The 2017 World Baseball Classic has come to a close. 16 teams competed for two weeks of unbelievable underdogs, upsets and extra innings baseball action. We’re taking a look back at the European journey.
It started in 2013 when both Italy and The Netherlands earned their place in the tournament by winning placements in their Pools out of Round 1. Those wins gave them an automatic bid for 2017. Israel however, had to earn their spot at the table and earn it they did.
In September they helped to eliminate #17 Brazil and twice defeated #29 Great Britain, handing the Brits their hats and bidding them adieu. That alone was seen as quite the accomplishment for a #41 ranked bunch of guys who had never before played together. But it was just the beginning of this Cinderella story.
Before it was over Israel would take down the #3 Korea, #4 Chinese Taipei and #9 The Netherlands, in order, just to make it to Round 2 where they held #1 Japan to five scoreless innings of baseball before one bad inning made the difference in the destination stamped on their boarding passes.
Lost in the hubbub of team Israel’s Cinderella story was the fact that they had an actual maiden on the bench alongside the Mensch. Justine Siegal, the first female coach allowed into the MLB system, suited up as the mental skills coach for the team. Astoundingly enough though, her story wouldn’t be the biggest to come out of the team’s appearance.
Thanks to the rules flexibility of the tournament, the majority of Team Israel’s roster, like many in the tournament, was comprised primarily of US players. They did have one Israeli citizen who came up in the local system. 37-year old Shlomo Lipetz is a RHP born in Tel Aviv who has lived in San Diego since his university years. Deam Kremer, who was born in California, also has Israeli citizenship. That makes two.
The remainder of the team qualified under the tournament rules which state that players with a biological affiliation to a country can choose to play for whichever nation they prefer, even if they do not hold citizenship in the country of choice at the time of play. All the player needs do is prove they would be granted citizenship, or a passport, by the country if they applied. In Israel’s case, the window to citizenship is opened a bit wider due to the country’s history. They have a Law of Return rule that guarantees citizenship to any person of Jewish descent as well as those who have converted to Judaism or who have married a Jewish person.
In March, Shlomo would not see an inning of action but Kremer did. The 21-year old RHP threw to just two batters earning himself a 13.50 ERA, giving up a hit and a run and flagging one. While many on the team had MLB experience in their background, for a large majority, behind them is where it remains.
The team fielded a strong starting nine who played in all six games. Outfielder Sam Fuld was one of them. He made it to the show, spending 8 years on four teams before being granted free agency in 2016 following a season on the bench. Infielder Ty Kelly had spent his entire career in the minors until 2016. In the game professionally since 2009, he spent 39 games of the 2016 season with the Mets. The remainder of the time he was in Las Vegas playing AAA-ball. On 1st, Nate Freiman hadn’t seen action since 2014 on the major league level. With the Athletics, where he was just as likely to be used as a DH as he was a baseman, Nate was granted free agency in 2016. Nearly every season of Ryan Lavarnway’s career has ended in free agency. Currently with the Oakland Athletics, the ink is barely dried on his November 2016 contract. The last time he saw action in the majors was with Atlanta in 2015.
A few up and comers were also included in the regular lineup. Class A 2nd baseman Tyler Krieger and Zach Borenstein, an outfielder on the AAA level. OF Blake Gailen has a successful minor league career in the independent leagues playing AAA-equivalent ball. 21-year old Scott Burcham was playing third in A-ball last summer, his first full season of play. In five games Israel also utilized the Mensch’s best buddy Cody Decker. The AA 1st baseman acted as their utility infielder.
That leaves just one name on the regular lineup card, Ike Davis. On 1st, Davis was the only team Israel regular with a steady job in the MLB. After four years with the Mets he began his annual packing and moving processes taking up residency in Toronto, Pittsburgh and Oakland before coming full circle back to the Big Apple for the team on the other side of the tunnel. Released from the Yankees in August of 2016, he signed a free agency deal with the Dodgers in January of this year.
Appearing on the mound for Israel in four games each were Alex Katz, Josh Zeid and Zach Thornton. The three combined for 17 innings and were the most used arms of the 17 that took the ball for Israel. Katz is an A-ball hurler with a 2.87 career ERA. Thornton has made a career in the minors. Currently at the AAA level with the 51s in Las Vegas, the 28-year old has been in the minors since 2010, dancing in and out of AAA since 2013, with a career 3.72 ERA. Of the three, only Zach Zeid has spent any time in the show.
