And now it’s time for Pool A! Yes, it seems weird to do these out of alphabetical order, but Pool B plays first. Pool A just gets to be Pool A because Japan has the top seed as the 2009 gold medalists. (You can read about Pool B, here)
Incidentally, unlike 2009, Round 1 will be played round robin, and the tie breaker will be
- Head to head
- Something called “ Team’s Quality Balance” which is …(RS/IPO)-(RA/IPD). (IPO is innings played on offense, IPD, on defense), in head to head games. The highest TQB moves on.
- If there’s a three team circle of death – Earned Run Team’s Quality Balance, which is the same things but counting out unearned runs
- Batting average in games between tied teams
- Coin flip
On one hand, this makes sure every team will play at least three games, which is good. It also removes the favoritism towards better hitting teams like the tie-breaker in the 2006 WBC. ON THE OTHER HAND, IT IS ABSOLUTELY MAAAAAAAD.
Of all the corporately named sports venues out there, you have to appreciate the one with actual puncuation in the title: the Fukuoka Yahoo! JAPAN Dome, which is a retractable-roof dome and is the home of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of Nippon Professional Baseball. I don’t really get the name Yahoo! JAPAN Dome. I mean, yes, the naming rights were bought by the Japanese subsidiary of Yahoo, but we already know that it’s in Japan. I’d also think that the Japanese people are not unaware of the existence of Yahoo! JAPAN (That is, in comparisons to Yahoo! NOT JAPAN). When they type in Yahoo to their browser bar, it probably takes them right to Yahoo! JAPAN. (And with that, I apologize for the Seinfeld-style commentary – ‘What is the deal with the Yahoo! JAPAN Dome, anyway?”)
The retractable-roof of the Yahoo! JAPAN Dome is important for one major reason. It turns the stadium into a big trap for GIANT MONSTERS. Specifically, giant bird/pterodactyl ancient monster Gyaoses. What you do is put a ton of meat on the ground and then when your Gyaos problem flies down to eat it, you shut the roof, and pump the monsters full of sedatives. It has a 66% success rate.
Again, I’ll list these in descending order to 2009 finish.
Japan – Two Time Reigning Champs
Look, if Japan and the USA and the Dominican were playing 160 games, I wouldn’t probably count on Japan to win. But, the evidence doesn’t lie. (It totally does, because of small sample sizes, but, whatever). Does Japan care more? Maybe. Do they play more fundamental baseball? I’m not totally sure that’s true, actually. Do they start spring training on February 1 every year? YES. My current not-really-supported theory is that it’s just that Japan comes into the tournament with a lot more practice, as individuals, under their belts. It doesn’t hurt that the NPB has 12 teams – meaning that each player is comparatively more familiar with his new teammates.
This year, Team Japan is an all NPB showcase. Between Japan and Korea, there’s definitely been an uptick in the MLB or MLB potential players not being interested. Still, the NPB is the second-best regular league in the world, and they’ve brought plenty of stars. Plus, though US interest in Japanese players has waned a little bit in recent years, it’s definitely still active – and your next middle infielder/center-fielder/lefty-reliever could definitely be making a WBC appearance this year.
Players to watch: Shinnosuke Abe is amazing. He’s been the catcher for the dominant Yomiuri Giants for 12 years now, and in 2012, at age 33, he had perhaps his best year yet. He hit .340/.429/.565, and led the NPB in Average, RBI, and tied for the lead in HR. Apparently though, that doesn’t win you the triple crown, but he did win the Central League MVP award. With those numbers, also keep in mind that the NPB has been favoring pitchers for a while now – the next best qualifying OPS was Lastings Millege at .864, over 100 ‘points’ less. Apparently, he’s been cold this spring, and has had a little bit of knee discomfort. Hopefully, he’ll get up to speed by this Saturday night/morning.
I also like shortstop Takashi Toritani of the Tigers (That’s fun to say, too.) Toritani had a bit of down year last year, average wise, but made up for it by walking 94 times. Still, it looks like he’ll move over to 2B to make room for Abe’s young teammate – Hayato Sakamoto to play short.
If you’re looking for the next Yu Darvish…. you’ve got a long wait, let me tell you. But if you’re willing to take the next best thing, look no further than Masahiro Tanaka. Ma-kun is only 24, himself, and for the last couple years, he’s been the only one who could approach what Darvish was doing. He’s not quite Darvish-level, but in 2012, he struck out 169 batters, and walked only 19. NINETEEN, and in 2011, he struck out 241, walking only 27. It’s downright Cliff-Lee-esque.
Right next him is Kenta Maeda. Maeda may be just as good, but he doesn’t have amazing low walk rates of Tanaka. Still, between Tanaka, Maeda, and Tadashi Settsu, this team has the last three Sawamura award winners, which helps make up for the 2009 big three who won’t be pitching for Japan this year (Darvish, Matsuzka, Iwakuma).
Notable absences: No player with a spot on an MLB roster is playing for team Japan this year., including Yu Darvish, Tsuyoshi Wada, Hisashi Iwakuma, Norachika Aoki, or Kyuji Fujikawa. The losses will be felt, but the thing is that NPB players don’t generally make it into the majors until just in or after they’re prime. Darvish is probably a rare talent, but a lot of the other guys can be replaced by a 24 or 25 year old who you’ve never heard of before.
MLB Connections: Kazuo Matsui (IF, ex-ML… look, you know who Kaz Matsui is.)
Cuba – Reached Round 2 in 2009
Cuba even won their first round pool in the first round, but started out Round 2 badly by being shutout by Japan. They managed to beat Mexico in the ‘losers’ bracket, but were then shutout by Japan again which sent them home. It’s hard to get a bead on where the Cuban team really is, partially, since I’m less inclined to follow Serie Nacional. I feel like their star is a little dimmer on the international scene of late – perhaps just because other countries are beginning to get as into baseball as Cuba is.
