I am going to lead off this post with a question.
“What makes baseball so unique among our sports?”
Sports like football and basketball are heavily followed in this country. But most fans (I feel) take a more “casual” approach to those sports. Sure they know the players on their teams and the stars on other teams. But they don’t follow the action of everything that is happening all around the league (again, there are definitely hardcore fans, I’m just speaking in generalities). Soccer (or futball) is a popular game worldwide but it hasn’t grabbed a hold yet in America. So what makes baseball different from these sports? I believe it’s the history, the tradition, legends of bigger than life players from long ago. Baseball’s history is rich, engaging, and exciting. When one goes to Cooperstown to see the Baseball of Fame, they hear about how Civil War General Abner Doubleday who invented baseball in Cooperstown in 1839. It’s a great tale. It’s a great story. Only…its not true. It is a romanticized tale of how baseball got started despite not having any truth in the story (Doubleday did grow up in Cooperstown but he was at West Point Academy in 1839).
The actual birth of baseball is a lot more gradual than you might think. In fact, it has parallels to how America developed as a nation. While we were fighting for independence and figuring out how to run this country, a games such as “bat and ball” or “rounders” were popular games young men and boys would play. The first instance of the term “base-ball” came in 1791 when an ordinance in the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts prohibited playing ball near a new meetinghouse. By the time the Civil War broke out, athletic associations in the northeast would have amateur “base-ball” teams which are our first instances of organized baseball of some kind. Once the Civil War was over and America industrialized, professional baseball got started in 1869-1870 as the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team in America. From this point forward, baseball became connected with American society/politics/economics. Baseball became America’s game.
That was the late nineteenth century and early-mid twentieth century. Today, baseball is not just America’s game. It has spread to different corners of the world. In Japan, professional baseball started in 1920 and by 1950, Nippon Professional Baseball was formulated (the highest level of baseball in Japan that is still active today). Japan also helped spread baseball to Korea which is emerging as a world power in the sport. In the Caribbean, Cuba and baseball go back as early as the ninteenth century. From there, it spread to the Dominican Republic as well as the other islands and parts of Central/South America, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia to name a few. Adoption of baseball in Europe has been slow but it has been gaining some momentum in countries such as Germany and Italy. Baseball is finally becoming a world sport.
If baseball is a world sport, than what better way to celebrate that than a world-wide tournament where teams for all different countries come together and play baseball; a “real World Series”. In less than a month, that will exactly happen. This year is the fourth installment of the World Baseball Classic (WBC), a tournament much like the World Cup where countries put together a team of stars and have them play against each other. If you are thinking “why haven’t I heard about this tournmant before”, I don’t blame you. The publicity of the WBC in the US hasn’t been great for several of reasons.
- The WBC is a relatively new tournament. As I said earlier, this year is the fourth installment of the tournament where i was played prior in 2006, 2009, and 2013. If its relatively new, then the importance of the event isn’t as easy to recognize as opposed to entrenched tournaments such as the Olympics and the World Cup.
- The US hasn’t done well in the tournament in the past. Despite having an abundance of baseball talent, the highest we placed in the tournament is 4th in 2009. It’s hard to get excited about a tournament if you don’t have any high expectations going in.
But that still doesn’t get at why the US does poorly in the tournament. Simply, it’s because we don’t care about it. While baseball players are preparing for Spring Training and the six month grind at is the baseball season, they are asked to participate in a tournament which takes away from this preparation. Most fans don’t want their players to go off to a tournament which “doesn’t mean anything” and get themselves hurt (and missing a significant portion of the season). They see it as an inconvenience and an injury hazard. As a consequence, a lot of US players skip the tournament; we don’t send the best of the best of our talent. It’s just not as much a priority for us.
But what we forget is that this isn’t about us. This tournament isn’t about the US. It’s about baseball in other countries. The WBC gives other countries a chance to showcase their talent and how much they have adopted the game of baseball. To these countries, this tournament IS a big deal. These tournaments are what helps spread baseball to more and more countries. These tournaments are what helps unite the people of countries in national pride. And as long as that pride is there, these tournaments will go on.
At this point, I have gone on a tangent to what I initially meant to write about. In preparation for the World Baseball Classic, baseball writer Joe Posnanski (one of my favorite baseball writers) gave the following challenge to his readers:
Small challenge: Try to beat my lineup and starting pitcher — with this caveat. Every player in the lineup and the pitcher must be active and born in a different country. So you have 10 players — 9 in the lineup (including DH) and starting pitcher.
Bonus point: Add a closer from a different country.
BIG Challenge: This one’s really a blast. Come up with a 25-man roster that beats mine where all 25 players are born in different countries. This one you don’t have to just use active players, you can go back as far back in history as you like.
Bonus point: Get a manager who is from a different country.
The small challenge says to come up with the best starting lineup (including starting pitcher and relief pitcher) you can where each player must be active and was born in a different country. The big challenge says to do that (remove the active part) but do it for an ENTIRE baseball roster. I may do the big challenge at some other time, but I am ready to show you my answer for the small challenge.
- catcher: Yasmani Grandal (Cuba) plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Grandal was born in Havana, Cuba but unlike most other modern-day Cuban players, he was able to get out of Cuba relatively easy at a young age (via lottery system). While he won’t hit for average, Grandal has developed into a power hitting catcher (hit 27 homers last year) and is third in slugging (restricted to catchers) since 2015.