Picked up off waivers from the Tigers, Zeid pitched his first MLB games for the Houston Astros in 2013 and 2014. Having pitched a total of just 48.1 innings in 48 games, he was used primarily in relief where he posted a 5.21 ERA. He then spent the next two seasons as a free agent being signed by both the Angels and Mets but not used. Walking into the Classic he was once again looking for a job. After throwing ten shutout innings, including five against #1 in the world rankings Japan, he has a new employer.
The St. Louis Cardinals signed Zeid to a one-year free agency minor league deal on March 21, 2017. Josh also took home All Tournament honors from the Classic. Based on his performances in the WBC, the red birds might be wise to give Zeid the ball earlier in the game and see what he can do with it. Some pitchers make their careers throwing strikeouts. Zeid does not appear to be one of them. In those 10 innings he flagged an average of one an inning. Other pitchers however, are very good at making guys hit into routine plays. It seems that this may be where Zeid’s strength lies. When the game is on the line in late innings this can lead to rally potential but, when utilized early on, when bodies are fresh, it can lead to the level of ball we saw out of Zeid, and the entire team, throughout the tournament.
Team Israel left the first round of the tournament the same way the had walked away from the qualifiers, undefeated. That gave them a record of 6-0 heading into the 2nd round. They would tack on one more W before suffering their first loss to The Netherlands, who they were facing for the second time in as many rounds. Outranking Israel 9:41, no doubt the Dutch were playing as much for pride as placement by then.
Israel’s final shot to stay in the tournament was against Japan. They kept the #1 ranked country in the world scoreless through five before allowing five runs in a single inning. That inning was the difference in the game.
With their record from the first round, and qualification into the second round, Israel has automatically qualified for a seed in the 2021 Classic.
Let’s admit that, as far as stacked decks go, Israel is certainly no worse than any other roster in the tournament and give some credit to their numbers guys for finding a great combination of talent to make up the #41 ranked team that went into their first game with 36:1 odds against them on the betting circuit. They were excited to represent their country and played ball with childlike enthusiasm because, for many of them, this wasn’t just another game. It was a chance. A chance to get picked up. A chance to show friends and family that, despite not making the show, they had talent. A chance to bring a sport they love to a country they feel connected to because the American culture is designed to keep people firmly rooted in the people who came before you.
In 2013, Italy made it to the second round of the tournament, which is how they arrived at the 2017 tournament at all. This year they failed to make it out of the first round in Mexico, falling to Venezuela and Puerto Rico after an opening game win against the host country. After defeating Italy, Venezuela lost to Mexico. That triggered the tie-breaker. Though Italy failed to capitalize on it, it was enough to qualify them for 2021.
Italy’s team was also stacked with US-born players. In their case however, this was a bit of a disappointment, not because of the way they played but because the opportunity to play Italian-born guys was there. On Italy’s WBC roster were two players with both Italian citizenship and MLB experience.
Most famous for Italy was Alex Liddi. His career in the majors inspired many of the current minor leaguers from his homeland, including Marten Gasparini. Liddi made his first appearance in the show during the 2011 season. He spent three years with the Mariners before spending the next four seasons with as many teams as a free agent, drifting through their minor league systems. In 2016, Liddi played in the Mexican Baseball League where he was crowned Homerun Champion for the season. Following the season he underwent knee surgery but, judging by his moves on third in the Classic, he appears healed up and ready for action. It looks like the Los Toros Tijuana agreed. On March 20, 2017 he signed with the team.
The other Italian major leaguer on the roster was Francisco Cervelli. Born and raised in the Venezuela, Cervelli has an Italian father, giving him the citizenship under which he chose to play. Catching four games for Italy throughout the tournament put Cervelli twice on defense against his homeland. With a parent from each country, it was a win/lose position throughout for him.
