World Baseball Classic Preview: Team USA

Baseball is America’s pastime. Since baseball’s conception in Cooperstown, New York in 1839, the sport has been the lifeblood of American culture and entertainment. Major League Baseball is by far the most prominent and popular baseball league in the world, with revenue totals roughly 10 times as high as the next closest professional league (The Nippon Professional Baseball League of Japan). The United States also produces roughly 75% of MLB players as well as 62% of the league’s All-Stars in the past three seasons. Due to these reasons, when I first heard that the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) had sanctioned the World Baseball Classic (WBC), a first-of-its-kind tournament in which all premier MLB talent could participate, I immediately envisioned domination by the United States. Set to begin in 2006, this was the first time an international professional baseball tournament had a level playing field as Olympic baseball tournaments had never included MLB players. Due to the fact that the tournament was to take place from mid-February to mid-March, I knew that many top tier players would opt out in favor of more traditional spring training schedules. However, I did not anticipate that a disproportionate amount of the players who declined invitations would be Americans. As a result, I was disappointed when the WBC roster for Team USA was filled with B-list MLB players instead of the star-studded roster than I had envisioned. Nevertheless, Team USA had far more players to choose to begin with, so despite the team looking underwhelming on paper relative to expectations, the roster was still more rounded than any other qualifying team. However, as the games progressed and the lethargy of Team USA became more palpable, my hopes of the United States establishing dominance on the world stage started to fade. Watching then-ace Dontrelle Willis falter to Adam Loewen (career 5.85 ERA) of Team Canada was startling, but I reassured myself that the game was just a fluke. After barely escaping the first round of pool play due to a tiebreaker rule, Team USA went on to stumble against less-talented South Korea before being eliminated after an embarrassing loss to Mexico. Japan went on to win the first inaugural WBC as it was clear that the Japanese team placed much more value on the tournament than Team USA did. In the next World Baseball Classic in 2009, Team USA experienced more of the same. The team compiled a competitive, albeit underwhelming roster en route to a disappointing 4th place finish. Meanwhile, Team Japan became back-to-back WBC champions as American baseball fans were once again left wondering how it was possible that we could once again be defeated at our own game. Fast forward to 2013, and the failures of Team USA became as common as the excuses that justified them. Yes, the American team treated these games as nothing more than exhibition matches while other countries poured their hearts out on the field. Yes, the roster for Team USA was a shadow of what it could be. And yes, the fact that most of the American players were not used to playing with each other made things difficult for pitchers and catchers. And while all these excuses were valid, they rang hollow in the ears of baseball fans like myself, the fans who take pride in our national pastime.

      For all of Team USA’s past disappointments in the WBC, there is reason to believe that things will be different for Team USA in the 2017 WBC. First off, Team USA is simply tired of losing this tournament. Manager Jim Leyland, in an interview with the MLB Network, spoke about his thought process when he was asked to manage Team USA, “When I was asked, I could not turn this down. Not from an ego standpoint. It’s an honor of being asked to manage for your country.” The enthusiasm and pride in his country that Leyland exudes when he talks about this opportunity illustrate that these games are more than just exhibition games to him. While it is comforting that Team USA has hired a manager who genuinely wants to win the tournament, Leyland’s passion would be futile without a roster of similarly-minded players. Thankfully, Team USA has assembled a roster that not only has a higher pedigree relative to past teams, but that also is more youthful and motivated to win.

     As it stands now, the American team will feature perhaps the best defensive infield one could conceivably assemble. The projected starting lineup will feature Paul Goldschmidt at 1B (2 Gold Gloves), Ian Kinsler at 2B (1 Gold Glove), Brandon Crawford at SS (back-to-back Gold Glove Winner), Nolan Arenado at 3B (perhaps the best overall defender in the game, and defending Gold Glove winner Buster Posey behind the plate. The defensive prowess of this infield is undoubtedly Team USA’s largest strength, but their projected outfield is also formidable with the leather. As it stands now, Christian Yelich will man LF (a gold glove finalist in 2016), Adam Jones will play CF (4x Gold Glove winner), and either Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, or yet-to-be-confirmed Jackie Bradley Jr. will roam RF. Even reserve player Eric Hosmer has won a gold glove, while backup Catcher Jonathan Lucroy has rated out as one of the game’s top pitch framers the past few seasons. Add all that defensive hardware together and you get a projected starting lineup has won 14 Gold Gloves between them (not to mention if Dallas Keuchel accepts his WBC invitation he would bring 2 Gold Gloves of his own to the table). While defense stands out as the American squad’s most obvious strength, from the looks of it offensive fireworks do not appear to be in short supply either.

The offensive outlook for Team USA is far more encouraging than past years as the lineup possesses power and plate discipline from top to bottom. Here is the optimal lineup based off players who have already accepted invitations (subject to change based off of matchups):

  1. Ian Kinsler (2B) (Right)
  2. Christian Yelich (LF) (Left)
  3. Paul Goldschmidt (1B) (Right)
  4. Nolan Arenado (3B) (Right)
  5. Buster Posey (Catcher) (Right)
  6. Giancarlo Stanton (DH) (Right)
  7. Adam Jones (CF) (Right)
  8. Brandon Crawford (SS) (Left)
  9. Andrew McCutchen (RF) (Right)

