlet for your jingoism.
International sports offer a chance to get nosily, face-paintingly, flag-wavingly patriotic without putting anything serious at stake, like in a war. If you’re the kind of person who watches the Ryder Cup — i.e., you love America so much you’ll watch golf to support it — the WBC offers that outlet in a year when there’s no World Cup (men’s or women’s) and no Olympics.
2. It’s meaningful baseball in early March, and it’s everywhere.
If you’ve flown down to Arizona or Florida from the frozen North, spring training baseball has an obvious appeal: There’s nothing better than leaving a 3,000-mile-long puddle of sleet behind, posting up at the outfield tiki bar, and wearing dry socks for the first time since Halloween. Wear sweaters and jackets all winter, and after a while you’ll forget your forearms are even there.
As a television product, though, spring training is about as interesting as a bunch of minor leaguers practicing in the middle of the day, which is basically what it is. It’s not even all that instructive from an analytical point of view. The WBC, however, puts a title on the line, and sometimes the games can get quite intense.
And it’ll be on TV pretty much around the clock. Pool play takes place in four cities: Seoul, South Korea; Tokyo; Miami; and Guadalajara, Mexico. The North American games all start in the afternoon or evening, but on March 9 and 10, the late games in Miami and Guadalajara will be followed by noon and evening games the next day in Asia, which, thanks to the time difference, start in the middle of the night in North America. Between the WBC and spring training, you could go from 10 p.m. ET on March 8 through midnight on March 12 and not see more than two or three hours without baseball.
3. It’s a first look at prospects, foreign talent, and other baseball worlds.
In 2013, the Netherlands made a surprise run to the semifinals thanks to a quartet of young infielders — Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jurickson Profar, and Jonathan Schoop — who are all household names now, but had combined to play only 58 games in the majors (of which Simmons accounted for 49) at the time of the last WBC.
Four years earlier, American audiences got their first look at Yu Darvish, Aroldis Chapman, and Yoenis Céspedes. And the inaugural WBC in 2006 was the event that set off the Daisuke Matsuzaka hype train, as the future Red Sox right-hander won MVP honors and Japan took home the title.
The normalization of relations between the USA and Cuba, as well as the absence of Japanese superstar Shohei Otani, means that this year’s crop of promising youngsters is mostly made up of players who already have big league experience. Mexico could get Dodgers wunderkind Julio Urias in the later rounds, and Team USA is bringing Houston’s Alex Bregman. Twins right-hander Jose Berrios pitched for Puerto Rico as an 18-year-old in 2013 and will return to the tournament this year, and Phillies catcher Jorge Alfaro, a freak athlete with top-notch power and arm tools, is playing for his native Colombia.
That said, there are a few interesting minor leaguers: 21-year-old man-beast Tyler O’Neill will leave Mariners camp to play for Canada; outfielder Alex Verdugo, the no. 3 prospect in FanGraphs’ ranking of the Dodgers farm system, will suit up for Mexico; and Indians infield prospect Tyler Krieger, a former Clemson standout, will play for Israel.
If you’re the kind of person whose knowledge of foreign baseball begins and ends with Ben Lindbergh’s biannual dissertations on unique NPB standouts, make sure you catch a game at the Toyko Dome, where the crowd puts on a show that’s part college basketball, part Eastern European soccer, and part Mad Max. Meanwhile, Cuba, a team fond of wearing red pants in international tournaments, will bring 19-year-old Yoelkis Céspedes (of the New York Céspedeses; he’s Yoenis’s half-brother) and 30-year-old Alfredo Despaigne, who carries a decade of international experience and has a reputation for matching big home runs with big home run celebrations. Seldom do American baseball fans get such easy access to so much evidence that the game looks a little different in every country.
4. Honkbal returns, and the Netherlands should be everyone’s second-favorite team.
One of the coolest things about international team sports is seeing a country run out its one superstar and a bunch of minor leaguers against a traditional power, only to have those minor leaguers rise to the level of their competition and hold their own, like Iceland and Wales in the last European soccer championships.
With staff ace Diegomar Markwell and NPB home run king Wladimir Balentien leading the way, the Netherlands did that during their 2013 semifinal run, and the team remains the coolest thing about the WBC four years later.
