The 2017 World Baseball Classic was the most successful edition of the tournament yet (and not just because the USA came out on top). It was the most well-attended of all the tournaments to date, with nearly a million fans turning up to stadiums around the world. The final drew a WBC-record 51,565 fans to Dodger Stadium. The atmosphere in the stands was often electric, and American fans were exposed to baseball cultures from around the world. The Japanese band and the constant musical bombardment from Latin American fans was fantastic.
Three Ways to Improve the World Baseball Classic
It wasn’t just in the stadium where things got better. The semi-final game between the USA and Japan had 1.45 million viewers on television, an 80% jump from the semi-finals in 2013. That made it the most watched non-postseason game in MLB Network’s history. It also beat out a couple of nationally televised NBA games on ESPN to make it the most watched sporting event of the night. Television ratings overall were up for the event as well, as the USA-Dominican Republic pool play game in Miami also attracted nearly a million pairs of eyeballs.
But the event has a long way to go before it can reach the heights it aspires to. The competition is still a little wonky in many ways, including it’s controversial tiebreaker format. Breaking three-way pool play ties needs a some refinement, but there are other big ways in which the World Baseball Classic can get even better.
Lengthen Pool Play
The dual pool play format the tournament has used for its entire existence is enjoyable, but playing each team once does not fit well with the game of baseball. The structure of the game is different for home and away teams. The length of pool play should be doubled so teams play home and home against each other, bringing each round of pool play up to six games.
If the powers that be think this makes the competition too long, they can always cut the second round. One round of pool play can see the top two in each pool advancing to a single elimination quarterfinal round, instead of taking two pools to whittle the field down to four teams. This only adds one game to the schedule, so the event wouldn’t drag out much longer at all.
Synchronize the Schedule
Every World Baseball Classic has had an offset schedule for reasons that are hard to decipher. It’s great that there are games taking place all over the world. It gives a chance for more countries to experience the tournament first hand. In fact, Tokyo should host the final at some point. But, that’s beside the point.
Pools A and B of the first round started three days before Pools C and D. Pool E in the second round started before the first round was even over. This led to Japan and the Netherlands having a five-day layoff before the semi-final round, in which they both lost.
Syncing up the pool play schedule would help keep every team on the same page in terms of rest, and create a fairer final round. Every team could get a few days off before the elimination games in order to balance out the lengthy travel for teams playing in the far east.
Play the WBC in November/December
This is drastic and will probably never happen. Consider, however, how much better the tournament would be if it were not played during MLB Spring Training. Players are rusty in the early spring, which leads to a less satisfying on-field product. Pitchers are burdened by extremely limited pitch counts. Hitters are still shedding the offseason rust that hampers their swings. Playing the tournament in the late fall would get rid of these problems.
Players could report to World Baseball Classic camps shortly after the conclusion of the World Series, before they’ve developed any of that offseason rust. Any injuries picked up from the event would have several months, instead of a couple weeks, to heal before the start of the regular season. This would lead to better play, freed from the shackles of pitch counts and the interruption of Spring Training.
The 2017 World Baseball Classic was the best one yet, and MLB, the MLBPA, and the WBSC could finally have something great to offer. The 2021 tournament can be even better if they refine the competition to get the most money and competitive balance out of what could become a signature event on the baseball calendar.