Italy also had 28-year old Italian Baseball League (IBL) C Marco Sabbatani and 31-year old RHP Alessandro Maestri, who has played in the NPL since 2011 and went 3.1 innings. 26-year old Filippo Crepaldi (IBL) pitched 1.2 innings, former minor league A-ball pitcher Luca Panerati (not activated DPP), former minor leaguer Mario Chiarini, Sebastiano Poma (IBL) and Alessandro Vaglio rounded out the Italians on the bench.
In their bullpen they also had Brazilian-born pitcher Tiago Da Silva, Canadian Jordan Romano (1.2 innings), Dominican Frailyn Florian (2.0 innings) and Venezuelans Jose Escalona, Carlos Teran, Orlando Junior Oberto (2.0 innings) and Luis Lugo (2.1 innings).
With a bullpen filled with South American arms, throwing to a South American catcher, and a field defended by Americans, the disappointment in Italy’s story is that they had the opportunity to place any number of their current minor league players on the roster.
This would have afforded up and coming MiLB players experience with big leaguers, if not field time, sitting the bench with people they are aspiring to become. Italy currently has five players across the minor league system. Catcher Alberto Mineo spent 2016 in A-ball with the South Bend Cubs. Shortstop Marten Gasparini was also in A-ball with the Lexington Legends. Both would have been reasonable picks for backup positions. 22-year old Mineo had a strong showing in spring training and, on March 7, 2017, was assigned to the Chicago Cubs. 19-year old Gasparini was moved up to full season A-ball last year following a successful spring training. In 107 games at short he had 132 putouts for a respectable .885 FPCT. 19-year olds Federico Giordani and Nicolo Clemente, with the DSL and GCL respectively, are still too early in their development to have been considered.
Overall the biggest problem for the Italian team was simply that it wasn’t really a team. It was a few different groups of guys, from separate systems of play, trying to create a single, unified organization in a short amount of time. There were potentially no less than four languages, and certainly three definitely different cultures, in the clubhouse. They had just enough guys from each to make separation a comfortable situation. As anyone whose been in a clubhouse like this knows, it is a situation that needs to be overcome and Italy simply lacked the time to team build around it in the Classic environment of play.
It is something Italy needs to give serious consideration when selecting their rosters for 2021 if they want to continue to be part of the Classic. With some many more teams building in the next four years in anticipation of the Olympic games, level of play is about to get turned up a notch across all the continents. Unless Italy makes an effort to create a regular national team that plays tournaments often, they may well find themselves falling through the rankings sooner than later.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands arrived at the 2017 WBC by advancing to the semi-final round in the 2013 tournament, beating Cuba twice to get there. Of the 36 guys on their roster, not including the Designated Pitching Pool (DPP) 13 are natives of Holland. Of those 13, eight were pitchers who saw a combined 29 innings over 7 games, two of which lasted 11 innings. Two other pitchers remained in the pen.
Three were position players. While Dwayne Kempt managed to get in two at bats over three games, and Kalian Sams had eight at bats in three games in outfield, it was only the native Dutchie major league shortstop, Didi Gregorius that spent any significant amount of time away from the dugout.
Joined by six of his fellow Kingdom brotheren, together they dominated the field. Playing in seven games for the team were Wladimir Balentien, Jurickson Profar, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and Jonathan Schoop. Like Sir Didi, Rudolph Oduber was in six of those. Of that list, only Wladimir Balentien does not currently wear an MLB jersey in the summers.
Profar is a Texas Ranger, Andrelton Simmons plays short in LALALand for the Angels, Bogaerts is in Boston doing the same, while J. Schoop plays 2nd for the Orioles in Baltimore. All these guys have one other major advantage over the other teams they faced. Bogaerts aside, having grown up in Aruba, all these men have been playing together since they were kids. And, in Bogaerts’ case, against him. They know one another, as people and as fielders. 2-time All Star and 3-time Gold Glove winner Harold Reynolds, who commentated the games for MLB Tonight, talked about having trained a lot of them during their youth league years on the Island. So, not only were they raised playing together but they did it being trained, from a young age, by an MLB system guy. Did we happen to mention that Reynolds spent his 10-year MLB-career playing infield? That is a vastly different experience than most of the other teams in the WBC and certainly throughout the European system.
