Three strikes and you’re out. The U.S. has been eliminated from the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC) without reaching the semifinals or championship round. This is the third time the event has been held and the U.S. has yet to seriously challenge for the gold medal. Oh-for-three certainly constitutes a strikeout.
For a nation that is supposed to be the prime mover of baseball, why has the U.S. seen things go so horribly wrong in the WBC?
Pitching, pitching, pitching. The biggest advantage the U.S. has over other baseball-playing nations is starting pitching, and unfortunately America’s best pitchers are staying away. According to the 2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings, the top ten U.S. starting pitchers are Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Matt Cain, Jered Weaver, Madison Bumgarner and C.C. Sabathia. Not one of these pitchers joined the U.S. team for the 2013 WBC. As far as relief pitchers, the U.S. did manage to bring along top closer Craig Kimbrel, but most of the other relievers were mediocre additions with few accomplishments. Pitching is roughly seventy to eighty percent of baseball, and the U.S. needs to have its dominant pitchers buy into the concept of the WBC and show up in large numbers to participate.
Too many average Joes. The U.S. team is loaded with run-of-the-mill, average players like Shane Victorino. Although a player like Victorino can command over a million dollars a month in salary at the current rates, that type of player is not likely to help you win a WBC. The effort is there but the talent is not. Once star first baseman Mark Teixeira pulled out with an injury before the start of the WBC, and Captain America David Wright was injured during the competition, the U.S. simply did not have enough talent on the field. One after another, the U.S. batters strolled up to the plate and weakly grounded out or hit a lazy pop up. And rather than credit 38-year-old journeyman Nelson Figueroa with having an out-of-body pitching performance, the U.S. hitters should be criticized for having poor quality at-bats against a very pedestrian pitcher. The U.S. looked like a very ordinary team when compared to the talent-laden Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican squads.
Manager long in the tooth. In Joe Torre’s final few years as the New York Yankees skipper, and during his tenure as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he seemed to not get as much out of his talent pool as he could have. For instance, with different decisions from their manager in the 2004 ALCS, the Yankees may not have blown a three-game lead over their arch rivals, the Boston Red Sox, and become the first team in Major League Baseball history to lose a series after leading 3-0. In the WBC, Torre made several decisions that can be second guessed. In the elimination game against Puerto Rico, for example, he let an unproven left-handed hitter bat with the bases loaded against a left-handed pitcher. That hitter meekly grounded out and killed the late-inning rally the U.S. was staging. Why not send a right-handed pinch-hitter up in that crucial situation? Also Torre’s lineup had Joe Mauer hitting cleanup. Mauer has only hit 20 homers or more once in his nine-year big league career. A cleanup hitter should be a slugger. Mauer, with a good eye at the plate and superb bat control, should have been hitting leadoff or second.
America fans blasé’. The U.S. should have a built-in advantage in the WBC. Unlike all the other teams, all games for the U.S. team are on U.S. soil. In 2013, the U.S. played in Arizona and Florida and could have played in California had they advanced to the final stages. But this home advantage is muted because the U.S. fans seem indifferent toward the WBC, whereas Latin American fans that support Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela bring enthusiasm and a carnival-like atmosphere with them. It is sad that in these American ballparks, foreign nations and foreign players often receive more support than U.S. players. Although we may hear an occasional “U-S-A!, U-S-A!” chant, for the most part the American fans are sitting on their hands or not even bothering to come to the ballpark.
The WBC only comes along once every four years. So far the U.S. has finished out of the medals each time. Although the format is often a crapshoot, that hasn’t deterred baseball powers like Japan, South Korea, Cuba and Venezuela from reaching the medal stand. The timing of the tournament during MLB spring training is also cited as a drawback for the Americans. But what other time of the year can this event be held? Certainly not during the MLB regular season. And probably not after the World Series.
For the U.S. to better compete in this event, it needs to focus its energies on the things it takes to win. More of the best players and pitchers need to sign up and be counted. If hitters need an early start on spring training, then let them go to a warm-weather spot and start hitting live pitching earlier than usual. But to go through three of these tournaments and have fourth place as your highest finish is really lackluster for a nation that gave the world the game of baseball and prides itself on being a baseball power.