My interest in the WBC teams is roughly inversely correlated with the presence of major-league regulars on the roster. For that reason, I am sorry that one of the still-contending teams in the pool now nearing its conclusion in San Diego will be eliminated. Korea, with hardly anyone I have heard of on the roster, but many players who are a joy to watch play the game (and play it really well), is already in the final four. I suppose my first sentence gives away my rooting interest for tonight, but it will be really hard not to root for the team I am not rooting for. (This international baseball fan stuff is hard!)
Naturally, given the interest mentioned in that first sentence, I have not paid close attention to the pool of teams playing in Miami (especially since the expected early exit of the surprising Netherlands team). But last night’s USA comeback in the bottom of the 9th against Puerto Rico was, well, a classic. And the advance of Team USA to the final four is great news for increasing interest in the tournament; it should certainly help ticket sales and TV ratings for this weekend’s games in Los Angeles. And if they were to play Korea in either the semi-final (seeding to be determined by USA-Venezuela game tonight) or the final (or both), the presence of a very large Korean community in Los Angeles would make for an intense and exciting atmosphere. But really, any of the still-possible match-ups would be interesting.
For various reasons, I have not been able to write about the World Baseball Classic 2009 the way I did in 2006.
But, with the first round over but for one slot in the next round to be determined tonight (and a couple of games only about Round-2 seeding), this has been a thriller so far.
Who knew that The Netherlands1 would have the best pitching and just enough offense to beat twice–and thus eliminate–a Dominican team loaded with all-star talent? They even held a Puerto Rican team, also loaded with top talent, scoreless till late in a game eventually won by also-advancing Puerto Rico. (Maybe the Dutch pitching coach can add this to a Hall of Fame resume that continues, for unfathomable reasons, to fail to impress the Hall electorate.)
And Australia? We don’t usually think of our friends down under when we think of baseball powerhouses (though the number of Australian players signed by MLB organizations in recent years seems to be sharply up). Yet tonight they have a chance to advance if they can beat Mexico a second time. That seems like a tall order, but given that they not only beat, but dismantled, the Mexican team earlier in the week, who can rule it out? Their team looks good, if not exactly deep. They even gave the Cubans a hard time last night (though Cuba got a clutch 3-run homer and thus assured itself of moving on to the next round).
Even Italy2 pulled off an upset, beating Canada (though not advancing). And Chinese Beijing won its first WBC game, and has some players who look like they might have a shot on this side of the Pacific.
The world of baseball is looking good. And the final Netherlands-DR game and last night’s Cuba-Australia game were as tense and exciting as anything I could hope for over the coming regular MLB season. Too bad that, after this tournament ends, we have to wait four years for the next one.
1. Many of the Dutch players are from the Netherlands Antilles (Aruba and Curacao–don’t they play baseball on Bonaire?), and a few are Americans with perhaps somewhat tenuous connections to their family’s European roots. Yet several are directly from the European country whose name the team bears. Regarding that pitching, remember these names: Tom Stuifbergen, Alexander Smit, Rob Cordemas, Dennis Neuman, Diegomar Markwell and Leon Boyd. (And not to be forgotten: Sidney Ponson.)
2. While still featuring several Italian-Americans (e.g. Nick Punto) and even a Venezuelan (the country name means Little Venice, after all!), there seem to be more Italian-born players who actually play in Italy’s professional leagues than at WBC ’06.
Who would have guessed that the number of major league regulars on a roster would be such a poor predictor of how well a team would do in the World Baseball Classic?
The graph (click the image for a larger version) shows the number of major leagers plotted against the winning percentage of each team, through the semifinals. The two teams that will play in the finals, Japan and Cuba, are clearly at the far low end in major league talent. The two teams with the most major leaguers, USA and Venezuela, were just .500 in the tournament. The Dominican Republic, the team with the next highest number of major leaguers, was in the final four, but lost to Cuba, which has no major leaguers, in the semifinal.
For all sixteen teams, the number of major league regulars (MLR) is positively related to winning percentage, at just over 90% confidence. Each additional MLR contributes .012 to the winning percentage (W-pct), with a standard error of .007, and a t-score of 1.84.
However, the positive relationship is thanks only to such hapless teams as South Africa, Australia and the two Chinas.
