March’s best sports tournament is back this week. No, I’m not talking about NCAA basketball—the World Baseball Classic is sneakily, tremendously fun, and I write this primer today in the hope that you, dear reader, will enjoy the spectacle this month.
The 2023 WBC will be the fifth iteration of the tournament, which offers an excellent opportunity to watch meaningful baseball in March, get an early look at prospects and international stars (Korean outfielder Jung-Hoo Lee could be the best position player free agent next winter), and remember some guys who are gone from MLB but are still competing internationally. (Oliver Pérez is in Mexico’s bullpen, and Yoenis Céspedes is in Cuba’s lineup! Matt Harvey’s on Team Italy!! Managed by Mike Piazza!!!)
Because the pandemic postponed the 2021 tournament, the WBC hasn’t been held since 2017, when the United States won its first trophy. So in case you forgot how it works, or never knew in the first place, here are 15 questions and answers about the World Baseball Classic. First pitch is Tuesday night at 11 ET.
1. There are a lot of sports going on this month. Why should I watch the WBC?
With high-level, high-stakes baseball this early in the year, who needs spring training to tide you over until the MLB season begins? The best part of the WBC is that it all matters, with the combination of single-elimination baseball and national fervor producing intense drama. The players care. The emotions flow. The crowds are more raucous than any you’ll see at an MLB contest. I attended the last couple games of the 2017 tournament at Dodger Stadium, and it was one of the most lively sports experiences I’ve ever observed.
For an introductory example, watch this clip of Nelson Cruz hammering a go-ahead home run off peak Andrew Miller in the eighth inning of a pool-play matchup in 2017. I sent this highlight to a colleague who’s a baseball fan but WBC agnostic, and he responded, “I’m all in!”
2. OK, that was a fun highlight. How does the tournament work?
The WBC has flexible eligibility rules: Players can compete for any country as long as they’d theoretically qualify for citizenship there, if they were to apply for it. This is a beneficial wrinkle, as it allows more MLB players to compete for more countries that aren’t traditional baseball powers.
In the largest field to date, 20 teams will compete for the 2023 title. They’re split into four groups—located in Japan, Taiwan, Miami, and Phoenix—of five teams each, which will face off in a round-robin setup. The top two teams from each group will advance to the single-elimination portion of the tournament for the quarters, semis, and final.
3. Who’s favored?
Vegas says it’s the Dominican Republic—not the defending champs. I also say it’s the Dominican Republic because, well, check out one possible version of the Dominican lineup:
- Julio Rodríguez, CF
- Juan Soto, LF
- Manny Machado, 3B
- Rafael Devers, DH
- Teoscar Hernández, RF
- Jeremy Peña, SS
- Wander Franco, 2B
- ???, 1B (Vladimir Guerrero Jr. withdrew over the weekend due to a knee injury)
- Francisco Mejía, C
And that configuration doesn’t include Ketel Marte, Willy Adames, or Eloy Jiménez. Other than the catcher position, and now first base with Guerrero’s injury, the D.R. lineup is loaded. How are opposing pitchers supposed to navigate that top four?
The team’s rotation depth is a relative weakness, but it starts supremely strong with reigning National League Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara and World Series hero Cristian Javier. And the bullpen is packed with a bunch of the Astros relievers who dominated in October—Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero, and Héctor Neris—plus proven closer Camilo Doval.
4. Not the U.S.? I thought you said they won in 2017?
They did, and they’re a close no. 2 in the Vegas odds this time around, thanks to a lineup that’s even deeper than the D.R.’s. Here’s one possibility:
- Mookie Betts, RF
- Trea Turner, SS
- Mike Trout, CF
- Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
- Nolan Arenado, 3B
- Kyle Tucker, LF
- Pete Alonso, DH
- J.T. Realmuto, C
- Jeff McNeil, 2B
Manager Mark DeRosa has plenty of options as he distributes playing time; that possible permutation doesn’t include Will Smith, Tim Anderson, Kyle Schwarber, or Cedric Mullins II. The U.S. position player pool thus includes perhaps the two best catchers in baseball, three MVP winners, and an all-around balance of power and speed.
5. OK, so what’s the problem? That sounds like a favorite to me.
Does this set of starters get your patriotic adrenaline flowing?
- Adam Wainwright
- Merrill Kelly
- Lance Lynn
- Brady Singer
- Miles Mikolas
- Kyle Freeland
Initially, Clayton Kershaw and Nestor Cortes were on the roster, but an insurance issue and hamstring injury, respectively, pushed the southpaws out of the rotation. Now, the U.S. will have to match the best starters that other countries have to offer with, charitably, a group of no. 3s.