- first base: Joey Votto (Canada) plays for the Cincinnati Reds. If I had to give a favorite player who isn’t an Oriole, it’s this guy. Votto follows the hitting guidelines that Ted Williams put out over a century ago. Votto has power, high batting average, and HIGH on-base percentage. This guy draws A LOT of walks. He has led the National League in walks five times since 2011 and on-base-percentage four times.
- second base: Jose Altuve (Venezuela) plays for the Houston Astros. He is the Little-Engine-That-Could. Listed at 5′ 6″ and 165 lbs, Altuve is essentially a dwarf in the game of baseball. But don’t let his size fool you. He has led the American League in hits since 2014, batting average twice since 2014, and even hit 24 home runs last year.
- third base: Jung Ho Kang (South Korea) plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates. From 2006 to 2013, Kang played in the Korean Baseball League and was one of their star players. A shortstop by trade, Kang developed into a power hitter over there and had a 40 home run season in 2013. That was enough for the Pirates to go over and swoop him up to a four-year deal. Some of the power was lost in the transition, but not all. In only 103 games last year, Kang muscled 21 home runs and had a slugging of .513. Sadly, Kang’s biggest problem is his alcohol addiction. He recently plead guilty to a DUI in Korea, his third since 2009. He is currently in South Korea awaiting a court order on what will happen.
- shortstop: Carlos Correa (Puerto Rico) plays for the Houston Astros. When Correa was selected as the #1 overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, most of MLB was surprised. Only 17 at the time, Correa seen as a safe-pick but wasn’t seen as someone with a lot of ceiling. Flash forward five years. Correa is entering is third MLB season, he won the Rookie of the Year in 2015, and is the heart-and-soul of the Astros. He is a great offensive shortstop with a good glove as well. And remember, he is entering his age 22 season. The best has yet to come.
- left field: Starling Marte (Dominican Republic) plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This is a technicality because Marte is projected at being the CENTER fielder for the Pirates this season but until now he has played left field. But Marte has been quietly one of the more complete players in baseball. He can hit for average (.311 BA last year), he has some power (averages 14 home runs a season), he can run (47 stolen bases last year) and he can field (two consecutive gold gloves). Going into his age 28 season, he has room to improve still.
- center field: Mike Trout (USA) plays for the Los Angeles Angels. Speaking of complete players, this guy IS the definition of complete. In the past five years, he has two MVP awards (and was 2nd in the voting all other years). He hits for average (career BA .305), his for power (averages 34 home runs a season), he can walk (116 walks last year) and he can run (averages 29 stolen bases). His accolades on the field have baseball fans speculating him as an all-time great. And do you know what the most insane part of all this is? He is 25 years old.
- right field: Max Kepler (Germany) plays for the Minnesota Twins. Born in Berlin, Germany, Kepler has the promise to be the best baseball talent to come out of Germany. His 2015 in the minors made him stand out in the Twins organization where he won the “Southern League Player of the Year award”. 2016 was his first full season in the majors and he held his own. Despite batting .233, he hit 17 home runs, walked 42 times, and put together an OPS of .734 (around league average). Only 23, Kepler has a lot of potential and can develop into a fine ballplayer this year.
- DH: Jonathan Schoop (Curacao) plays for the Baltimore Orioles. I am preparing an analysis piece on him so I will keep this short. Normally a second baseman, Schoop’s main asset is power. In his first full season since 2014, Schoop his 25 home runs, tied for 5th among all second basemen last year. He needs to be more patient at the plate (draws few walks) but other than that, he has the makings of a good young hitter.
- starting pitcher: Masahiro Tanaka (Japan) plays for the New York Yankees. Since the mid 1990s, pitchers from Japan have drawn a large following when they come to pitch in MLB. The situation is that the team they play for in Japan “puts them up” on the market allowing an MLB to “bid” for the player. But winning the bid only means the team can now “negotiate” with that player. Teams have spent close to $50 million dollars just to win this bid and then maybe spend another $50-100 million to sign the player. It’s a situation where teams only go in if they KNOW this guy is going to be good. In 2014, Tanaka was that guy. And I say Tanaka has developed into a success. While injury prone, Tanaka has put up a solid 3 seasons with the Yankees averaging 3.12 ERA, 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings, and 1.5 walks per nine. Like I said, injuries have been his issue (2016 was his first full-season with the Yanks) but when he pitches, he’s effective.
- ace relief pitcher: Roberto Osuna (Mexico) plays for the Toronto Blue Jays. Osuna is the definition of a hard throwing reliever: 97 mph fastball, hard 87 mph slider, and a 96 mph sinker. Signed by the Blue Jays at age 16 in 2011, Osuna reached the majors in 2015 at age 20. Half-way through the season, he became their closer and hasn’t let go of that job. He has a done a good job of minimizing runs scored (average ERA is 2.63) along with striking out batters (9.8 strikeouts per nine). Going into his age 22 season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Osuna take it up a notch this season.
And as a bonus, here is the rest of the pitching staff I would put together as well as some relievers and backups
- 2nd starting pitcher: Jose Quintano (Colombia)
- 3rd starting pitcher: Wei-Yin Chen (Taiwan)
- 4th starting pitcher: Erasmo Ramirez (Nicaragua)
- 5th starting pitcher: Jharel Cotton (US Virgin Islands)
- reliever: Liam Hendricks (Australia)
- reliever: Randall Delgado (Panama)
- shortstop: Xander Boegarts (Aruba)
- Outfield: Paulo Orlando (Brazil)