- Dutch baseball is the foothold in Europe that MLB needs. Many of the members of the Dutch national team are from that nation’s Caribbean territories — specifically Aruba and Curacao — but 13 of them were born in Europe, including Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius. Twelve members of the Dutch team play in the Honkbal Hoofdklasse, an eight-team professional league based in the Netherlands. It’s more like indy ball than what American or Japanese fans would consider a “major league” operation, but it’s professional baseball on the European mainland. Because the WBC is a 16-team tournament and there really aren’t 16 countries capable of filling out a competitive roster, some teams rely on American ringers to paper over the cracks. That’s how you get an Israeli team with one Israeli-born player on the roster, or Anthony Rizzo playing for Italy in 2013. But the Dutch team is almost wholly from the Netherlands, Curacao, and Aruba, which means that unlike other European WBC entries, the Netherlands is developing its own professional-quality baseball talent. Then there’s the fact that Dutch is an incredibly fun language — “baseball,” as you might have noticed, is “honkbal,” which, if nothing else, is a fun change of pace for Americans who experience the sport almost entirely in English and Spanish.
- This group of position players is legit. All four developing infielders from 2013 — Bogaerts, Simmons, Schoop, and Profar — are back, and in the cases of Bogaerts and Schoop, they’re significantly better than they were last time. Add Gregorius to the mix and suddenly there’s so little room on the dirt Profar might start in center field. The Dutch also return Balentien and veteran utilityman Yurendell de Caster. Under the care of Giants hitting coach Sir Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, and with the United States, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic on the other side of the bracket, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see the Netherlands mash its way back to the semifinals in 2017.
- The Dutch pitching staff is like nothing you’d see in the big leagues. While the Netherlands has developed an infield to compete with any other in the tournament, the pitching staff has to get by on guile. The Netherlands can call on only four pitchers with big league experience: Jair Jurrjens, Rick van den Hurk, Shairon Martis, and (if they reach the knockout round) Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. But the core of the Dutch staff is drawn from not from MLB, but the Honkbal Hoofdklasse.
One of the breakout stars of the 2013 WBC was Diegomar Markwell, a Reubenesque journeyman left-hander who started in upset victories over South Korea and Cuba before Edinson Vólquez and the Dominican Republic beat him in the semifinals. Other oddities include 42-year-old Robbie Cordemans, who’s pitching in his fourth WBC (to go with four Olympic appearances), and hard-throwing former Twins prospect Loek van Mil, who at 7-foot-1, is the tallest professional baseball player ever.
Taken as a whole, the Netherlands pitching staff evokes the same sense of joy that Bartolo Colón does, or a position player in mop-up duty who busts out an unhittable knuckleball. The quality of play in MLB is so high that junkballers like Markwell, physical outliers like van Mil, and graybeards like Cordemans get weeded out. But at the international level, those MLB talents get put on the same field as guys you’ve never heard of who play the game a completely different way.
5. Lineup construction is going to be a challenge.
This is something of a golden age for Puerto Rican shortstops: Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa’s battle for the AL Rookie of the Year in 2015 was followed by Javier Báez’s postseason breakout in 2016. Now, all three will come together to form the Traveling Wilburys of infields.
Puerto Rico, like several other American nations, will have to get creative in order to get all of its best players on the field at the same time. How will Venezuela, with Miguel Cabrera and José Altuve in the fold, find time for Rougned Odor and Víctor Martínez? Will the Dominican Republic play Manny Machado at shortstop to make room for Adrián Beltré at third? Which of the dozens of combinations of Bregman, Daniel Murphy, Ian Kinsler, Brandon Crawford, Matt Carpenter, and Nolan Arenado will USA manager Jim Leyland use across his infield?
6. It’s an escape from routine.
The WBC, despite all the familiar names, feels like it takes place in a different universe from MLB. We’re gearing up for a 2017 regular season that will be dominated by familiar names in familiar combinations, wearing familiar uniforms. We’re not used to seeing Chris Archer throw to Buster Posey, or Nelson Cruz and José Bautista in the same lineup, all in a tournament that can change completely based on one game. Holding the tournament once every four years makes it feel different from the quotidian baseball experience we get used to, and that escape is worth it for its own sake.