6. Where are all the good starters? What about Scherzer and Verlander and all the other American-born aces?
There’s a huge disparity between the proportion of MLB’s best starting pitchers and position players who will play at this tournament. Out of the top 30 pitchers in fWAR last season, only five (17 percent) are on WBC rosters. For comparison, 18 of the top 30 position players (60 percent) are on WBC rosters, including eight of the top 10.
A desire to avoid injury before the MLB season begins—always a greater concern for pitchers than hitters—is the obvious culprit. Even the pitchers who have committed to the WBC will face pitch-count limits and rest mandates between games, like in the Little League World Series, as they ramp up their workload during the time they’d normally use for spring training.
7. Is that a new development?
Not really, at least where the U.S. is concerned. The 2017 championship team won with Marcus Stroman as its ace, after surviving win-or-go-home games with Danny Duffy and Tanner Roark on the mound. So it can be done, even if the prospect of, say, an Alcantara versus Wainwright matchup sounds scary from an American perspective.
Note that the relative lack of top pitchers—and that applies mostly to starters; many of the top relievers are on tournament rosters—could make for a more entertaining set of topsy-turvy games. The average game at the 2017 WBC featured 10.4 runs, 12 percent more than the average MLB game that season. That’s a change from how offense usually decreases in tournament baseball, as we see every October.
8. You also said the Dominican Republic’s weakness is rotation depth. Does anyone have a good rotation top to bottom?
May I introduce you to Japan’s quartet of starters? Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish—the latter of whom won the 2009 WBC title game against South Korea—are bona fide aces, and they’re joined by two Nippon Professional Baseball youngsters who are poised to break out on the international stage: 24-year-old Yoshinobu Yamamoto and 21-year-old Roki Sasaki.
Yamamoto is the back-to-back winner of the Sawamura award (NPB’s Cy Young equivalent) and boasts a 1.54 ERA over the last two seasons. He could be available for MLB teams to sign as early as next offseason. Meanwhile, over a two-start span last April, Sasaki pitched a 19-strikeout perfect game, then followed up with eight more perfect innings. (Then his manager pulled him, one inning short of back-to-back perfectos. Imagine the discourse if that happened in MLB.) ZiPS projections peg Sasaki as by far the best under-23 pitcher in the world.
Frankly, the prospect of watching Yamamoto and Sasaki face MLB’s best has me so excited that I initially glossed over the fact that Ohtani is in this rotation too. Then I saw that Ohtani hit two homers, including one from his knee, in a tune-up exhibition for Samurai Japan over the weekend, and I realized I should gloss over him no more.
9. Is Japan’s lineup as good as its rotation?
That’s a tricky question to answer because so many of Japan’s regulars play in NPB. Three names stand out for MLB audiences though. In the outfield, Lars Nootbaar is about to break out for the Cardinals, and viewers can catch an early glimpse of new Boston batter Masataka Yoshida.
And the real draw—other than Ohtani, of course—is 23-year-old third baseman Munetaka Murakami, who likely won’t reach the majors until 2026 but just won NPB’s Triple Crown with an outrageous season that featured a .318/.458/.711 slash line with 56 home runs—a record for Japanese-born sluggers—and 134 RBIs. As of last September, multiple projection systems pegged Murakami as the world’s best hitter under age 23.
Murakami, Yamamoto, Sasaki, and Korean star Lee should follow in the rich lineage of baseball stars—particularly from Japan, South Korea, and Cuba—who played in the WBC before MLB.
10. So, are the Dominican Republic, the U.S., and Japan the top three teams?
Yes, and conveniently, they’re the three teams that have won the tournament before: Japan in 2006 and 2009, the D.R. in 2013, and the U.S. in 2017.
At this tournament, Japan is favored to win Pool B, the U.S. Pool C, and the D.R. Pool D.
11. What about other teams that have done well before, even if they didn’t win?
The Netherlands finished fourth at each of the last two tournaments but may be more of a long shot this time around. Most of the core Dutch players—Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop, and slugger Wladimir Balentien—are past their primes, leaving only Xander Bogaerts as a remaining impact player in the lineup. At least the Dutch were drawn into Pool A and can avoid any of the top teams, giving them a good chance to at least reach the quarterfinals.
I also harbor doubts about Puerto Rico in 2023 after they finished second in both 2013 and 2017. In the last WBC, Puerto Rico was one of the most entertaining teams in the field, led by the three-shortstop combination of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Javier Báez.
