The greatest exhibition

Because it’s a departure from MLB’s primary product, the World Baseball Classic comes with a ready-made supply of detractors, often those who want to keep things the way they were when they were young, and who are liable to see enforcing the rules against fielders obstructing the basepaths without the ball as an affront.

Robert Whiting expressed some valid takes in his recent Substack post “WBC title is great for Japan, but NPB needs to concentrate on enhancing its product going forward.”

His points, as I understand them, are:

  • The lively individualistic approach exhibited by Japan in the WBC will not loosen Japan’s embrace of paint-by-numbers solutions to baseball situations.
  • The WBC is fun, but it’s just an exhibition and doesn’t prove which team is the best.
  • Japanese pro baseball could be so much better than it is, and that should be its focus to be better at marketing and building its product, and that the DeNA signing of Trevor Bauer is a step in the right direction.

In my last post, I addressed his principle point, that Japan’s baseball establishment needs to move forward from the WBC and not just celebrate. This time, I want to take on the question of whether or not the tournament is an exhibition.

“Just a series of exhibitions”

“It (the WBC) is just a series of exhibition games that in the end are just a series of exhibition games.”

–Robert Whiting on Substack, March 22, 2023

This is an “it’s not my idea of a real competition, therefore it isn’t one” argument. I have to believe what he means by this is that the WBC games are nothing little more than preseason exhibitions ahead of the regular season.

However, the main attribute of an exhibition game is that its outcome is less important than the training value the players take from it or the value derived from the game’s contribution to a charitable cause.

Kyle Schwarber and Tim Anderson were asked about the nature of the competition. You tell me if they think it’s an exhibition.

“You’re not really tiptoeing your way through a spring training at-bat. You’re coming in, and it’s competing, it’s time to win. It’s kind of like that regular season where you know what? You’re getting your work done in the cage and you’re competing in the game. This is straight competition, go out there, compete, and the best man wins.”

–Team USA’s Kyle Schwarber prior to the 2023 WBC final against Japan.

“…just really watch and you can see the passion and you can see the energy and you can see what it really means to certain guys to go out there and put on that uniform for their country. But I think this is huge. This is huge. You’re playing for the world. So it’s huge for me, for sure.”

–Team USA’s Tim Anderson prior to the 2023 WBC final against Japan

The only time the “it’s an exhibition” argument will be heard from those competing in the WBC would be when they are being constrained by rules imposed on them by MLB and its teams.

Because the WBC was fashioned to not interfere with MLB’s main product, it currently takes place during the preseason with limits on the number of pitches that can be thrown and when MLB players can begin playing warm-up games with their national teams.

These rules are understandable since MLB’s main business is the regular season it uses to milk local governments through sweetheart stadium deals that confer tax breaks, stadiums and real estate on billionaire owners, who then decide whether fielding competitive teams is in the best interest of the return on their investment.

If limiting the number of pitches one can throw makes a game an exhibition, does putting Rob Manfred on second base at the start of every extra inning make every extra-inning game an exhibition? Of course it doesn’t. All competitions have rules, and just because those rules are different, doesn’t make them less valuable.

(fill in the blank) proves who’s best

Whiting trotted out one of Bobby Valentine’s objections to the WBC from 2005, that the format doesn’t “prove which team is best.”

This is also a red herring.

Bobby’s too smart to really believe a 162-game season proves which team is best, but it’s a popular baseball meme, just as saying a seven-game series proves which team is best. Both are soundbytes rooted in baseball’s conventional wisdom but both are equally unprovable.

If you do the math, you’ll quickly understand that it would take a regular season well in excess of 1,000 games to select the best team in a 15 team league 99 percent of the time.

The purpose of competition is to select a champion through the application of objective criteria and rules. People love to say “the best team wins,” or even that “the team that plays the best wins,” but the entertainment value comes from the striving to win, not in the absurd notion that the best team always wins.

MLB’s regular season and playoffs select champions. Its games provide drama. The same goes for MLB’s seven-game North American Series, and the WBC. Good luck picking out which of these is the real thing and which is secondary without a pre-conceived notion.

There is evidence to suggest the March 21 final was the most-watched baseball game in history. According to one story, the biggest audience to date for an MLB game was Game 6 of the 1980 World Series with an average of 54.86 million viewers.

The U.S. broadcaster, Fox, announced the final drew an average of 4.5 million viewers on its Fox Sports 1 channel, but that leaves out the huge number of viewers from around the world. Japan’s pool game against South Korea on March 10, appears to have surpassed the U.S. figure. And though the final began at 8 a.m. in Japan, the worldwide audience from outside the United States could easily have made the final the must watch TV of all must-watch games.

Not only did Fox’s sports sub channel contribute its highest figures for a WBC game, more people watched it than programming on its more widely available main channel. That’s what I would call unrealized potential.

In the summertime

The best time to have the WBC is not in March but July, but MLB deems that impossible. But what you need to know is that MLB’s definition of “impossible” is “we can’t do it because we don’t think we can make more money doing that.”

A summer WBC knockout and championship round will not happen until the instant MLB calculates that will be more profitable than what it has now. At that instant, MLB will jump on the idea like a duck snapping at a worm, and what was impossible a few months earlier will suddenly happen.

The way the WBC is going, I expect it will expand from 20 to 24 teams before long, and eventually to a summer finale, at Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field or Koshien Stadium.

It’s not the way things work now, because it would be “impossible” but it sure as heck can happen, because MLB’s understanding of that word is different from yours and mine, and one shouldn’t accept it as fact.

In the next post, I’ll dive into what the WBC really means for Japan.

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