And Then There Was 1
The World Baseball & Softball Confederation (WBSC) has released their third set of baseball rankings since the 2017 season ended. There has been a significant shift in that time. This lineup is the first not to include the 2014 competition numbers and that has made all the difference for a great many nations.
Most significant in the newest ranking is that the United States has overtaken Japan for #1 in world. This is the first time since November 2014, that Japan has not been the leader. America did it not only through their adult national team but with the help of their youth. In 2017, teams USA made a clean sweep of championship titles. Both the U-12 and U-18 teams swept their respective World Cups while the grownups took home the World Baseball Classic (WBC) title.
As to Europe’s current standing, each new set of rankings has done little to improve the European positioning on the international charts, at least not for the powerhouse teams on the European stage.
In the previous two rankings The Netherlands, Italy and the Czech Republic occupied spots in the top 15 with Israel and Germany rounding out the top 20. Germany has now dropped out of the top 20 after losing a single spot, but they are not alone in their descent.
The Netherlands dipped from #8 to #9, while Italy dropped 3 spots, from #12 to #15 and the Czech Republic plummeted an additional spot from #14 to #18.
Given their WBC performance it is no surprise, but Italy’s descent is the most gut-wrenching, because only the teams ranked 1-12 at the end of 2018 will be eligible for the Premier12 in 2019. The event is a Tokyo 2020 Olympic Qualifier and only a select number of teams will gain direct entry from that event to the Olympic Games.
This means that Europe’s youth presence at the U-23 and U-15 Baseball World Cups in 2018, the only sanctioned men's baseball events in this season, must be strong for any nation wishing to advance through to an opportunity at Olympic glory. Only Germany and the Netherlands have currently qualified for the U-15 tournament in August with a wild card spot still up for grabs. On the U-23 side there are currently no European teams in the running.
The only European team to ascend in the top 20 was Israel. Israel, who made the largest jump through the ranks in 2017, continues their rise. Finishing off the year at #19, they now are up to #17.
They were not alone in their climb however. Four of the top six slot gains came from Europe.
Among the mid-level teams, Austria jumped five slots from #29 to #24 while Switzerland leapfrogged six positions from #49 to #43. France overtook Spain at #23, causing the Spaniards to drop two positions to #25. Russia broke even, remaining at #27.
In the small baseball nations of Europe, there was great progress. Slovakia and the Ukraine each rose five spots. Slovakia went from #37 to #32, while the Ukraine rose to #38. Belarus jumped the record for this ranking, with seven slots between their before and after. They started at #46 and landed at #39 while Bulgaria, also on that top jumpers list, leapt six of their own from #48 to #42. Serbia rounded out the top European risers taking six spots as well, going from #50 to #44. Croatia made their own go of it, jumping four spots to land at #30 while Sweden skipped one to stay on their heels. Finally, Poland advanced five spots to rise from #39 to #34.
With all their success, there were some minor drops for the smaller ball markets. Slovenia dropped four spots to #48 and Greece fell from #42 to #49, while Romania took a small step down going from #45 to #46.
There were also some shifts among our nations. Belgium rose two, to #28 with Pakistan now on their heels – dropping from #26 to #29. Lithuania jumped two spots, up to #33, knocking Great Britain down a spot and into a position tie with Poland.
It is impressive to see so many European teams with clear growth in their game. This bodes well for an equalization of the market across the continent and that will, no doubt, lead to more competitive inter-continental play. That, in turn, should further develop the overall quality of players emerging from Europe’s talent pool.
On the flip side however, some of the teams Europe has relied on as international leaders seem to be struggling at the moment. That could mean, for the time being at least, Europe may very well disappear from the international winner's circle on the adult level. The timing couldn't be worse. Our sports are returning to the most important international stage of all, the Olympic Game. If Europe struggles internationally in the coming years, that will make keeping baseball and softball in 2024 a harder sell to our neighbors in Paris.
There is a great deal riding on the backs of our youth teams, not only in 2018, but over the course of the next three years. Perhaps there is no better preparation for their plans to be on the field during the Opening Ceremonies in 2020. Here's hoping they rise to the challenge.