The WBC final three

It’s Monday morning in Miami and we’re down to three teams after the United States cleaned Cuba’s clock in Sunday’s first semifinal. Japan will square off against Mexico in the second semifinal and it’s going to be a clash of relative unknowns.

In 2017, a Samurai Japan team without a single MLB player was one of two teams, along with Puerto Rico to enter the semis with a perfect 6-0 record, both finished with one loss, with both losses coming at the hands of the U.S., Japan 2-1 in the semis and Puerto Rico 8-0 in the final.

The records don’t really mean much because we’re talking about a handful of games against uneven competition. And because I spend my life thinking about Japanese baseball, I have a sense of Japan’s quality, but how that will play against Mexico or the United States in a single elimination game is anyone’s guess.

There will be a lot of unfamiliarity over the final two games, which in my experience, tends to favor pitchers. Mexico’s hitters have not seen Japan’s pitchers, and only Shohei Ohtani and Lars Nootbaar are likely to have seen any of the MLB pitchers Japan might face in the final two games.

If Japan reaches the final, the U.S. hitters will likely see a familiar face, Yu Darvish, who will be throwing just his third game of the spring, so that works against Japan.

In 2013 and 2017, Japan’s team structure blamed the unfamiliarity of its hitters with the movement on MLB pitchers’ fastballs for its defeats. But Japanese baseball has been undergoing subtle changes over the last 10 years. The mounds have become higher and harder, the pitchers have been throwing harder and developing new pitches – even if those have been crafted and shaped by the tackier NPB ball.

For those reasons, I think the Japanese hitters’ ability to cope with unfamiliar pitches will be a tick better than it was 10 years ago. Japan’s hitters and pitchers also have to deal with a strike zone that is somewhat higher than what they typically get back home.

Ballplayers’ adjustments are made within the contexts of the leagues they play in, when those contexts change, the way players prepare and adjust must change, and that’s not easy. Japan-based players compete in six-team leagues, allowing players to compile a massive amount of experience and data on their opponents.

Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama spoke about this in Tokyo, how his hitters missed chances against unfamiliar opposing pitchers.

A one-game elimination is a crap shoot to begin with. The lack of familiarity we will see is going to be a contest of who can consistently make the best pitches, produce the most good swings, and play the most fundamentally sound.

Everyone talks about Roki Sasaki’s speed, but the speed only comes into play because of his splitter. If he can’t locate and has to rely on throwing his fastball past people, a couple of hitters will time it and drill it, unless Monday is one of those days when he stays on top of it.

It’s going to be fun.

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