Part one of the Sports Quotient’s 2017 World Baseball Classic preview, featuring Chinese Taipei, Israel, the Netherlands, and South Korea.
It is once again time to slip on your [insert country] flag shirt, pants, and sunglasses to watch 16 nations fight for the title of actual World Champions in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Or, as it’s also known: a 16-day waking nightmare for every MLB front office.
Sixteen countries are divided evenly amongst four pools: A, B, C, and D. Countries play round-robin style within their pools in the first round, whereafter the top two teams advance to the second round. Third place earns automatic entry into the 2021 WBC, while the fourth place finisher has to enter the qualifying tournament in 2020.
In 2013, the star-studded Dominican Republic team defeated Puerto Rico in the final round of the Clásico Mundial de Béisbol 3-0, with Robinson Canó, their second baseman, locking up MVP honors after smashing .469/.514/.781.
Will the Dominican Republic defend their title in 2017, joining Japan as the only countries to win the tournament twice, or is a new victor ready to hoist the trophy?
Pool A: Gocheok Sky Dome – Seoul, South Korea
Chinese Taipei advanced to the second round in 2013 but failed to win a single game despite being the top seed from Pool B. Their 2017 roster features three players from Nippon Professional Baseball and two MiLB players. Chien-Ming Wang, 36, formerly of the New York Yankees and who pitched for the Kansas City Royals last year, is on the team.
Player to watch: Chia-hao Sung, 24, posted a 2.44 ERA in 62.2 innings as a starting pitcher for NPB’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ minor league team. While NPB is roughly equivalent to the talent level of a higher end Triple-A, no real research has been put into its minor league system, meaning Sung’s numbers don’t have an accurate benchmark—although it might be fair to assume the level of play is no better than Single-A. Take his stats with a grain of salt, of course, but given that not every hitter in the WBC is MLB-caliber, Sung might flourish for Chinese Taipei, who is desperate need of serviceable arms.
What to expect: Chinese Taipei’s greatest strength is its lineup. The team features 10 players who hit double-digit home runs in the Chinese Professional Baseball League in 2016 and seven who had an OBP greater than .400.
However, they lack any true advantage over other teams in the pool. The Netherlands and South Korea will, in all likelihood, be able to out hit Taipei, and without a reliable pitching staff (seven CPBL pitchers with an ERA north of 4.80), their games will often be high scoring. A ticket to Tokyo for round two isn’t out of the question; however, the odds aren’t in the favor.
Israel is one of two countries making its WBC debut this year. While they are coming off a 9-1 drumming of Great Britain in last year’s qualifying bracket, Israel’s roster contains an erratic fluctuation of talent, consisting of mostly young, low-tier minor league prospects but also some MLB veterans such as Sam Fuld and Craig Breslow.
Player to watch: Ike Davis, 29, is four years removed from cracking 32 home runs for the Mets, albeit with a .308 OBP. Since then, he has bounced around from the A’s, Rangers, Yankees, and now the Dodgers, whom he signed a minor league deal with in late January.
What to expect: Under the helm of the Hartford Yard Goats’ manager Jerry Weinstein, team Israel’s defense should dazzle. Sam Fuld, 35, was a gold glove caliber center fielder in Tampa Bay before it was cool. In 2011, Fuld posted a UZR/150 of almost 20, and while he’s lost a step or two since then, he was still able to post a 12.6 UZR/150 in 2015 playing for the Oakland Athletics. Ty Kelly, meanwhile, was worth 2.8 defensive runs above average in 110 innings for the New York Mets as an outfielder/infielder.
Nonetheless, a deep run is likely out of the question for Israel, who, like Chinese Taipei, lacks dependable pitching. Virtually none of its pitchers have experienced success in the high levels of professional baseball, and those who have, namely Craig Breslow, have struggled in recent years (5.16 FIP since 2014).
The Netherlands carried its momentum from 2009 when they beat the Dominican Republic twice into 2013 and with a fourth place finish. Managed by San Francisco Giants’ hitting coach Hensley Meulens, they look primed to do even better in 2017. While Didi Gregorius headlines the newcomers, the biggest improvements to the Netherlands’ roster comes from returning players whose careers have soundly improved since 2013, e.g. Jurickson Profar and Jonathan Schoop.
Player to watch: Xander Bogaerts is another holdover from the 2013 squad, and in 2016 he posted a 4.7 fWAR, compared to 0.4 from 2013-2014. Bogaerts was an MLB All-Star last year at only 24 years old and ended the season hitting .296/.354/.448 while playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. He hit two doubles in the 2013 WBC and collected five hits in 19 at-bats.
What to expect: The Netherlands has perhaps the best infield in the entire tournament, rivaled by only the United States and the Dominican Republic. Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius, and Jonathan Schoop combined for 66 home runs in the 2016 MLB season, and all attained at least two WAR. Andrelton Simmons meanwhile had the third best UZR/150 among MLB shortstops with 25.1.
Outside of the infield, however, the Netherlands’ roster is shaky, with Wladimir Balentien of the NPB’s Yakult Swallows being the only hitter to experience success above a Double-A level of play.
Additionally, Kenley Jansen being unavailable to pitch is a crushing blow to the Netherlands’ chances, as even having 20 pitches (at most) available in the bullpen from a premium arm would be preferable to some of the team’s other options—Jair Jurrjens and J.C. Sulbaran, to name a couple. Still, Netherlands should cruise to the second round on the strength of its infield.
South Korea will be playing at home in the first round, which will increase their chances of winning by… probably-not-that-much percent. In 2013, South Korea’s WBC run ended in the first round despite a 2-1 record, thanks to the tournament’s odd “Team’s Quality Balance” tiebreaker rule, which is an equation that attempts to evaluate team performance. Korea will be playing down a man, as Jung Ho Kang, the third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was dropped from the team’s roster after fleeing from a DUI in Seoul this offseason. Regardless, team veterans Seung-hwan Oh and Dae-ho Lee should keep the team afloat.
Player to watch: Kun-woo Park, a 26-year-old outfielder for the Korean Baseball Organization’s Doosan Bears, hit a robust .335/.394/.550 in 540 plate appearances last year, nearly joining the 20-20 club by hitting 20 home runs and swiping 17 bases. While MyKBOStats.com doesn’t keep track of defensive metrics, a quick search on YouTube suggests Park is no slouch with the glove, either.
What to expect: South Korea has the most balanced roster of any team in Pool A. The lineup can hit for power (Hyung-woo Choi had 31 home runs in 2016 for the Samsung Lions), it can hit for average (Tae-Kyun Kim batted .359 in 2016 for the Hanwha Eagles), and they have some speed (Ah-seop Son stole 42 bases in 46 attempts for the Lotte Giants). Korea’s pitching is also exceptional, with the standouts being Chang-Min Shim (1.194 WBIP), Jong-hyun Won (9.5 K/9), and Seung-hwan Oh of the St. Louis Cardinals (2.13 FIP, 11.6 K/9). If South Korea plays well early on, they could be poised to go deep into the tournament.
2017’s Pool A is very similar to Pool B from 2013. That year, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei all finished 2-1 by taking turns beating up on Australia, who did not win a single game. Competition between the three teams worked rock-paper-scissors esk, with the Netherlands beating South Korea 5-0, Chinese Taipei beating the Netherlands 8-3, and South Korea beating Chinese Taipei 3-2. With Australia out of the pool and Israel in, competition should be tougher, and, as a result, Chinese Taipei will drop to 1-2, while South Korea and an older Netherlands squad will advance to round two.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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