I realized the other day that I don't know a lot about the upcoming WBC, and that's really limiting my anticipation and potential enjoyment. I'll likely be rooting for the South Korean team, but I didn't know a whole lot about them. I also wanted an excuse to do research on South African baseball.
This is the overview of the format and rules, along with a preview of Pool A. A is not for Asia, but it might as well be, because that's what it is.
Since this is the asian pool, I have been a bit schizophrenic with the whole family name-first name order thing. I've tended to put the family name first, with the exception of a few players well known in the US (e.g. Ichiro Suzuki), so if you don't recognize a player's name, assume that the family name comes first.
I will be doing previews of the other pools - likely in order. Obviously, if someone wants to do a better job than me (either on a specific team, or Pool) , that would be perfectly fine. If someone wants to do a better job than me for this post, that's fine as well.
Lastly: I don't want to be sanctimonious, but I know it's hard for a lot of people to understand that Asian-people jokes are still racist. I don't care if you make them, but at least try to make them funny.
In General: So it's the world baseball classic. What about it? Inaugural event was in 2006, and after 2009 it will only be held every four years. Why did they hold it in 2009 and not 2010? I don't know. Maybe to avoid proximity to the winter olympics. The field, currently sitting at 16, may expand to 24 countries in 2013.
It is sort of special because Major League players get to play for their home countries. Except Cuban defectors.
The format: The teams are divided into four pools, for the first round
Pool A: China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, South Korea (First round games played in the Tokyo Dome in (you guessed it) Tokyo, Japan
Pool B:Australia, Cuba, Mexico, South Africa (Foro Sol, Mexico City, Mexico)
Pool C: Canada, Italy, United States, Venezuala (Rogers Centre, Toronto, Canada)
Pool D: Dominican Republic, Netherlands, Panama, Puerto Rico (Estadio Hiram Bithorn, San Juan, Puerto Rico)
*Trivia: Estadio Hiram Bithorn is named for the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues: Hiram Bithorn joined the Chicago Cubs in 1942. Bithorn, who fought for the US military in WWII, was shot and killed by a police officer in 1951, who tried to argue that Bithorn was part of a communist cell. That was bullshit, though, and that guy went to jail.
Foro Sol, in a more US tradition, is named after beer.
Each pool plays double elimination, which is a change from 2006 – which used round robin in the first round. Therefore, each team is only guaranteed two games. This change was used to eliminate the strange tie-breaker rules. The top two teams in each pool will be shuffled into new pools for the second round: Pools A and B become Pool 1, Pools C and D become (in a shocking turn of events) Pool 2. Pool 1 games will be played in PETCO Park, and Pool 2 games will be played in Dolphin Stadium.
Round 2 is, again, double elimination, and the top two teams head into the finals in which the top team from one pool will play the runner-up from other pool. The finals will be held in Dodger Stadium.
Rules of Note:
Pitch Limits: In round 1 games, each pitcher will be limited to 70 pitches, in round 2, 80and in the finals, 100. These are all five pitch increases from the 2006 limits. Pitchers can finish the plate appearance if they hit the limit in the middle of one.
Pitcher Limits: If a pitcher throws 30 or more pitches in a game, he is ineligible to pitch the next day. Additionally, any pitcher who throws 30 or more pitches in a semifinal is ineligible to pitch in the final (The semifinals and final are on three consecutive days, which would give the winner of the first semifinal game an advantage without this rule)
Instant Replay: Will be available for home run decisions
Extra Innings: After 12 innings, each half inning will start with runners on first and second. - these runners will be the 8th and 9th hitters due up in that inning.
I'm also assuming un-changed rules from the 2006 Classic will be in place:
Mercy Rule: A Game will be called if a team is winning by 10 after 7 innings, or by 15 after 5 innings.
Also: If a pitcher throws 50 or more pitches in a game, he is ineligible to pitch for four days, and if a player pitches on 2 consecutive days, he is ineligible to pitch on the next day.
Also: The designated hitter. Yuck.
Watching the WBC: Games (Every game?) will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2, or the MLB Network (Schedule: http://web.worldbaseballclassic.com/schedule/). You can also get a special mlb.tv subscription that covers all Round 1 and 2 games (Plus the finals if you live outside the US)
2006 Performance: Lost all three first round games and did not advance to round 2.
2009 Outlook: So China has never exactly been a baseball superpower, maybe partly because Chairman Mao banned the sport in the 1960's. China did get a professional league in this millenium, thanks to American backers, and has been steadily improving – although clearly they still have room to grow. They were expectedly sort of bad in 2006, but in the 2008 Olympics they beat Chinese Taipei (their biggest rivals), who beat them 12-3 in the 2006 Classic, and took eventual gold-medal winners South Korea into extra innings. Wang Wei, a catcher who hit the first home run of the WBC in 2006 (against Japan) will not be playing, injured after running into Matt LaPorta in the Olympics. China does have some players who are up and coming prospects from MLB, who I'll talk about later. China will show improved play this year, (they were outscored 30-6 in their three games in 2006), it's still unlikely they'll make it out of the first round.
