Why the World Baseball Classic should be a March Madness-style knockout tournament – CBSSports.com
The World Baseball Classic is entertaining, somewhat flawed, and still new enough to have the whiff of novelty about it. When you encounter such a confluence, you are of course duty- and honor-bound to concoct a piece in which you declare how the event in question could be improved. This is one of those pieces. Stop now if you wish.
It’s impossible to ignore the potential of the WBC when you see the enthusiasm in the seats, especially among the Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Japan rooters. However, it’s just as impossible to miss the logistical challenges and shortcomings in the execution of the tournament. Wielding my robustly negligible authority and imagined plenary powers, I’m here to tell you how to make the WBC a better experience for players and fans while also making it into a thing in which more players might be willing to participate. Now for the big reveal: Make it a 16-team, single-elimination bracket.
Think of it as akin to the World Cup knockout stage or the presently very relevant Sweet 16 in college basketball. It’s a seeded bracket, perhaps determined by a committee that evaluates the 16 finalized rosters. To simplify matters, you could grant 12 automatic berths to what could be considered the “legacy powers” of the sport: in no particular order, the United States, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Japan, South Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Netherlands, Colombia and China. Maybe you make room for Australia in that group. For the remaining slots, the qualifying process could continue in its current form. That’s not a great departure from how things are now, as 12 automatic berths are given out based on performance in the previous WBC. (No, China does not have a particularly rich baseball history, but growing the game there is a priority for MLB. Consider this a nod to that.) Anyhow, those legacy berths mean the teams with the most major-leaguers on the roster won’t need to slog through qualifying rounds — a burden that would no doubt hurt participation.
I see the 16-team, single-elimination format conferring a few positives when it comes to the WBC’s viability moving forward …
The compressed schedule means it could take place later in the spring
This year, the WBC plays out over a span of 16 days. If you’re an MLBer and your team advances all the while to the final, then you’re missing more than half the spring schedule and seeing your camp routines altered in a major way.
Under this proposed format, though, you could complete the tournament in a span of two weekends or less. While weekend programming would be desirable, if necessary the schedule could be further shrunk to finish all games inside of a week, with just the semifinal and final rounds taking place on a weekend.
Heck, you can even go start to finish in a span of just four days — say the rounds of 16 and eight on Thursday and Friday and then the semifinals and final on Saturday and Sunday. To make travel manageable under that scenario, you would need four ballparks for the opening two rounds all located reasonably close to one another and in locations suitable for spring baseball. Fortunately, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Petco Park in San Diego, Angel Stadium in Anaheim, and Chase Field in Phoenix all meet the criteria. Yes, this would be unfair to all those countries accustomed to hosting the early pool rounds such as South Korea and Japan, but there’s no ideal way to pull off such a beast as the WBC. Winnowing this down to the span of a week or less has some costs, yes, but it could serve to make superstar participation more likely. Frankly, that strikes me as the tourney’s biggest concern right now.
The reduced commitment might make more players willing to participate
So we have that reduced time commitment noted above, and similarly we also have a reduced commitment when it comes to the number of games. At most, a given player’s team will play four games in the WBC, and that’s only in the event that said team reaches the final. The teams that reach the championship game under the current format play at least twice as many games as that. Again, when it comes to asking players to take leave of their training regimens (and assume risk injury) in order to play games that don’t advance the prevailing goal of winning the World Series, the less of an obligation the more likely widespread participation will be. Ideally, it wouldn’t be this way. Ideally, the world’s best players would lay aside their concerns and suit up regardless of the tournament structure. However, that’s not happening, at least on the U.S. side.
On that point, what would an ideal-world U.S. team look like in 2017? Maybe a little something like this …
- C — Buster Posey
- 1B — Anthony Rizzo
- 2B — Daniel Murphy
- 3B — Josh Donaldson
- SS — Corey Seager
- OF — Mike Trout
- OF — Mookie Betts
- OF — Bryce Harper
- DH — Kris Bryant
- SP — Clayton Kershaw
- SP — Max Scherzer
- SP — Chris Sale
- SP — Madison Bumgarner
- CL — Zach Britton
We can quibble, of course. Maybe Nolan Arenado belongs in there, and a case for Brandon Crawford over Seager can be made. Maybe David Price and Justin Verlander are in the discussion. Maybe you fade Harper for his out-of-character struggles in 2016. Maybe you favor Paul Goldschmidt over Rizzo. And maybe Adam Jones gets a lifetime roster pass. The point is that the actual 2017 Team USA roster is missing a lot of these names. Asking less of those star players, particularly the U.S. players, might persuade more to take part.