A few things about this lineup are noticeable right off the bat (excuse the terrible pun). First, the team lacks left-handed bats. Since splits for RHB (right handed batters) vs. RHP (Right handed pitchers) are not as extreme as LHB vs. LHP this is not as much of a problem as it would be if the handedness of the lineup were flipped, but the addition of a few LHB off the bench would be nice additions. Secondly, this lineup has a dearth of speed, (both in the starting lineup and off the bench) which makes finding a natural leadoff hitter difficult, especially when Daniel Murphy starts over Kinsler at 2B. Conceivably, Yelich or McCutchen could fill the leadoff role, but both are somewhat awkward fits in that spot. Billy Hamilton, the fastest man in baseball, has been extended an offer to join Team USA, and if he accepts his speed would be a useful addition off the bench, but his lack of OBP skills would be a detriment to this lineup if he receives regular at-bats. It is also worth noting that the current roster does not totally lack speed, just top end speed. In my projected lineup, only Goldschmidt had upwards of 14 steals last season. Understandably, stolen bases is not a good indicator of baserunning skills as a whole, but it does illustrate that Team USA is not going to be shredding up the base paths in the 2017 WBC. Admittedly, the aforementioned concerns regarding an RHB-heavy / relatively slow-footed lineup are trivial in the grand scheme of things. When analyzing metrics that are more pertinent to run production, a few things stand out. First off, this is an extremely disciplined lineup. Every hitter in the projected lineup has a walk rate (BB%) above league average with the exception of Kinsler and Adam Jones. Secondly, this is a team that does not strike out very often. In fact, only Giancarlo Stanton had strikeout rate (K%) above league average. With a low K% and high BB% as a team, this is a lineup that will string together good ABs and make the opposing pitcher work to get outs. With plate discipline as a foundation, it is not surprising that the team’s collective Weighted On Base Average (the batting statistics that is used for fWAR) over the previous three years averages out to 126 (meaning this line up’s ability to produce runs is 26% better than the MLB average). All in all, the MLB’s projected lineup entering the 2017 WBC rivals the Dominican Republic as the most intimidating on paper.

      Lastly, we will look at the part of the roster that will be most important if Team USA is going to win its first WBC title: the pitching staff. After Cy Young winner Max Scherzer recently dropped out of the WBC due to a lingering finger issue, the rotation is now headlined by Tampa Bay Rays Right-hander Chris Archer, followed by Kansas City Royals LHP Danny Duffy and Blue Jays righty Marcus Stroman, with more additions to the staff yet to come. While the starting rotation lacks marquee names, there are reasons to be excited about all three of these young starters, especially Stroman. In Stroman’s first three seasons, he has demonstrated an elite ability to induce ground balls, which will work well with Team USA’s elite defensive infield. While on the surface, the starting rotation appears to be weaker than other aspects of the team, smart game management by manager Jim Leyland could mitigate this perceived weakness. In the 2016 playoffs, the strategy of employing relievers both more frequently and earlier in games proved to be a winning strategy. Since these starting pitchers will only be allowed to pitch a few innings anyways due to the fact that their starts are essentially glorified Spring Training outings, the team will be best served by utilizing their elite bullpen arms early and often. Not only is this strategy necessary considering the pitch limits on starting pitchers, but it will also limit run totals. With dominant southpaw Andrew Miller headlining a group of relievers that also includes Orioles standout Mychal Givens and veteran setup man Luke Gregerson, the best bet for the US to limit runs is for their starting pitchers to throw no more than three or four innings before giving way to this slough of baseball’s best firemen. While there are only three relievers that have accepted the offer to play for Team USA, there are many others who have expressed interest in joining the roster including former All-Stars Darren O’Day and Craig Kimbrel. All told, the United States will not have trouble comprising a bullpen that will be deeper and more talented than any other team in the tournament. It is up to Jim Leyland to have the starters on a short leash so that the team can capitalize on this glaring advantage. It is also worth noting that the rules of the WBC permit rotating pitchers on and off the roster from round to round. This allows Team USA to replace starters that have already pitched with more elite bullpen arms as they (hopefully) progress from round to round. With far more reserve players to chose from, this rule gives Team USA a distinct advantage. Team USA may not have Madison Bumgarner or Clayton Kershaw on their roster, but provided that Leyland manages his pitching staff cerebrally, Team USA will look to put up a lot of zeroes on the box score.

     With the 2017 World Baseball Classic just a month away and WBC rosters being finalized, it is evident that the core of the United States roster is more star-studded and youthful than ever before. With an abundance of talent at every position, the stage is set for the United States to finally claim the crown that is rightfully theirs and declare to the world that no country is better at the game of baseball than America.

3 thoughts on “World Baseball Classic Preview: Team USA

  1. Well-written, I would caution optimism for the U.S. players simply due to the timing of the tournament (i.e. hitters and pitchers have been off for a few months). This favors good offensive teams much more than pitchers, which gives teams like the DR, Cuba, and US an advantage.

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    1. Thank you. The timing of the tournament definitely favors hitters, but I think if Leyland uses the bullpen as he should, this will mitigate the timing effect on pitchers and benefit the USA> I also probably should have added something about Alex Bregman. He has been with USA Baseball since he was 14 and has a lot of experience in international play and I would think he would be more motivated than some of the other guys. I have him as an early dark horse for tournament MVP. Either way, really looking forward to the WBC. Feel free to share this blog with anyone you know.

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  2. Just like to point out that maybe the huge size of the mlb compared to the (much) smaller leagues also mean that even foreign players in the mlb going home to play the classic with new guys from their home county league, aren’t really joining new guys to form a new team but rather, due to the small-to-tiniest of the countries (especially the island countries) are going home to reunite with middle school buddies and little league teammates. With such a small population to draw from, they likely grew up playing with and against each other until separating to other countries professionally, Not only would that help with the pure child-like enthusiasm, but the instant cohesion.

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