The World Baseball Classic is a success again. But the best U.S. pitchers stayed away
The “¡Me-xico! ¡Me-xico!” chants exploded on the concourse Sunday as soon as the Chase Field gates opened. The chorus was so loud that people on the field turned around to see what was happening. It was two hours before first pitch between Mexico and the United States, and the excitement was already simmering.
A sellout crowd of 47,354 people — evenly split between the passionate sides — watched Mexico shock the U.S. in an 11-5 win. The show was a smashing success for the World Baseball Classic, in its fifth iteration and first since 2017.
Interest in the WBC, a subject that has been endlessly discussed in the weeks before every one of them, is there in bunches from fans and players alike. It’s been apparent from Miami to Japan, where at one point more than half of the households in the Greater Tokyo Area were watching its home team face South Korea. There have been electric atmospheres and raw emotions. October environments have resurfaced in March.
But the event still isn’t where everyone involved envisions. Kinks to smooth out exist. Most are off the field, but one prominent on-field hurdle remains. Team USA manager Mark DeRosa, who played for the U.S. in the 2006 WBC, touched on the topic more than once in the last week.
“From a pitching standpoint, they had to get going a little bit earlier and had to ramp it up a little bit earlier,” DeRosa said. “But I think if this is going to go where it needs to go, some of the major league clubs are going to have to be willing to be a little bit more… OK mind-set-wise with those guys playing.”
A starred-and-striped elephant was in the room.
The problem DeRosa outlined isn’t across the board. While Team USA’s cast of position players this year is the most talented in its WBC history, attracting the best available starting pitching is an acute obstacle only for Team USA. Take a look around the tournament. The best pitchers from the other contenders are participating.
Shohei Ohtani is playing both ways for Japan entering a contract season with the Angels. Yu Darvish is behind him in the Japanese rotation. Julio Urías, also slated to hit free agency this winter, started for Mexico in its opener Saturday.
Sandy Alcántara started the Dominican Republic’s opener after winning the NL Cy Young Award and leading the majors in innings pitched (228⅔) last season. Cristian Javier took the mound for the Dominicans’ second game after a breakout postseason that included six innings in the Houston Astros’ no-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series.
Martín Pérez and Pablo López — the two Venezuelan pitchers with the highest WAR last season — started the country’s first two games. Jose Berríos was the only Puerto Rican who logged enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in 2022, and he pitched Sunday. Even veteran left-hander José Quintana, coming off a resurgent campaign, intended to pitch for Colombia before he suffered a rib injury last week.
Team USA, meanwhile, has one of the top rotations in the tournament — but far from the best it could’ve assembled.
Last season, 13 American pitchers finished in the top 20 in ERA among qualified pitchers across the majors and 14 finished in the top 20 in FanGraphs WAR. None of them is pitching in the WBC. Just one, San Francisco Giants right-hander Logan Webb, is known to have originally committed to Team USA. He withdrew before spring training started.
Of the seven foreign-born pitchers who finished in the top 20 in ERA, two aren’t pitching in the WBC: Quintana and Framber Valdez, who had initially said he would pitch for the Dominican Republic but pulled out after logging a heavy workload deep into October for the Astros.
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Team USA’s rotation took two blows when Clayton Kershaw and Nestor Cortes were forced to withdraw. Cortes suffered a hamstring injury last month. Kershaw couldn’t secure the necessary insurance to participate. Kershaw posted a 2.28 ERA in 126⅓ innings for the Dodgers while Cortes had a 2.44 ERA in 158⅓ innings for the New York Yankees. The developments diminished the pitching staff’s star power.
Without them, Adam Wainwright, Nick Martinez, Merrill Kelly, Lance Lynn, Kyle Freeland, Miles Mikolas and Brady Singer are the starting options on the American roster. The group has combined for seven All-Star Game appearances.
Fourteen American pitchers received Cy Young votes last season. Ten active major leaguers have won Cy Young awards. None is on Team USA’s pitching staff.
Wainwright, 41, held Britain to one run over four innings in Team USA’s opening victory Saturday. Martinez, a late addition to the roster, surrendered three runs on five hits over 2⅔ innings against Mexico on Sunday.
Wainwright is entering his 18th and perhaps final season with the St. Louis Cardinals. He’s approaching 200 career wins after going 11-12 with a 3.71 ERA across 191⅔ innings last season. The right-hander explained pitching for Team USA was a long-standing goal after being cut from the 2004 U.S. Olympic qualifying team. This was his final chance.
“It’s a big part of my story, but it also left a void inside of me that I’m ready to fill,” Wainwright said. “I’m glad to be representing our country.”
Workload restrictions are implemented for the tournament, but big-league clubs consider pitching in the WBC a high risk anyway — and for good reason. Throwing a baseball is an unnatural arm motion. Injuries are common. Franchises invest millions of dollars in the best starting pitchers. Front offices rely on them to win and maintain job security. The timing — during spring training, right before the season starts — adds to the anxiety.
As a result, the teams in the tournament are careful with starters and relievers. Managers are tasked to implement plans in concert with the pitchers’ clubs in preparation for opening day while trying to win competitive, high-adrenaline games. It’s a tricky balance. DeRosa experienced it in Sunday’s loss.
“There’s a lot of guys that mean a lot to these big-league ball clubs and their seasons,” DeRosa said after the game. “I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize them.”
A perfect spot on the calendar for this event doesn’t exist. Major League Baseball is determined to have this tournament succeed, and that requires some risk whenever it’s played. Wainwright wants the concerned parties to know Team USA’s pitchers are in good hands.
Mookie Betts appears at home at second base for Team USA because second base was once home. It’s a spot he figures to occupy more with the Dodgers, too.
“I think one thing for people to understand, fan bases to understand and teams to understand, is that the training staff in there is a professional Major League Baseball training staff that knows how to keep its players the same way a normal training staff would.
“When we come in here, we’re not with [unqualified] professionals to keep us where we need to be. … Whatever program we have with our own teams, they’re ready to put those into action here.”
MLB clubs were allowed to prevent players from participating if they met certain injury-related parameters. That could explain a few absences. But it doesn’t explain why so many of the best American starting pitchers from the 2022 season are not participating in this tournament.
“If this is going to go where it needs to go, then all teams, all countries would want their so-called best players,” DeRosa said. “And it shouldn’t be as difficult as it was to put a roster together. But I completely understand.”
Attracting the best American starting pitching isn’t a requisite for the WBC to succeed — the United States produces more than enough pitching talent to field a strong rotation — but it would further legitimize the event as it continues to grow. The interest already exists. The proof was there Sunday night at Chase Field.
Injury risk assessment is only part of the reason why players like Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw can’t get insurance for the World Baseball Classic.
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