Japan vs. USA: Which Baseball Powerhouse Has the Edge in the WBC Title Game?
The baseball universe is ready for what is looking like an exciting matchup in the World Baseball Classic final: United States’ top-rated offense against Japan’s vaunted pitching staff.
The U.S. came from behind to upend Venezuela in a thrilling quarterfinal matchup before humiliating Cuba 14-2 in the semifinals on Sunday. On Monday, the Japanese rallied in the bottom of the ninth to stun Mexico 6-5 and punch their ticket to Tuesday’s championship.
The crowds have been fiery, players are all-in, people are watching the event at a record rate, and social media is full of tweets and comments about the WBC. The tournament has been, without a doubt, a resounding success.
Now the world will witness two of the most superstar-studded rosters in the Classic – and the two of the biggest powerhouses in the world – meet to cap off an unforgettable event at loanDepot Park in Miami (7 p.m. ET).
Let’s see who has the edge in the key aspects of the game.
The pitching matchup for the championship game was supposed to feature Merrill Kelly of Team USA against San Diego Padres star Yu Darvish of Japan.
Japan will send left-hander Shota Imanaga (one run conceded in four WBC innings this year) to the mound for the winner-takes-all affair. Owner of a career 3.01 ERA in the NPB, he was at 2.10 last year in 158.2 frames with the Yokohama Bay Stars.
He has a very good fastball in the mid-90s:
His four-seam fastball, which can top out at 95 mph, is his go-to pitch. Imanaga, though, also mixes in a cutter (85-89 mph), split-finger (79-83), curveball (63-75!) and slider (75-89) to keep hitters off balance, according to NPB TVL data.
And, oh yeah, he has this fading changeup that he’ll bring out every so often, too:
Kelly, on the other hand, has had a rather colorful career that included four seasons in the KBO, South Korea’s league, from 2015-18. He earned a shot with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019 and hasn’t looked back.
With a 3.96 career ERA in MLB, the right-hander is more of a steady innings-eater than an ace, but he has been extremely competitive in the big leagues and just posted a 3.37 ERA in 200.1 innings this past season. He ranked 22nd among qualified pitchers in 2022 with an 87 raw value- and fourth with a 117 command+.
As a reminder, raw value (+/-) is a rate stat that evaluates performance on a per-pitch basis as opposed as just studying the outcome of the at-bat. Command+ examines the pitcher’s intent, or whether he achieved what he wanted with his pitch or not.
Darvish will probably pitch out of the bullpen for the Samurai. The right-hander’s 3.60 career ERA in MLB certifies him as a more than qualified option to take the hill, and he had an even better 3.10 ERA in 2022. His 76 raw value- (RV) ranked 12th in the majors, too.
If we analyze both teams’ pitching staffs, it’s pretty much what we all imagined. USA is taking a 4.33 ERA to the final game, which is acceptable but far from elite. Japan, on the other hand, has a tournament-leading 2.33 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP and a 7/72 BB/K ratio. Mightily impressive.
Many of Japan’s top arms will be available, except for Roki Sasaki and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Even Shohei Ohtani could make a relief appearance if needed.
It will likely be a similar all (most)-hands-on-deck for the United States to support Kelly, except for Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas (both pitched four innings in the semifinals). Lance Lynn, who exceeded the 50-pitch limit in his outing against Venezuela, is probably unavailable as well.
All things considered, the Japanese pitching staff – the mentioned hurlers plus trustworthy relievers like Hiromi Itoh, Taisei Ota, Atsuki Yuasa, Keiji and Hiroto Takahashi, Yuki Matsui and Yuki Udagawa – looks better and deeper than the United States.
Let’s start by saying that Japan’s offense is really impressive and looks better than advertised.
We all knew that this team’s forte was pitching, but the lineup is much more than just Ohtani. As a unit, Japan is hitting .314/.471/.515 with a .986 OPS so far in six WBC games. Look at that ridiculous OBP! They have Ohtani and his 1.421 OPS, they have Monday night’s hero Munetaka Murakami and his 56 homers last year in the NPB, they have the consistently great Kensuke Kondoh (hitting .391 in the Classic), they have Boston Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida (.474/.571/.842 with 13 RBI and a 1.413 OPS) and St. Louis Cardinals breakout candidate Lars Nootbar.
However, the U.S. really does have one of the best lineups ever assembled. Team captain Mike Trout (165 RV+ in 2022, 1.035 OPS in the WBC) and a historically great group of hitters that includes Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, JT Realmuto, Kyle Tucker, Bobby Witt Jr., Tim Anderson, Cedric Mullins and Kyle Schwarber have their sights set on winning back-to-back WBC titles.
When your ninth hitter is a $300-million MLB player who has a WBC-leading four home runs, 10 RBI and a 1.429 OPS as Trea Turner does, you know your lineup is in really good shape. Team USA’s offense is explosive, as it has shown that time and time again in the tournament.
Overall, the Americans are hitting .310/.402/.567 with 10 home runs and a .969 OPS in the tournament. Not too shabby, huh?
Verdict: United States
To this point, we have Japan with the better pitching staff and the United States with the more explosive offense. However, the Samurai’s lineup is also excellent and America’s pitching is good enough to give its offense a fair shot.
There are some really nasty pitchers in USA’s bullpen, such as David Bednar, Jason Adam, Kendall Graveman, Devin Williams, Adam Ottavino, Brooks Raley and Ryan Pressly. That could be the difference.
Yet Japan has a deep bullpen, too. In reality, there is not much separating these two powerhouses looking for glory. Japan wants to return to the top spot after 14 years, and America is eager to repeat as champs.
We hate to leave you hanging, but these two squads are just about evenly matched as it gets.