Still, the Cubans are a team worth watching. Two players who were great at the 2009 classic have since made a splash in the majors – Yoennis Cespedes with the Oakland A’s, and Aroldis Chapman with the Cincinnati Reds.
I really hate their all-red uniforms, but this Pool is really strongly divided – with Japan and Cuba in the top and Brazil and China in the bottom – I doubt Cuba will have a problem moving on.
Players to watch: I have been look at the Serie Nacional stats online, but I’m not sure how well I can understand them. For instance, I’m pretty sure that BR is stolen bases, and CR is caught stealing, but for some reason, they don’t include these things in most spanish-to-english dictionaries.
At a glance, the hitters look more impressive – led by Alfredo Despaigne, now a left-fielder,who was an up and coming youngster back in 2009. In the most recent Cuban season (that I can find), he had a 1.174 OPS, and hit 36 home runs. And that’s in less than 100 games. Another power bat to look at is Jose Abreu, who hit a second-best 35 home runs. Yuliesky Gourriel is more of a veteran these days, but at one point he was the top hitter in Cuba, like Despaigne is now. Also, It doesn’t look like the Cuban team is focusing much on base-stealing, but they do have a catcher who threw out 18 runners, compared to 16 successful stealers – that’s pretty good.
None of the pitchers really jump out at me … but it’s hard to tell, as the league appears to just be low on strikeouts. One standout is Yadier Pedroso, who led the league in strikeouts despite pitching about 50 fewer innings than most of the other good pitchers. Pedroso also excelled in the 2011 Baseball World Cup. The competition at the BWC is not high, but Pedroso’s 17 strikeouts and 2 walks in 10 2/3 innings is still awesome.
Notable Absences: Defectors
MLB Connections: …
China – Won a game in 2009
The fact that China won a game at all in 2009 was pretty good, and they were probably even happier that it was against Chinese Taipei. It seems unlikely that they’ll get a rematch this month. I really think Brazil has a pretty good chance of winning.
I’m not even sure what’s going on in China’s baseball league right now. I clicked the link on wikipedia to the China Baseball League’s official site, and it took me to spam, or whatever, so I have very little information on this team.
Players to watch: One person I do know about is Ray Chang, a Chinese-American infielder, who went undrafted but has managed to hang around the minor leagues for the last seven years. Currently, he’s signed with the Cincinnati Reds on a minor league deal. I don’t want to say that Ray Chang is the best player on the team, just because he made the minor leagues, but he probably is. He had 5 of the team’s 15 hits in 2009, and three of its four extra bases.
Other players on the team with some play outside China include Wei Wang, who injured his knee in a collision with Matt LaPorta in the 2008 Olympics. He also hit the first home run of the 2006 World Baseball Classic, and is a former Mariners prospect. Dawei Zhu pitched for the NPB Seibu Lions’ farm team until 2011. Jiangang Lu played for awhile with the NPB Chunichi Dragons. Tao Bu,
Notable absences: …?
MLB Connections: Team China will be managed by John McLaren, who caught in the Houston system, and since then has managed minor league affiliates and coached in various positions on major league squads. I’m not sure why McLaren is coaching Team China, but hey, why not? Also on the coaching staff: Art Howe and Bruce Hurst.
Brazil – 2012 Qualifier winner
Just like Chinese Taipei, I’ve already written a bit about Brazil. Sending Brazil to Japan in round 1 is a fun choice, given their high Japanese-Brazilian population, and many players who seem like they might have some Japanese heritage.
2012 was definitely a great year for Brazilian baseball, between Yan Gomes, and winning the Panama City Qualifier back in November. Hall-of-Famer had the team focused on manufacturing runs, and it ended up paying off. Larkin is back for the Classic, which is nice to see.
Players to Watch: Brazil’s great strength in the Qualifier was pitching. In three games, the Brazilian team allowed only 3 runs. Maybe it was just a cold spell for the other teams,but hey, 1 run per game!
Two pitchers in particular stood out: Murilo Gouvea and Rafael Fernandes. Gouvea is a 23-year old Astros prospect who spent 2012 with the low-A Lexington Legends. Although perhaps a little old for the competition, he had a respectable season in the bullpen – striking out 87 batters in 77 2/3 innings. In the Qualifier, he pitched 5 and 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out 5 and walking only 2.
Fernandes isn’t as much of a strikeout whiz, and has mostly been pitching for the NPB Tokyo Yakult Swallows farm league team in the last few years. Still, that’s not bad prep for this pool, and he threw 6 scoreless innings in the Qualifier, so I expect to see quite a bit of him.
In comparison, the hitters probably weren’t as good. Leonardo Reginatto stands out though. Reginatto spent 2012 in New York Penn League with the Rays’ team, and has not been unduly eye-catching. At the qualifier he went 7-12, which is a good few days for anyone. Some of the pitching here will be better than what Reginatto saw in the Qualifier, or the New York Penn League, but, then again, some of it will probably be worse.
Notable Absences: Yan Gomes
MLB Connections: Felipe Burin (RHP, minors, Mariners), Rafael Moreno, (RHP, minors, Orioles), Thyago Vieira (RHP, minors, Mariners), Andre Rienzo (RHP, minors, White Sox), Iago Januario (1B, minors, Rays), Lucas Rojo (IF, minors, Phillies), Pedro Okuda (IF, minors, Mariners), Paulo Orlando (OF, minors, Royals), Jean Tome (RHP, ex-minors, Mariners), JC Muniz (OF, ex-minors, Marlins)