As Mike mentioned in the open thread, game action is starting a bit early this year. That’s because of the World Baseball Classic, an event which MLB officials attempt to hype, and about which the American public, from what I can gather, doesn’t care for the most part.
I understand MLB’s desire to see this tournament succeed. They think it can get people around the world hyped about baseball the same way they’re hyped about soccer and specifically the World Cup. While the WBC will never be the World Cup, it could be a successful tournament if it were run properly. Unfortunately, there are a few too many snags at this point for it to be feasible.
Most notable is the detriment it causes to MLB teams. Yes, the opening of the season might be delayed by a few days, but that won’t give the WBC players the time in camp they’re used to. Players don’t show up in mid-February just because. They show up to be around the team and to get in shape for the new season. The WBC represents practice for these players, but it’s not practice with their respective teams. Exactly how important that is I don’t know, but it has to be of some significance. This goes especially for catchers, who are tasked with learning an entire pitching staff in a month and a half.
Pitchers, though, seem to suffer the most harm from WBC participation. Just look back to 2006 and you can see what I’m talking about. A number of pitchers who participated in the WBC either befell injury or had horrible years. This is why I’m thankful that the Yankees aren’t sending any of their arms to the international tournament. They’re keeping them in camp where they can monitor their workload and ensure that they perform at peak ability for the 2009 team. That is, after all, what they’re paid for, and the entire reason why they were selected to the WBC in the first place.
Look at the starters for Team USA in 2006: Roger Clemens, Jake Peavy, Dontrelle Willis. Roger pulled his half-year thing with Houston that year, so we’ll set him aside. Dontrelle Willis had a superb 2005, and if not for Chris Carpenter would have won the NL Cy Young award. Yet in 2006 he faltered a bit. Yes, he pitched 223.1 innings and threw to a 3.87 ERA. That doesn’t sound bad on the surface, but his walks shot up from 55 in 236 innings in 2005 to 83 in 2006. That brought his WHIP up to the 1.4 range, making his ERA seem out of line with his actual output (true, true, his FIP was 4.31). This set the stage for his bed-crapping in 2007, and his injury-riddled 2008.
Jake Peavy has had exactly one bad year since 2003, and you’ll never believe what year it was. Yep, 2006. In the years 2004 through 2008 he had an ERA over 2.88 just once. His walks, hits allowed, and home runs allowed were far out of line with his career totals. Thankfully for him and the Padres, he rebounded with a Cy Young performance in 2007.
Not satisfied with a two-player sample? Bartolo Colon pitched 222.2 innings in 2005, (undeservingly) winning the Cy Young. After pitching for the Dominican Republic in 2006 managed just 56.1 innings in the majors, succumbing to injuries. He hasn’t crossed the 100-inning barrier since. Jae Seo threw 90.1 innings of 2.59 ERA ball for the Mets in 2005, but after participating in the WBC he managed a 4.56 ERA in 2006 split between the Dodgers and Rays. Joel Pineiro, while crappy in 2005, was even crappier in 2006.
Clearly, there were players who weren’t adversely affected by the tournament. Kelvim Escobar, coming off an injury in 2005, pitched 189.1 stellar innings after a WBC appearance in 2006. Erik Bedard lowered his ERA by a quarter point and pitched 50 more innings after a WBC stint. Yet, despite these improvements, the trend tends to be that if you pitch in the WBC, you’ll see diminished returns during that season.
I’m glad, then, that the Yankees’ pitchers are staying in camp and working like a normal Spring Training. Like the Hall of Fame, I don’t get much enjoyment out of the WBC. It seems like a marketing ploy by MLB. Get the best players in the world together every three years and drum up worldwide interest in the sport. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the end they will achieve. It looks like the timing of the tournament might have a generally detrimental effect on pitchers, which doesn’t bode well for the games that actually count. Clearly, we’ll need a larger sample to make any definitive conclusions, but considering the results from 2006, I couldn’t be happier that the Yankees’ pitchers will go through the spring supervised by team personnel.