When only the eight teams that escaped the first round (those whose names are underlined in the graph) are included in the analysis, the sign on MLR actually turns negative: Each additional MLR reduces W-pct by -.0058. This result, however, would be significant only at 80% confidence (which ought to be good enough for WBC blogging: standard error is .0039, t=-1.49).
How is a “major-league regular” defined? Simply. I looked at the rosters and identified the players I knew were in a starting lineup or rotation, were regular relievers, or back-up players who spent most of 2005 on a major-league roster, and players expected to be major-league regulars in 2006. It is unlikely that others with identical or better knowledge of major-league rosters would come up with materially different numbers, although the interest reader is invited to try.
I just returned from the Cuba-DR semifinal game. And what a game! Another close one. Cuba won, 3-1, to secure a place in the final Monday, against either Japan or South Korea. The game was 0-0 till the Dominicans scored an unearned run in the 6th. After a dominating start by Bartolo Colon of the Angels, Cuba broke through off Odalis Perez (of the other LA team), Solomon Torres, and Julian Tavarez with a three-run seventh.
Cuba got terrific pitching from Yadel Marti (4 1/3) and Pedro Luis Lazo (4 2/3). Both have very distinctive windups. Marti’s style is something I have never seen before. He kicks the leg up (not very high, but abruptly), then holds it there for a moment (a bit like Akinori Otsuka), and then sort of corkscrews back a bit before turning forward to deliver the pitch. However, he got into considerable trouble with some wildness in a first inning that he looked like he might not escape. The rest of his time in the game he pitched only from the stretch. Lazo has a nice assortment of pitches, including a very hard fastball, whereas Marti seems to be much more of a finesse pitcher. Lazo pitched out of a first-and-third, no out, jam in the 6th, allowing just the one unearned run, depite facing the “muderers row” of Miguel Tejada, Albert Pujols (who grounded into a fielder’s choice in which the runner at third was out in a rundown), David Ortiz, Adrian Beltre (who was safe on a bobble and overthrow by second baseman Yuliesky Gouriel), and Moises Alou.
Cuba’s rally began on consecutive infield singles by Gouriel and Elier Sanchez, an RBI ground out, two singles (which actually made it to the outfield grass), and a sacrifice fly.
I could watch this kind of baseball all the time. Dominant pitching, great infield defense (Cuba made three errors, but also some excellent plays). Lots of aggressive (but not reckless) baserunning, hit-and-run plays, and only two balls hit to even medium depth in the outfield the entire game by either side.
It was a great atmosphere, with a crowd about evenly divided in its rooting interest, and including many Cuban- and Dominican-Americans. Most of the crowd stayed long enough to watch the Cuban players celebrate on the field and to salute them as they headed back to their dugout.
The ceremonial first pitch was thrown out by Juan Marichal. And, yes, he delivered it with his trademark high leg kick (though perhaps not quite as high as when he was younger).
Corrected (nothing major, except that my previous errors understated Korea’s success)
Just some interesting quick calculations here. Three games in a round, or six overall, are not a lot to go by in terms of judging who is “better.” Run differentials can give us a little more leverage (though only a little more).
For the four teams in the semi-finals, runs by and runs against, in the second round:
For the round 2 losers:
So, the “right” teams won, by run differential (although the DR and PR can’t be distinguished this way, as both were a run over even).
Over the whole tournament–slightly less useful, as teams play different set of opponents, depending on their first-run pool:
Note that Puerto Rico, which was in the same pool with Cuba, was a good deal better in the first round, but could not sustain that edge in round 2. Cuba and the DR, who meet in a semifinal, were not in the same first-round pool.
Wow, the Korea and, especially, Japan differentials are huge! It helped that they had the two Chinas as opponents, of course, but it could be a small warning sign for Korea–undefeated so far–that they managed only 26 runs over the six games. You can’t argue with that pitching, however! The USA total is increased by the 17-0 drubbing of South Africa.
It looks like Japan should be favored against Korea, based on performance against the same set of opponents through the first two rounds. Of course, it’s decided in one game, so don’t place any wagers based on this information. Cuba vs. DR is harder to handicap. Of course, DR is loaded with major-leaguers, and has the better tournament differential, and for these reasons should be the favorite. On the other hand, they played different opponents in the first round, so the data are less meaningful. Moreover, all four teams in the San Juan pool in round 2 were virtually even. It should be a fun (albeit rather wet and cool) weekend in San Diego!