2009 Players to watch: Liu Kai, LHP, and Zhang Zhenwang, C, are both 21 year old Yankees prospects signed in the summer of 2007. They haven't played in any minor leagues since then, and one source says the yankees have kept them in extended spring training. Prior to signing with the Yankees, Zhang's China Baseball League team, the Tianjin Lions won the league in 2002, 2006, 2007, and were runners up in 03-05. (Side note: 5 of the 6 teams in the CBL have ordinary, predictable animal names – Tigers, Lions, Dragons – except the Hopestars. What are hopestars?) Liu Kai joined the CBL as a 16 year old. IF Ray Chang, 25, was undrafted out of college, is currently in the Pirates system, and has played as high as AAA.
Chinese Taipei (This is Taiwan, in case one was confused)
2006 Performance: Went 1-2 in Round 1, did not advance to Round 2.
2009 Outlook: Did you know that CBL teams will not let their Taiwanese players play for Taipei in the WBC? That's mean. Seriously, way to embrace the spirit of international sportsmanship, China. China is also the reason that Taiwan competes as Chinese Taipei. Why this is less offensive, I do not know, being culturally insensitive. In any case, like in 2006, Taiwan's biggest MLB star, Wang Chien-Ming, will not be playing. But unlike in 2006, neither will Kuo Hong-Chih, a left-handed relieved, who struck out 96 in 80 innings for the Dodgers in 2008, or Hu Ching-Lung, who is competing to be the Dodger's back infielder this spring (Hu hit .325/.364/.507 between AA and AAA in 2007). However, unlike China, Chinese Taipei has a wealth of other American minor league players on their WBC roster. They also have Lin Yueh-ping who is one of the fastest throwers in the CPBL (Taiwan's highest league), who's been clocked at 96 mph. Unfortunately, like China, Chinese Taipei is just a bit outclassed in Pool A by South Korea and Japan.
2009 Players to Watch: Amongst the plethora of low-level minor leaguers is our own Kuo Yen-Wen (Possible related to an oracular pig?) who hit 281/327/333 in the Gulf Coast League in 2008. Chen Hung-Wen is a RHP in the Cubs organization (split last year between A and A+), and Ni Fu-Te, who got the win for the Tigers in yesterday's spring training game after retiring 3 batters in the 8th. Lin Che-Hsuan is a Red Sox prospect who hit a 2 run HR in the All Star Futures game last year. Sickels ranks him 17th in Boston's system with a C+ grade
2009 Performance: Champions! Go them! Yes, as it turns out, Japan is pretty good at this, and Japanese people really like-a the baseball. (Why was this in an faked Italian accent? It's a mystery)
2009 Outlook: Good. Japan is returning many of its big name players, and added a young superstar. They aren't being managed by Oh Sadaharu, Japan's home run champion, who has retired for health reasons. Some of the players have merely relocated to the US since 2006 (Matsuzaka Daisuke, Fukudome Kosuke, Iwamura Akinori). The Mariners' catcher Kenji Johjima is also joining Team Japan this year. Japan will miss Uehara Koji, who struck out 16 in 17 innings with a 1.59 ERA in the last WBC, Satozaki Tomoya who was named the catcher to the 2006 All-WBC Team, and Matsunaka Nobuhiko, a 1B, who was the only man to win the NPB triple crown. It's also true that Japan lost three games in the 2006 Classic (2 to South Korea and 1 to the US). However, Japan has great pitching, and I would consider them favorites from Pool A, if not to win.
