Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Talking Points After WBC Match-Day Two

After two days of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, we've seen a lot of great baseball and there are plenty of conclusions and overreactions to take from the action in Tokyo and Seoul. Here's just a few of them.

1. Israel Appear to be this Year's Underdog Story

Much like Italy in 2013 and Holland in 2009, this Israeli team has a ragtag group that has grinded their way to victories and at this point, are almost certainly moving on to the second round in Tokyo. A collection of career minor leaguers, quad-A players, and even a major leaguer coming out of retirement (Jason Marquis) have played with a terrier-like spirit with great defense and a grinding at-bat approach that has served them well in a tournament where pitch counts involve so much of the in-game strategy.

Let's not sugarcoat Israel too much though, this team does have some major league talent on the roster, especially Sam Fuld who's probably one of the best defensive outfielders in MLB when healthy. I was big fan of  Fuld when he played in Oakland and after a serious shoulder injury, he's now looking to use this tournament as a springboard into a new job. There's no reason to think that he won't be some MLB club's fourth outfielder by the time this tournament is over, especially after this catch against Korea. Fuld represents a group of players who have used the WBC as a way to showcase their talents along with Chien-Ming Wang who did it in 2013 to reignite his MLB career and to a lesser extent, Roger Clemens in 2006.

How far can Israel go? We'll know more when they go up against Holland in their final round one game. Pitching depth will likely be their downfall when they head to the Tokyo Dome, but on any day, this Israeli squad is up for an upset.

2. Korea Leaves The WBC Toothless

Whenever there's a nice underdog story, there's a favorite's letdown on the other side of it. At least their 2013 WBC exit was an elimination based on run differential. In two games, the Koreans have scored a grand total of one run in their first two games against Israel and Holland.

Sure, this team could've used Jung-ho Kang in their lineup, but scoring one run against Israel is just pitiful, especially when a watered down Taiwan team scored seven the next day against them. As my partner Christian Gin pointed out, Korea was a team that would've brought in massive crowds if they had made a run to the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium. There's no doubt that it's a disappointment especially because we all would've liked to see Japan and Korea renew their baseball rivalry, but I guess we're going to have to wait until the 2019 Premier 12 and the 2020 Olympic Games.

3. Cuba Seems To Lack Elite Talent

I chose not to believe the reports that MLB has sucked the life out of the Cuban national team and they've only played one game, but I think there's a lot to take from Cuba's 11-6 loss to Samurai Japan. Japanese hitters seemed ahead in the count all night to Cuban pitchers as they induced 7 walks and spanked 5 extra base hits which led the way to 11 runs. Watching the radar gun, the Cuban pitchers seemed more reliant on finesse than brute strength with nobody hitting the mid-90s.

Overall, there were a couple position players that stood out for Cuba, mostly their centerfielder Roel Santos who made two spectacular plays in centerfield that kept Samurai Japan from making the score even more lopsided but for the most part, the team does not have anyone who screams "Future Major League Ballplayer." It's unfair to make conclusions after one game, but I don't see Cuba advancing to the championship round.

4. Japan's Raw Talent Makes Up For Their Manager's Miscues

We'll see how long Japan's talent can make up for their manager Hiroki Kokubo's shortcomings, but so far so good for Samurai Japan. Before the tournament, there were reports that Kokubo was going to leave Hiroshima Carp star defensive second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi on the bench in favor of putting Tetsuto Yamada in the field, but last night Kokubo put Yamada at DH and Kikuchi at second base with the latter responding by bailing out starting pitcher Ayumu Ishikawa with a first-inning double play. That was probably the only good move that Kokubo made on the night, he made a head scratcher in batting Norichika Aoki third in the order while also playing him in centerfield and he seemed way too concerned with Nobuhiro Matsuda's exhibition struggles by placing him 8th in the order. Luckily for Kokubo, there were runners on base aplenty and Matsuda delivered in his opportunities with runners on base going 4-5 with a home run and four RBIs and Aoki made two spectacular plays in centerfield to bail out Japan's pitchers.

For all we know, if Shogo Akiyama was playing in centerfield, maybe those plays wouldn't have looked so spectacular but for the most part, Aoki rewarded Kokubo's faith. One big concern for Japan will be their bullpen that looked rather leaky, but Kokubo has plenty of options, it's just a matter of him finding the right ones with the toss of a dart.

5. Holland's Golden Generation Puts On A Show In Their Opener

I coined the Oranje's Golden Generation earlier, and they made me look good with a comfortable 5-0 win over host Korea. It started early from Jurickson Profar who launched a missile that makes me wish there was Statcast at Gocheok Sky Dome. A home run like that just reminds us all why Jurickson Profar was the number one prospect in all of MLB heading into the 2013 season and it's unfortunate that injuries and positional obstruction have derailed his promising career up to this point.

 Defensively, Andrelton Simmons and Jonathan Schoop turned three double plays and they made all of them look easy. Andrelton Simmons is probably the best defensive shortstop in all of MLB and it's fantastic that he's committed to this tournament. Even one of their lesser known players contributed to the victory as Randolph Oduber hit a two-run home run to put the exclamation point on their victory. Oduber spent several years in the Washington Nationals organization where he only reached the level of AA, he now plays his ball in the Dutch league and if these contributions continue from players like Oduber, the sky is the limit for the Honkbal Oranje. I'm skeptical about their pitching depth and that will be tested as the tournament goes on but so far, so good for Holland.


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