There’s never been a bigger World Baseball Classic field than the 20 nations this year, and many feel there’s never been a more talented group of rosters as well.
They’re so strong that contenders Japan, which won the first two of four WBCs, Puerto Rico, the runner-up in each of the last two tournaments, and offense-rich Venezuela flew under the radar a bit during the pre-tournament buildup despite boasting some of the world’s best players.
It’s occurred because the last two champions, the Dominican Republic (2013) and the United States (2017), have the most overwhelming depth of star power in the WBC’s fifth renewal – perhaps in tournament history.
The eye test drops jaws, and the data suggest why they are the tournament’s top-two favorites.
With the U.S. and Dominican Republic squads set to begin pool play, the question persists, are they on a collision course for the championship game on March 21 in Miami?
Manager Mark DeRosa’s squad, which is in Pool C in Phoenix, has a lineup that is as multifaceted as any in the tournament.
Among its many attributes:
- Seven hitters who ranked in the top 23 in home runs (30+) and the top 22 in extra-base hits (64+) in the 2022 Major League Baseball season: Kyle Schwarber, Pete Alonso, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts, Kyle Tucker and Nolan Arenado.
- Four batting champions: Betts, Tim Anderson, Trea Turner and 2022 NL winner Jeff McNeil.
- Four in last year’s top 10 in stolen bases: Cedric Mullins, Bobby Witt Jr., Turner and Tucker.
- Four 2022 Gold Glove winners: J.T. Realmuto, Arenado, Betts and Tucker.
The lineup appears so relentless that it suggests the U.S. squad will outscore opponents enough to compensate for a pitching staff that’s not nearly as well-stocked.
Goldschmidt, the 2022 NL MVP, and Arenado aren’t just teammates on the St. Louis Cardinals, they are the lone returnees from Team USA’s 2017 title-winning squad. U.S. stars in their prime are more willing to play in this year’s WBC than in the past. Trout and Betts, two former AL MVPs, were among those who decided they had been missing out on the fun.
Last season, Trout ranked third among MLB hitters with at least 250 plate appearances with a 221 BIP+, more than twice the league-average hitter (100) in the measurement of damage done upon contact (also notable: Schwarber was fifth, 178; Goldschmidt seventh, 169; and Alonso 15th, 150). Betts was 22nd with a 140 raw value+ (RV), which measures plate discipline, contact and BIP+ in one metric.
To emphasize even more how the collection of talent under hitting coach Ken Griffey Jr. is joining forces at the right time, the U.S. squad features seven of last year’s 10 NL Silver Slugger award winners (Realmuto, Goldschmidt, McNeil, Arenado, Turner, Schwarber and Betts) plus Trout from the AL winners. A healthy Trout is surely an MVP candidate for the WBC.
If there’s a knock on Team USA, it’s the starting pitching – a mix-and-match unit with something to prove and anchored by veteran right-handers Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Miles Mikolas. The lack of headliners is not new because the Americans have never rolled out a Who’s Who of elite pitchers in the WBC, partially due to the games occurring during spring training.
But with the WBC using pitch count rules and the tournament in the arm ramp-up time of mid-March, DeRosa and pitching coach Andy Pettitte don’t need starters to complete games. Instead, relievers will combine on four, five or more innings per game, and the U.S. bullpen is a strength.
It’s headlined by hard throwers who limit hits: Jason Adam (.147 batting average against; led MLB with 29 RV- among those with at least 40 innings; and ranked 16th with a 149 whiff+, which measures a pitcher’s ability to generate swings and miss); Devin Williams (.151 BAA, second with 32 RV-, 20th with 147 whiff+), Daniel Bard (.162 BAA), Ryan Pressly (.181 BAA, 21st with 59 RV-), Brooks Raley (.189 BAA, 31st with 63 RV-), Adam Ottavino (.204 BAA, 18th with 57 RV-), David Bednar (.218 BAA, eighth with a 155 whiff+) and Kendall Graveman (.257 BAA).
