Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, March 21, 2017 -- "The WBC"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

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I’m writing this at about 1:45 a.m. in Yonkers. It’s also 1:45 a.m. in Puerto Rico and 1:45 a.m. in Curacao. It’s 6:45 a.m. in the Netherlands proper.

So about that “the World Baseball Classic is a marketing event” take…

The WBC semifinal last night showed off the Classic’s ineffable mix of exciting, fun baseball and facepalm-inspiring nonsense. The game between Puerto Rico and the Netherlands kicked off at 9 p.m. ET, which is parallel to an NBA Finals game and the NCAA basketball championship, more or less, and ran well past midnight on the East Coast. There’s probably no way to start it earlier, given the location; it’s hard enough to get Los Angelenos to Dodger Stadium for 7 p.m. starts with Clayton Kershaw on the mound; asking them to get to the yard by 6 p.m. for Jorge Lopez and Rick van den Hurk is…aspirational. About 25,000 tickets were sold, which strikes me as pretty good for a baseball game in March. It falls short of what you’d hope for in a global championship semifinal.

The game was a hoot, the kind of sloppy-but-watchable baseball we get every four years in this event. Wladimir Balentien and Carlos Correa hit booming homers, Yadier Molina made a gorgeous throw to catch Jurickson Profar napping, there were bang-bang plays at third and home, and what felt like a constant stream of baserunners stranded (19 in total, as it turned out). It ended, unfortunately, with the extra-innings gimmick taking front and center. The international-baseball rules that govern the WBC dictate that starting in the 11th inning, all half-innings begin with runners placed on first and second. Think penalty kicks, but if the goalie had to face two at once. It’s a bad idea that might work when you’re running some U21 event in East Wherethehell, but turns the semifinal of what is supposed to be a great event into a carnival act. The Netherlands stranded their runners, Puerto Rico scored, and that was that. “Anticlimactic” doesn’t begin to describe the moment for anyone not invested in a Puerto Rico victory. At the very, very least, this rule needs to be suspended for the elimination rounds.

Still, it happened at 1:30 a.m., and only the diehards were watching. Same for the amazing, game-saving Adam Jones catch on Saturday night, which happened at about 12:15 a.m., when only the diehards were watching. The World Baseball Classic, which should be minting new baseball fans, is all but invisible to them, happening on a cable network no one gets at times casual fans are sleeping, or watching basketball, or doing what people do late on a Saturday night. It’s been a joy for the people in my Twitter feed, but just a line on the ticker the next morning for the 99.99% of people outside that world. The WBC has basically become great at fan service, at pandering to the base, without doing a damned thing to move beyond that base.

There’s an attitude you face when you criticize the WBC that you should, and I’m only lightly paraphrasing here, “shut up and enjoy it.” The core principle of good journalism, to be sure. There are people deeply invested in the success of the event, and there are people just giddy to be watching moderately meaningful baseball in March. Those groups aren’t wrong; it’s just that you can’t watch the WBC and not be struck by the lost opportunity to do it better. That catch by Adam Jones, which preserved a two-run lead over the United States’ top rival in baseball, in which he robbed a teammate, in which he reached three rows into the stands, should have been seen by tens of millions of people. It should have had the stage for days. Jones should have been on with Jimmy Fallon to talk about it.

Here’s how that can happen.

Most of the WBC’s problems come down to scheduling. You can’t get full buy-in from all the best players because it interferes with preparations for the MLB season. You can’t turn the pitchers loose because so many games occur before they’re ready for significant workloads. You can’t get eyeballs in the U.S. because casual fans aren’t thinking about baseball yet -- especially during the run-up to, and first weekend of, the NCAA basketball tournament. That event sucks up all the air among casual sports fans, non-sports fans and the media that chases both. Rick van den Hurk can’t compete with that.

Instead of shoehorning the entire tournament in prior to the season, take the WBC and split it up into two parts. The first would begin roughly ten days before MLB Opening Day, or this year, March 23. Take your 16 teams and play the first round of the tournament as currently structured: eight teams playing down to four in Asia, eight playing down to four in North America. That round usually takes three days’ worth of games, with some room on either side for travel and practice time. The later start and smaller time commitment should make it easier to get the best players on board. You’ll never have full participation -- some guys will be hurting, some will prefer the days off -- but 15 of the 25 best players in baseball passed on this year’s WBC, which undercuts the event before a pitch is even thrown. You’ll also have pitchers prepared to go 75-90 pitches, adding credibility to the competition and, frankly, leveling the playing field for countries who lack the pitching depth the U.S. has.

The eight teams who advance from this round would play the quarterfinals, semis and finals in July. In World Baseball Classic years, MLB would forego an All-Star Game and replace it with this weeklong event, one that would unquestionably be more competitive than the modern All-Star Game. It would necessitate stretching the midseason break by four to five days -- just using the current scheduling, you would need six game days to play it out, with at least three travel days, maybe four. I don’t want to minimize the change here; you’d need buy-in from the leagues in Japan and Korea, whose players would face a greater travel burden, and you’d be chewing up close to a week -- including a weekend -- of prime summer real estate both at the ballparks and on television.

However, what you would get is the stage to yourself. One reason why the All-Star Game persists, despite being a shadow of itself as a competitive event, is where it falls on the calendar. There’s nothing else going on in sports, so people turn to Fox on a Tuesday night and the highlight shows run the video and the talk shows yammer about it. Instead of the gristle and bone of an All-Star Game, though, think about that summer week with the red meat of a true world championship of baseball, not with Tanner Roark and Tomoyuji Sagano, but with Clayton Kershaw and Masahiro Tanaka. Not in half-filled ballparks in March, but in Camden Yards and AT&T Park in the summer. Picture the semis and finals at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park.

Fairly or not, picture them on Fox or ABC or ESPN. With respect to the good things MLB Network does, in our modern media world, the importance of an event is proportionate to the caliber of its distribution channel. If you’re going to use the WBC to show off baseball at its best, you can’t do it late at night on a channel not everyone gets. (I’d add that a number of people have told me, through Twitter, that WBC games have been blacked out on MLBN internationally.) Say what you want about ESPN, but it’s on in airports and bars and barber shops all over the country, the set-it-and-forget-it option for places that just want some sports on in the background. If you’re going to get people to fall into the WBC, you have to provide a big enough hole. Moving the WBC to July would make it far more likely that ESPN (and its distribution partner ABC) and Fox would be involved, growing the potential audience and, most importantly, the event’s reach with casual fans. If you know how to find MLB Network, baseball already has you. It needs the other people.

There’s a cost here. Every four years, you’ll have to work around the Classic. Whether that means lengthening a season already too long by a week on either end, or scheduling doubleheaders, or squeezing out some off days, or even playing a shorter schedule, I don’t know. That’s a problem that can be solved, however. The World Baseball Classic, right now, is a half-measure, and most of its problems can be traced to it being played in March. You’re not getting the best players, you’re not getting the biggest audience, in March. By moving half the event into the summer, you can address those problems and start the Classic on its way to becoming what MLB wants it to be: baseball’s World Cup.