How incredible that every game that decided a slot in the semifinals of the WBC was a low-scoring one-run game! It doesn’t get any better than this!
The “slugfest” in the group was the Cubans’ 4-3 win over Puerto Rico in San Juan. All the others were by the score of 2-1: Dominican Republic over Venezuela in San Juan, Korea over Japan in Anaheim, and Mexico over USA in Anaheim. The Mexico-USA game put Japan in the semifinal on the tiebreaker rules, deservedly.
The semifinals will be Korea vs. Japan and Cuba vs. Dominican Republic.
Well, good old Bob Davidson, the umpire who took a run away from Japan in the game with Team USA, just took one away from Team Mexico, with an equally outrageously bad call. He ruled as a ground-rule double a ball that clearly hit the foul pole. In other words, it was a home run. However, this time, justice was served, in that the call cost a run, but not an out. Subsequently the run scored when a base hit drove the runner in from second. While the outcome was just, that does not excuse umpiring incompetence.
What a shame that the WBC is being marred by an umpire who was bad when he was formerly a MLB umpire, and is bad now.
Vasi asks if anyone besides him is annoyed at the semifinal format, whereby the games pit the top two of each pool against each other instead of the top team in one against the runner-up in the other. The alternative format that Vasi describes makes more sense, in that the semifinals would then pit teams that had not yet played each other, instead of teams that just played each other in the past week.
Of course, it is obvious that the format was intended to maximize the chances that the final would be USA vs. a Caribbean team, thereby maximizing television interest. That way, aside from the possibility of Cuba being the Caribbean team, there would be the maximum number of marquee major-leaguers involved. (And Cuba vs. USA would certainly generate interest!)
One advantage of the format in use is it has divided the world of baseball into what could be called “Pacific” and “Caribbean” divisions,* ensuring that the final includes one team from either Asia or one of the three big North American countries and one team from the Caribbean.
Somewhat more bothersome to me is that the semifinals and final are single-elimination. I understand the logistical reasons for that format (the whole tournament can be only so long), but baseball is probably the worst of all sports for single-elimination games.
*Ignoring that Australia was thus in the wrong division, and that Italy and South Africa are geographic “orphans.” By switching South Africa and Australia, one could call the divisions West and East, if one is willing to call East Asia the “west,” which it is, relative to the Americas.
With Cuba having beaten Puerto Rico yesterday (see previous post) and the Dominican Republic having beaten Venezuela the night before, and with Korea 5-0 for the tournament, only one slot in the simifinal round in San Diego remains to be determined. It comes down to a game between the USA and Mexico today in Anaheim. Mexico’s thin hopes were dashed last night by the Japanese pitchers’ failure to give up enough runs to put Mexico in a possible tiebreaker situation (see two posts down). However, Japan could still own the tiebreaker with the USA if the latter team loses today.
In case of a win by Mexico, there would be a three-way tie for second place in the pool, with Mexico, Japan, and USA all 1-2. The tiebreaker would be fewest runs allowed per nine in games involving the tied teams. Mexico allowed six to Japan, Japan allowed one to Mexico and four to USA, and the USA has allowed three to Japan. If Mexico wins today, the tiebreaker between Japan and the USA will depend on the score of the game.* If the USA wins, it advances.
Both the Cuba-Puerto Rico and the South Korea-Japan games yesterday were spectacular (as was the previous day’s win-or-go-home DR-Ven game). In Korea vs. Japan, neither team scored till the 8th, when Korea put across two. Then Japan got within one in the bottom of the ninth on a leadoff homer, and had the potential winning run at bat when Hitoshi Tamura nearly homered to win it. Not only would the homer have put Japan in, it would have knocked out the USA (regardless of today’s outcome), which would have been justice for the blown call that tipped the Japan-USA game earlier in the week. Alas, Tamura’s blast went foul. Now Japan needs help from Mexico.
It was a thriller, a tense game, in doubt to the last pitch. Cuba 4, Puerto Rico 3. The Cuban team will be in San Diego for the semi-final against the Dominican Republic Saturday (weather permitting; heavy rain is forecast).