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s withdrawal from the WBC (hamstring injury) a week before Team D.R.’s first game was particularly damaging, but manager Rodney Linares still has a potential top half of the batting order that includes Julio Rodríguez, Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Rafael Devers and Teoscar Hernández.
Rodríguez, the 2022 AL Rookie of the Year for the Seattle Mariners, was one of just four MLB players to collect at least 25 home runs and 25 stolen bases last season. He ranked 51st with a 147 BIP+ among those with 250 plate appearances.
Those next four hitters all rank in the top 20 in home runs over the last three seasons. Since his debut in 2018, Soto is second in on-base percentage (.424) and third in OPS (.950). Last year, he was also first in discipline+, which measures a player’s ability to take balls and swing at strikes, and fourth with a 165 RV+. Then it’s on to Machado (46th with a 129 RV+ in 2022), Devers (22nd with 162 BIP+, ninth with 150 RV+) and Hernández (12th with 182 BIP+).
The mix of youth and veteran players runs deep. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who also serves as the team’s general manager, is still cranking home runs (459 in his career) at age 42.
In addition to Rodríguez, there’s Houston Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña, the rookie MVP of the 2022 ALCS and World Series, and Wander Franco, who as a rookie in 2021 reached base in 43 straight games, tying for the longest streak by a player 20 years or younger.
Unlike the United States, Team D.R. has a lights-out 1-2 combo at the top of its starting rotation in Sandy Alcántara and Cristian Javier. Alcántara, the ace of the Miami Marlins, will be pitching in his home park and comes off an NL Cy Young season in which he was third in the majors with a minus-29 total RV, or the raw value accumulated throughout the season instead of the rate version.
Javier (20th with 58 RV-, 46th with 134 whiff+) thrives in the spotlight, having gone 4-1 with a save and 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings over his first three postseasons with the World Series champion Houston Astros.
There are also high-90s fireballers in the back end of the bullpen, which features the righty Camilo Doval/lefty Gregory Soto combo.
Plus there’s an X-factor: Native countrymen have proven in past WBCs that they come out with passionate fan support of Team D.R. in Miami, where the team will play in Pool D. Due to the later rounds in Miami for the first time, the Dominicans would play all of their games there, unlike, say, Team USA or Team Japan (which has never played on the East Coast in four previous WBCs).
What Could Nix the Matchup
The dream matchup of the United States vs. Dominican Republic is highly anticipated but in no way a lock.
Three issues to know:
- Two qualifiers will advance to the quarterfinals from each of the four five-nation pools – Tokyo, Japan, and Taichung, China, also are hosts – and while it would be stunning if they didn’t include both the U.S. and Dominican Republic squads, it’s possible they could meet in that single-elimination round. The first-place team in both of their pools will face the opposing second-place team. However, the format doesn’t allow for them to meet in the semifinals, when each would face a quarterfinal-round winner arriving from the games in the Far East.
- The shortcoming with Team USA’s starting pitching is concerning. Clayton Kershaw and Nestor Cortes were originally on the team before health issues forced them to withdraw from the tournament, and Marcus Stroman, the WBC’s 2017 MVP, chose to pitch for Team Puerto Rico this year. Raley and Kyle Freeland are the team’s only left-handers, which is likely to factor in at some point.
- Quite simply, there are standout players everywhere in the tournament.
Japan, the 2020 Olympic gold medal winner with some of the same players, has the biggest difference maker in the tournament, Shohei Ohtani, who can win a game at the plate or on the mound (maybe even close one out).
The pitching staff also boasts Yu Darvish, two-time Pacific League MVP Yoshinobu Yamamoto and 22-year-old flame-thrower Roki Sasaski, while Munetaka Murakami, who’s coming off a 56-home run season, and Boston Red Sox import Masataka Yoshida provide offensive firepower.
In addition, Puerto Rico (Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez and Edwin Diaz) and Venezuela (Ronald Acuña Jr., José Altuve, José Abreu, Salvador Pérez and Miguel Cabrera) are in the same Miami pool as the Dominican Republic.
Somebody out of that trio won’t be emerging from the pool in the biggest, and surely best, World Baseball Classic.