Gregorius aside, the remaining regular fielders for The Kingdom were all from countries outside Europe. While Curaçao and Aruba, the two primary locations responsible for the remainder of the Dutch roster are, in fact, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, they are completely separate countries with their own currencies, languages and cultures. Calling Aruba or Caraçao The Netherlands is about equal to calling Puerto Rico America or the British Virgin Islands England. They are all territories of their respective mainlands. While both England and The Netherlands include their territories in their eligible player pools, as we saw in this year’s championship game, Puerto Rico prefers to stand on their own two feet. Naturally that has a lot to do with the fact that many generations of eligible players are raised in the US system of baseball thanks to the ease of migrated between the lands.
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Of the mainlanders for the Dutch, most of the pitchers saw some play time. Mike Bolsenbroek went 3.1 innings in 2 games. Robbie Cordemans pitched 1 inning in 1 game and Tom de Blok pitched 2 innings over 2 games. Lars Huijer had 3 innings over 2 games on the mound. Jim Ploeger went 1 full inning over 2 games. Tom Stuifbergen went 4.2 innings in 3 games. Rick van den Hurk threw 9 innings in 3 games earning 3 saves. Loek van Mil, the tallest man in baseball this month, threw 5 innings in 4 games.
Throughout the tournament The Netherlands used a total of 14 pitchers. While two Dutch natives, Loek van Mil and Rick van den Hurk, saw significant play time it was two other men that combined for the majority of the shared time on the mound. 31-year old former MLB All Star pitcher Jair Jurrjens and 36-year old Olympian Diegomar Markwell, both out of Caraçao combined for 20 innings.
13 men on the roster play in the Netherlands Baseball League or for the Dutch Major Leagues. Only two, both pitchers, Keven Kelly and Berry van Driel, spent the entire tournament in the pen alongside the only US born player on the roster, LHP and free agent Mark Pawelek. Everyone else at least had the opportunity to get some dirt on their whites.
That being said, the roster was clearly filled with undeniable talent from all parts of the Kingdom. The bats these men wielded could not be stopped by a mere ball thrown at absurd speeds. Six players hit for well above .300. Tops on that list was Classic MVP Selectee Wladimir Balentien, one of the only fielders without an MLB contract… for now.
Balentien hit .615 in 26 AB with 10 runs, 16 hits – including four homers and a double - and 12 RBIs. All that was accomplished while still managing to strike out four times. Currently under contract with the NPL’s Sarrow for 2017, the 32-year old outfielder left no doubt that he was auditioning for his second coming in the bigs. Balentien last played in the majors in 2009 and has since made a career for himself in Japan where he holds the home run record with 60 in a season (2013). That was five above the previous record set in 2001.
Aside from losing Didi to a tender shoulder before their final game, The Netherlands fell victim to the extra innings rule in two of their games. The first time it forced them into a tie-breaker. The second time it cost them an opportunity at the championship. In both cases it cheated not only both participating teams, but the fans as well.
The extra innings rule, new to this year’s tournament, seemed fair on paper. It stated that teams would play through 10 innings. Beginning in the 11th, each team would begin with men on 1st and 2nd to help increase the offensive opportunities and, thus, speed up the end of the game. In those terms, it was a complete success. Both games ended in 11. In fact, not a single extra innings game in the tournament made it out of the 11th.
When executed however, it failed to satisfy on a purely baseball level. Strategically speaking, baseball is a game stacked in favor of the defense. If a guy regularly makes it to base 30% of the time, he’s got a solid hitting career in the bigs. That means that, during a player’s regular career on defense, it is highly unlikely they’ll come across force out situations more than a couple of times a season assuming everyone is having a standard quality defensive year.
Starting pitchers are especially not accustomed to the force out situation and, once you are in extra innings, you’ve generally worked your way through your relievers so the likelihood you’ve got a starter on the mound come the 11th is pretty high.
What this all does is set the advantage up to the batter. This is not a natural position in baseball and therefore, it is not one that players are specifically training against with any level of regularity.
When you put guys on 1st & 2nd with no outs, you are setting up the force out almost by default. Baseball strategy dictates, especially if facing the top of a lineup, that you intentionally walk the first guy to load them up and set up the double play.
In fact, in nearly every instance by all sides, this is precisely what happened. What failed to happen was the double play execution by The Netherlands in either case. That meant loaded bases with no outs with a starter on the mound.