I went to the Japan-Mexico WBC game in Anaheim last night. Japan won, 6-1, meaning Mexico is now eliminated.* I went into the game with no rooting interest. I like the Mexican team (and Mexico), so I was leaning their way. But I also felt Japan deserved not to be eliminated after being robbed by an (American) umpire in the previous game against the USA. Having seen Japan play, I am now quite persuaded by what I saw that this team is something special. It has few major-leaguers, and of course even those that it has were previous stars in their own country’s leagues before moving across the Pacific (e.g. Ichiro Suzuki and Akinori Otsuka). And, of course, you have to like their manager, Sadaharu Oh, the all-time world home-run king.
Japan had a couple of misplays in the game, but in general, they play a very solidly executed brand of baseball that is fun to watch. I do wish they would get over their infatuation with the sacrifice bunt, however. Even Ichiro sacrificed. Enough of that already! In one case, they actually bunted into a double play, which was sort of nice to see, in a way–especially given that the player who did it was Hitoshi Tamura, a power hitter. On the other hand, the first two runs of the game were set up in textbook fashion by a sacrifice (Tamura again, but successful this time) with runners at first and second, which was followed immediately by a single that scored both runners. Moments later, Japan turned to big ball, with catcher Tomoya Satozaki blasting one over the high fence in right-center field.
The Japanese starting pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, was not dominant, but had the Mexican hitters off balance and hitting lots of lazy flies to the outfield. He is now 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA in the Classic. He has one of those very distinctive, deliberate, and hesitating deliveries, as do many Japanese pitchers. About Matsuzaka, the Daily Yomiuri says:
Famous for his stamina and fastball that made him a household name at Yokohama High School, Matsuzaka said Japan’s 6-1 victory had the same do-or-die feel that permeates Japan’s most famous high school tournament. [...]
In 1998, Matsuzaka mesmerized Japan as an 18-year-old, leading his school to three national high school titles that year.
Mexico played well, other than Esteban Loaiza getting in trouble in the fourth, when Japan scored its first four runs. Right fielder Mario Gonzalez made a wonderful running catch in the gap and San Diegan and new Padre Adrian Gonzalez (the only player on either roster not born in the country he was playing for) made a couple of nice stops at first base. Also good plays by Jorge CantÃº and Vinny Castilla.
All in all, while it was not the close game I was hoping for, it was a good one. And while the crowd was disappointingly small, the atmosphere was festive and the multilingual announcements were neat to hear.
The WBC has been excellent!
*CORRECTION: Mexico is hanging by a thread, but is not necessarily eliminated. If Korea beats and scores a lot of runs against Japan, and then Mexico beats USA, scoring a lot and not allowing many runs, Mexico could still have the lowest runs allowed among three 1-2 teams. I did not do all the calculations to figure out just how many runs here and there it would take, because it is all pretty unlikely (and complex!). But, technically, Mexico has not been eliminated as of now (i.e. the midpoint of the Korea-Japan game).
What would an international sporting competition be without some controversial officiating? In the 8th inning of a tie game, the Japanese team scored a run on a sacrifice fly. But when the Team USA manager appealed, the third-base umpire was overruled by the crew chief and the run was anulled. Replays were not totally conclusive, but it looked like the initial call, and not the one on appeal, was the correct one. Not only did it cost Japan that run, but the runner’s being called out ended the inning, thus potentially costing more than the one run.
What a relief the pitching change apparently was for the Cuban hitters. The score was 1-0 Cuba, with Venezuela’s Johan Santana dominant, aside from a double and single allowed in the first. Then in came journeyman Giovanni Carrara to start the sixth, and the result was five quick runs for Cuba.
Despite subjecting team USA to a rather embarassing defeat in their head-to-head matchup, it looks like any hope Canada might have had of advancing is vanishing about as fast as you can say “mercy.” The USA has gotten off to a fast 10-0 lead in the first two innings over South Africa. [It ended, 17-0, called after five.]
It’s hard to say that the Canadian team deserved to advance when it nearly lost to the South African (mostly amateur) squad, nearly blew its 8-0 lead to the USA, and got humiliated by Mexico, 9-1.
Still, I would have thought going in that the Canadian team was stronger than Mexico. It’s too short a series to say that it disconfirmed the expectation, but Mexico played (and especially pitched) a lot better, even holding the USA lineup to only two runs.
Mexico will be the number one seed (and USA number two, barring a dramatic comeback by South Africa), which is a little surprising, but again, it’s too few games to draw much from. That’s why they play the games on the field, and not on paper or on computers.
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4