The 2023 World Baseball Classic was a resounding success as evident in attendance, viewership, and merchandise sales. It also didn’t hurt to have the United States and Japan battle to the bitter end in an epic championship ball game. No one will ever forget how Shohei Ohtani struck out Mike Trout with two outs in the top of the ninth inning to solidify Japan’s 3-2 victory and the country’s third World Baseball Classic championship and first since 2009.
Regardless of the highly competitive ball games and ebullient crowds in Miami, Phoenix, Taichung, and Tokyo, critics still found fault with the timing of the two week tournament, its overall relevance, and injuries to perennial all-stars. Credence can be given to arguments regarding why the World Baseball Classic occurs in March during the middle of spring training. However, it can no longer be viewed as a meaningless tournament as evident in the effusive praise and testimonials expressed by several prominent ball players such as Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. Some have even said that winning a World Baseball Classic championship means more to them than a World Series due to strong feelings of nationalism and a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent their country in international competition.
Injuries to major league superstars such as second baseman Jose Altuve and right-handed relief pitcher Edwin Díaz might have dampened the joyous mood surrounding the World Baseball Classic, but their unfortunate circumstances should not be used as cautionary tales to discourage others from future participation. A safe and protective cocoon doesn’t exist in Arizona or Florida for ball players during the months of February and March. Even as the intensity of competition is vastly different during the World Baseball Classic, backfields and exhibition ball games in spring training are not immune from injuries to ball players.
New York Mets right-handed pitcher Max Scherzer recently shared his thoughts on the World Baseball Classic. As blunt honesty has never been an issue for the three-time Cy Young Award winner, Scherzer spoke from a personal perspective and said he wasn’t ready to step into a “quasi-playoff game” in the middle of March. His point of reference focused on how difficult it is to prepare in spring training for 33 starts and 200 innings pitched in a season. Participation in the World Baseball Classic can add physical and mental intensity to a pitcher’s training regimen at the outset of spring training with the potential of injuries, burn out, and other negative effects lingering throughout the season.
Scherzer left the door ajar for increased pitcher participation in the future if the World Baseball Classic had occurred during Major League Baseball’s regular season. The experience for fans would be vastly improved as conditioning for the pitchers would be in sync with the natural rhythms of the season. Pitch counts are always a matter of great concern but would take on a different perspective given that pitchers would have naturally increased their workloads on a normal schedule. The Word Baseball Classic adheres to strict rules regarding pitch counts and days of rest throughout the different rounds of the tournament. Let’s not forget the active involvement of major league ball clubs in terms of how their pitchers are to be used as well.
Even as the United States had assembled an impressive roster of superstars, mild criticisms still existed regarding the overall quality of pitching talent. Across FOX Sports’ multi-platform delivery of World Baseball Classic ball games, it was regularly mentioned how the United States’ six infielders had a combined 20 All-Star selections, 14 Gold Gloves, 12 Silver Sluggers, two batting titles, and one Most Valuable Player Award. Not to be outdone, the six outfielders had accumulated a combined 22 All-Star selections, 17 Silver Sluggers, seven Gold Gloves, four Most Valuable Player Awards, two batting titles, and one Rookie of the Year. In comparison, the 15 pitchers represented 11 All-Star selections, seven top five finishes in Cy Young Award voting, two Gold Gloves, one Silver Slugger, and one Rookie of the Year. Not a single pitcher who competed for the United States in the 2023 World Baseball Classic had won a Cy Young Award.
What if once every four years Major League Baseball replaced the All-Star Game in July with the World Baseball Classic? The two week tournament could begin on the 4th of July and culminate in one city where they would host a baseball version of the “Final Four.” A carnival-like atmosphere could be created around a semifinal doubleheader occurring on a Saturday with the championship ball game being played on a Monday evening. Major League Baseball could still hold a four-day fan fest, first-year player draft at the outset of the festivities, and even a Sunday afternoon All-Star Futures Game with a return to the United States versus the World theme.
Obvious concerns would focus on scheduling of regular season ball games for Major League Baseball as well as the international professional leagues who participate in the World Baseball Classic. Collaborations with the Major League Baseball Players Association, International Baseball Federation, and the World Baseball Softball Confederation would be of paramount importance. Major League Baseball would also have to carefully weigh the benefits of shutting the down its season for two weeks or rescheduling the ball games as doubleheaders spread across the regular season. If doubleheaders are a feasible option, distinctions between single or day-night admissions would be key concerns for ball clubs due to ticket sales, ballpark revenues, and broadcast rights. A combination of doubleheaders and extending the regular season by a week might be an option as well.
Using the 2023 World Baseball Classic as a template, the United States and Japan each had played seven ball games over a two week period including travel and off days. Each of the 20 teams that had participated in the tournament played four ball games in the first round. Based on Scherzer’s assessment of hosting the World Baseball Classic during the season, think for a moment of the type of pitching rotations that could be assembled if the tournament were to be held in July. A team such as the United States could build a starting rotation of four to five elite pitchers complemented by a carefully constructed bullpen. The elite pitchers would make one to two starts with their conditioning in mid-season form regardless of pitch count restrictions.
Major League Baseball should proudly bask in the joy that was delivered to fans thanks to the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Always with an eye towards improvement and a commitment to excellence, serious consideration must be given to moving the 2026 World Baseball Classic from March to July. 20 countries participating in the tournament could build bona fide all-star teams in midseason form fueled by nationalism, the intensity of competition, and an electric atmosphere that could never be properly captured by a midsummer exhibition ball game. International bragging rights and friendly rivalries aside, the World Baseball Classic is a beautiful festival that promotes civility and culture through the love of sport.