It is not a situation they are necessarily trained to cover in terms of turning themselves from a pitcher into a defensive player. Their natural rhythm is to the play at first. The force out situation pushes them into the play at home every time. This is something that only closers would train for today in a time where we now have pitchers who specialize. Add to that the pressure of the game on the line with every pitch, every fielding decision, it’s a lot to ask of either team and you could see that in the missed routine plays and confusion on the field.
The rule makes sense on paper. We get why it’s there but, when executed, it proved counter-intuitive to the way the game is played in any other situation throughout the history of the sport.
All sports rely on knowing your role in any number of scenarios. There was simply no way to prepare for this type of situation because it falls so far out of the norm. It is applying the principles of sudden death – something normally limited to timed sporting events – to a game that is rooted in the opportunity to make your own luck. It is just nothing like baseball and it was, for me at least, the one part of the Classic, the only part, that was a fail.
No matter the outcome, no matter the opponents, the viewers were right alongside them in being cheated out of a great game of baseball.
Amazingly enough, throughout the tournament, The Kingdom’s $80M dollar arm was barely a blimp on the radar. Kenley Jansen showed up on his hometown field in Los Angeles to host his national team and pitch one inning of shutout ball. Activated from the DPP for the occasion, he threw a total of 10 pitches, striking out two, in the entire tournament. It wasn’t what he did but when he did it that mattered however. His short appearance allowed The Netherlands to remain tied with Puerto Rico at the bottom of the 9th forcing the game into extra innings.
Like Israel and Italy, the Netherlands will also skip the preliminaries to the 2021 tournament.
In addition to the three teams, there were a record-setting five umpires representing five different European countries throughout the WBC. Out of The Netherlands Winfried Berkvens officiated in Mexico alongside Michael Ulloa from Estonia. Germany’s Jens Waider and Italy’s Fabrizio Fabrizi were paired up and sent to Japan while Frantisek Pribyl of the Czech Republic took a solo flight to Korea.
In Seoul Pribyl officiated four games. He spent the first game between Israel and S. Korea at 1st. The remaining games, including Israel v. Chinese Taipei, The Netherlands and Korea and The Netherlands and Israel he was on 3rd.
In Tokyo Fabrizi worked the first round spending the first game, between Japan and Cuba, at 1st. When Cuba took on China the next night he was on 3rd. He spent the following night on 3rd again as Japan and Australia faced off. After earning a night off Fabrizio was back on 1st for the Australia v. Cuba game.
Walder would have to wait for the second round of action to get his chance to suit up. He started the second game, Israel and Cuba, at 3rd. He was back in the same spot when Israel and The Netherlands had their rematch in the 2nd round. The German in blue moved over to 2nd for his final matchup between Cuba and Japan.
In Mexico it was Berkvens who started off the tournament calling the plays at 3rd between Italy and Mexico. When Venezuela and Puerto Rico met up he was on the same bag. For the Venezuela / Italy matchup Ulloa took over at 3rd. The next night, in the game between Puerto Rico and Mexico, it would be the first and only time two European umpires took the field together. Ulloa remained at 3rd while Berkvens hung around his favorite spot at 1st. In the Puerto Rico / Mexico game the following night Winfried was back at 3rd. He stayed put for the Italy / Puerto Rico competition and, when Mexico took on Venezuela the next night, Michael was on 2nd. In the tie-breaker between Mexico and Italy, it was Ulloa who got the call. He spent the day at 3rd.
Though there were a few ejections and at least one controversy as a result, throughout the tournament, not a one involved an EU-umpire.
From officials to mainlanders, islanders and honorary citizens, regardless of the names on the backs of the jerseys, as long as European baseball did well, and they did – very, very well - on this international stage, then all of European baseball and softball came out winners.
Not only will there definitely be at least three European teams in the 2021 WBC, but none of them will have to play in qualifiers during 2020 which could cause disruption in their Olympic participation or focus.
On a broader scale, it will lead to scouts paying attention to our youth. Federations will now be able to scrounge together grant money to grow our programs. Interest from international media will help to spread the game we’re playing into their own countries. The 2017 World Baseball Classic reminded the world that, come 2020, there will be a few more teams besides the US, Canada and Japan that might be interesting to watch during the Olympic broadcasts and that’s great for everyone!