Stage Set for World Baseball World Classic: Can the U.S. Break Through and Win?

WBC Kicks Off

WBC Kicks Off

Theo Asher

The 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC), essentially the World Cup of baseball, is officially underway. First hosted in 2006 as a replacement for Olympic baseball competition, the WBC aims to showcase the international unity of the sport by fixing some of MLB’s best athletes with and against other baseball stars playing overseas.

The tournament is less straightforward than the FIFA World Cup. There are 16 teams placed into four first-round pools in which they play in a round-robin format. After that, another round-robin stage. For the semifinals, the top-four finishers from the second round face off. The winners of those games advance to the championship at Dodger Stadium. You follow? Slightly confused? Well, you’re not alone.

The World Baseball Classic has not even come close to the appeal of the FIFA World Cup. Implemented only in 2006, the tournament has garnered an abysmally low audience compared to its soccer equivalent. The most-watched Team USA World Baseball Classic game had 1.9 million viewers (2009), and the most-watched Team USA soccer match boasted a whopping 25.4 million viewers (2015). This gaping discrepancy is especially embarrassing for the WBC because of the considerably larger popularity baseball has over soccer domestically. 

So, why aren’t Americans turning on the TV to watch their country assert its dominance over other countries? For one, the Americans haven’t nearly lived up to expectations. The best performance by the U.S. in the WBC came in 2009, with a fourth place finish. Another reason the WBC doesn’t garner popularity is the fact that the USA’s best players decline to participate. The best of the best (i.e. Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout) would rather partake in MLB Spring Training than represent their country on the international level. However, this could be the year that everything changes for Team USA.

The Americans are stacked for a championship run in the 2017 WBC, with some of MLB’s brightest stars finally warming up to the idea of participating: Giancarlo Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt, Buster Posey and Nolan Arenado anchor a lineup that is built to thrive on the international stage. Legendary MLB manager Jim Leyland has come out of retirement to lead his countrymen in what could finally be the breakout campaign for Team USA. A minor worry for the team is their pitching. Young but talented arms like Chris Archer, Sonny Gray and Marcus Stroman will be tested by the lethal offenses of Latin American opponents.

Despite the dramatic improvement of Team USA, my pick to win it all is the Dominican Republic. Champions of the 2013 WBC, the Dominicans have the field beat in four important categories: hitting, pitching, fielding and attitude. Gold glove and silver slugger dual-winners Robinson Cano, Manny Machado and Adrian Beltre headline a roster loaded with MLB success. Perennial all-stars Johnny Cueto and Carlos Martinez lead the rotation and flamethrowers Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances feature in the bullpen. 

Lineup and pitching staff aside, the decisive edge the Caribbean juggernaut holds over the U.S. is attitude. Dominican fans and players alike are crazy for baseball, and they take this tournament very seriously. It will be national pride that faults “La Republica Dominicana” over the rest of the WBC field.

Some other nations to keep any eye on include Venezuela (lineup deep with MLB regulars), Japan (winners of the 2006 and 2009 WBC’s), Netherlands (cinderellas of the 2013 tournament) and Puerto Rico (finalists in 2013).