But the 2023 Puerto Rican roster is missing Correa—for the birth of his child, not because of his ankle—while Báez is coming off a terrible season in Detroit. The new roster, led by new manager Yadier Molina, is weak at the infield corners and in the outfield, where it’ll be relying on Enrique Hernández and Eddie Rosario (both coming off down years of their own) and fringe major leaguers. And the rotation is even shallower than the lineup.
Puerto Rico still has Lindor, a decent rotation—with Stroman, the 2017 hero for the U.S. team, now playing for his mother’s birthplace—and a great Edwin Díaz–Alexis Díaz bullpen-brothers duo. But especially with Puerto Rico playing in the tournament’s toughest pool, they seem more likely to be eliminated in pool play than to reach the final again.
12. Is there a dark horse that could take its place next to the three previous winners?
Venezuela finished third at the 2009 WBC, with Miguel Cabrera and Félix Hernández leading the way, but has gone just 3-7 combined over the last two tournaments. Performing so poorly again in 2023 would be a massive disappointment.
This Venezuela roster is deep and balanced, with a supply of star power as well. It boasts one of the WBC’s top catchers (Salvador Perez) and outfielders (Ronald Acuña Jr.). Its pitching staff is short on top-caliber relief options beyond Phillies lefty José Alvarado, but it’s so full of capable starters—Pablo López, Martín Pérez, Ranger Suárez, Luis Garcia, Jesús Luzardo, and Eduardo Rodriguez—that it should have no trouble finding quality innings every game.
Most of all, Venezuela benefits from the tournament’s deepest group of infielders outside the D.R.: José Altuve, Luis Arraez, Andrés Giménez, Eugenio Suárez, and Gleyber Torres. Part of the fun of national team rosters is how they’ll sometimes end up with one especially stacked position, like Puerto Rico’s shortstops in 2017, and that’s the case with the Venezuelan second basemen this year.
The tricky part is that Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic are all in Pool D, and only two can advance. I’d consider the D.R. and Venezuela as group favorites, ahead of the back-to-back runner-ups—as long as Venezuela doesn’t start the 39-year-old Cabrera in his international swan song over one of the much better, younger options on the roster.
Can I give you another dark horse, while we’re on the subject?
13. Am I asking the questions, or are you?
I’ll take that as a “yes” and forge onward. Mexico has even less of a track record of success at the WBC than Venezuela, having never reached the semifinals and having been eliminated in the first round in both 2013 and 2017. But the 2023 edition could make a deep run.
None of Mexico’s position players are true stars after catcher Alejandro Kirk withdrew. But the team has a group of solid hitters, with the likes of Randy Arozarena, Rowdy Tellez, Isaac Paredes, Luis Urías, Alex Verdugo, and 2022 breakout slugger Joey Meneses. And the rotation is much better than the U.S.’s, with ace Julio Urías followed by Taijuan Walker, Patrick Sandoval, and José Urquidy.
Also, unlike Venezuela, Mexico should benefit from an eminently navigable Pool C, which features a huge gap in roster talent between the top two teams and the other three. Both the U.S. and Mexico are heavy favorites to advance out of the Phoenix pool ahead of Canada, Colombia, or Great Britain.
14. Ah, now we’re back to the U.S. What’s its schedule?
While the overall tournament begins on Tuesday night (for American audiences; it’ll be Wednesday in Taichung), the U.S. won’t play its first game until Saturday against Great Britain, which is expected to finish last in the group but surely seeks revenge for all the recent times the U.S. has tied or beaten England in soccer World Cups. The next night brings the Americans’ biggest game of the group stage, against Mexico; will Julio Urías pitch in Mexico’s first game, against Colombia, or be saved for a start against the U.S.?
On Monday (the 13th), the U.S. will face Canada, led by former MVP Freddie Freeman, who said last month that his country would need a “miracle on dirt” to win this game. Finally, after a day off, the U.S. will complete pool play against Colombia, which gave the U.S. a scare back in 2017 due to a brilliant José Quintana performance.
15. You have me convinced. This tournament sounds like a blast, and I’ll check it out—at least before March Madness begins in full. How do I follow along?
Almost every game throughout the tournament will be broadcast on the various Fox networks (Fox, FS1, and FS2), with a few early contests relegated to Tubi. The first week-plus involves a veritable cornucopia of baseball content, including wall-to-wall action with 15 total games spanning Saturday and Sunday.
After pool play, one quarterfinal game will take place each day from March 15 to 18. Then come the semifinals on March 19 and 20 and the final on March 21, from LoanDepot Park in Miami.