2009 Players to Watch: Top of this list has to be Yu Darvish, a young Iranian-Japanese pitcher in the Japanese major leagues (NPB- Nippon Professional Baseball). At 22 years of age, Darvish is already a superstar, having pitched 652.1 innings in NPB, with 585 Ks and a 2.33 cumulative ERA. He won the Sawamura Award (NPB's best pitcher award which predates the Cy Young) in 2007, and met all of the award's seven criteria again in 2008, but Iwakuma Hisashi, who only met 6 criteria, but led the league in 3 categories, was given the award. Iwakuma is also pitching for Japan in the WBC. Also, the "Yu Darvish Water Fund...offers the construction of wells, installment and maintenance of well pumps and construction or installment of rain water storage in developing countries." (Wiki), and that is seriously the best celebrity charity I've heard of. ESPN did a pretty good (if ESPN-y) story on him. (here). Also: hot.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, the 2006 WBC MVP, is also returning, now with US fame from the Boras-RedSox-posting-signing Circus and from the two years he's pitched for Boston, really finding his groove in 2008, going 18-3 with a 159 ERA+.
Ichiro Suzuki: You may or may not know this, but there are some seriously unhappy feelings between Japan and South Korea. Empress Myeongseong, comfort women, 'cultural genocide', etc. (I may be biased on these points...) Mostly water under the bridge, older Koreans still really hate the Japanese, yadayadayada, people are sensitive...and Ichiro, god bless him, was mistranslated in 2006 as saying he wanted "to beat South Korea so badly, that the South Koreans won't want to play Japan for another 30 years." What he actually said was probably something along the lines that he wanted to win so hard that the other teams in the Asian pool wouldn't think they could compete with Japan for the next 30 years. It was sort of a silly controversy. At most I would say that it's not exactly in keeping with the spirit of international competition (which is evidently a phrase I really like). But hey, maybe he'll say something actually offensive this year! I know I'm hoping so.
2006 Performance: Lost to Japan in the semi-final, after going undefeated in Rounds 1 and 2. (BTW, meeting a team from your Pool in the semis is now impossible). Technically came in 3rd place, even though there was no 3rd place game – there was some strange tiebreaker rule that I can't find.
2009 Outlook: South Korea won the Gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, which has them pretty excited about their chances. Of course, without MLB players, the Olympic teams from the USA, Canada, and many other teams were handicapped to greater extent than the Koreans team. Still, they were undefeated, and won over a solid Cuban team in the final. But the strength of the 2006 WBC team was its pitching, and the korean team has lost Park Chan-Ho (Phillies, 2006 All-WBC pitcher), Seo Jae, and Koo Dae-Sung, three of its leading pitchers from the 2006 WBC. Other 2006 All-WBC team members 1B Lee Seung-Yeop and OF Lee Jong Beom are also notably missing. Also, Kim Byung-Yung of MLB failure fame is not on the team's final roster. But 1B Kim Tae-Kyun lead the Korean league in home runs with 31 last season, Lee Dae-Ho is a pitcher-turned-3B/DH who won the Korean batting triple crown in 2006. Almost guaranteed to proceed to round 2, they also have a good chance of making it to the semifinals out of Pool 1 – against what is likely going to be Japan, Mexico, and Cuba – three teams that Korea has beat in various international competitions before.
2009 Players to watch: Choo Shin-Soo is the obvious choice to keep your eye on. Traded to the Indians for Ben Broussard in July 2006, he had 317 major league at bats in 2008, OPSing .870 with 17 HRS, and winning the extremely prestigious AL September Player of the Month award. Note: South Korea still has compulsory military service for young men (to my knowledge, a lot of it now is in a police-type function). In 2006, the government granted an out from service to any person WBC player. They have specifically declined to do so again this year – so Choo is going to have to head back to the Land of the Morning Calm one of these days, and the Indians can't really do anything about this.
He hardly counts, but Bong Jung-Keun pitched 15 innings for the Reds in 2004, but he had an ERA of 2.66 with the LG Twins in 2008.
I'm cheering for Kim Kwang-Hyun, only 20 years old, who went 14 innings in the Beijing Olympics while only allowing 2 ER. I also found this quote about him on Wiki - "In 1994, he led his team to the first national championship ever, pitching four-consecutive complete game victories in the tournament with a 0.96 ERA, and was named MVP." That's a serious pee-wee-league pedigree. Ryu Hyun-Jin is just a year older, but won the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) pitching triple crown, MVP and rookie of the year in 2006.
A few last notes on Pool A: It's unfortunate that Wang, Kuo, and Hu c/wouldn't play for Taiwan this year, I think it would've given them a chance for an upset. Otherwise, I think Korea and Japan have a pretty easy shot to Round 2, and will likely fare well in Pool 1 against Cuba and Mexico. I realize I have a lot more information on them than on China or Taiwan, which is at least in part due to the fact that it's a lot harder to get info on players from those countries.
(Also, I cannot for the life of me get the crap at the beginning of the entry to go away without disrupting the formating, could a mod fix that for me?)