To be sure, the current U.S. squadron is a darned fine one, but coming as close as possible to putting the best roster out there should be the goal. The 16-team, single-elimination format makes that more likely to happen.
Along those same lines, the four games in four days mean that the world’s aces will be asked to make only one start in each WBC. If you space the “final four” out a bit more, then you could still decree that pitchers may make no more than one start in any WBC. Maybe, for instance, Clayton Kershaw or Johnny Cueto or Masahiro Tanaka would be willing to commit to five innings in one late-March game.
Such a rule would also add a layer of strategy. Do you, say, burn Kershaw in that first game against a low-seeded team, or do you hold him back for the later rounds and thus risk elimination with your best starting pitcher on the bench?
It gives baseball another dose of one-and-done intrigue
Blessedly, MLB’s postseason is replete with best-of series. This is how it ought to be. There’s of course even talk that MLB will eventually turn the wild-card game into a best-of-3 affair. That said, the knockout game has all that built-in drama. Sure, it doesn’t have the momentum and arc of a Game 7, but the “win or take leave of this place” intensity is unmistakable. I don’t like the wild-card game for the absurdity of reducing a 162-game haul to nine innings, but it’s good for baseball to seek out ways to import the intensity of a one-and-done. This proposed WBC format does that without corrupting the more important MLB postseason.
Part of what made Adam Jones’ miracle catch so arresting was that it happened in a game in which everything was on the line. Under this format, every game would have everything on the line.
No tiebreaker rules
This one’s obvious, but it bears mentioning.. Switch to this, and they are no more.
The most obvious drawback is that you’re asking countries to cobble together rosters and, in some instances, travel across the world for possibly only one game that counts. There’s no massaging that one. We can keep those spring exhibitions against MLB teams in the mix, of course, but one-and-done is a real possibility even for, say, a powerhouse like Japan that would be hopping the globe to take part. Time for some spin: Consider that another raising of the stakes. Also consider it incentive for teams to lean on MLBers to participate — those who would already be stateside for spring training. The Japanese team, for instance, included just one active MLBer on its roster this time around. Either way, this is the most obvious counterpoint to the single-elimination idea.
On another level, we all know that baseball is weird and has some structural parity and such a proneness to luck-based outcomes that one-and-dones are in no way the best method to determine the best team. Heck, best-of-7s are no way to determine the best team. If you want truer results, then a larger sample of games is needed. That’s simply not going to happen in the WBC, though.
No doubt, shifting from pool-based play to single elimination will lead to more fluke-ish outcomes — any team can beat any other in any given game. I would submit, however, that the minuscule sample size involved here isn’t that much worse than the almost-minuscule sample size featuring less than full-strength rosters of the current setup. As well, this format opens up the belt and the title to Cinderella runs like the one that Israel enjoyed this year. It’s more likely we’ll have an underdog that plays for the championship under this format. As appeal and fan engagement go, that’s a plus and mitigates some of those related concerns.
As well, you would be justified in calling the lack of starpower mostly a U.S. problem (although Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt lamented the absence of some of that country’s leading baseball lights). After all, the Dominican Republic, for instance, certainly wasn’t lacking roster headliners. That said, putting out something less than the best each country has to offer undermines the tournament.
Really, it’s a matter of priority. Is it more important to have a tournament of larger scope or to have one in which the best players are more willing to take part? Thus far, these have been mutually exclusive. The single-elimination format doesn’t make the WBC any less inclusive — it’s still 16 teams — but it does make it of a smaller scale and thus more likely to attract the best. Informal polling of MLB players — “Hey, would you be more likely to suit up for your country under this format?” — would be an obvious first step.
Or maybe some superstar watching from his Florida or Arizona spring accommodations saw that Adam Jones grab and thought, “Hey, I wanna do that.”
In the event that Jones didn’t “save” the WBC, then maybe this will.