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Team USA’s Final Challenge: Beating The Hottest World Baseball Classic Team Of All Time

Before the United States began its World Baseball Classic run a couple weeks ago, I wrote about how downright mediocre the team’s track record had been at the event. Things have changed!

Going into 2017, the U.S. was 10-10 in three WBC appearances, with a below-average run differential after accounting for its strength of schedule. Since the best American players were once again sitting the event out, there wasn’t much reason to think U.S. fortunes were due for an improvement this time around. Except the U.S. is now in the WBC final, beating Japan — only the most successful team in WBC history — to get there. Suffice to say, it’s been a wild, impressive ride for the Americans.

But their greatest test might come in Wednesday night’s championship game against Puerto Rico. The blond-dyed baseball machine from the Caribbean is in the midst of the most dominant WBC performance of any team since the event began in 2006.

Using the same Simple Rating System (SRS) framework I employed in my earlier story to adjust for the overall quality of each country’s WBC program,1 we can measure a team’s performance in each individual tournament relative to how it played against their opponents. And this season’s Puerto Rican national team is crushing it:

YEAR TEAM WINS LOSSES WEIGHTED SRS AVG OPPONENT SRS
1 2017 Puerto Rico 7 0 4.30 0.14
2 2017 Netherlands 4 3 4.10 0.87
3 2006 Japan 5 3 3.90 -0.29
4 2009 Japan 7 2 3.79 0.53
5 2013 Dominican Republic 8 0 3.43 0.71
6 2009 South Korea 6 3 2.77 1.04
7 2017 United States 5 2 1.28 -0.18
8 2017 Japan 6 1 1.12 -1.19
9 2013 Japan 5 2 0.82 -1.34
10 2006 Cuba 5 3 0.79 1.69
The best World Baseball Classic performances, by SRS

Includes only teams who made the WBC final or semifinals. Teams are ranked according to the Simple Rating System (SRS) for that year’s tournament, with extra weight applied to games in later rounds; SRS is scaled such that an average team is rated 0.0. Average opponent SRS is determined by all WBC games since 2006.

Source: Wikipedia

In the grand scheme of things, across every WBC game ever played, the U.S. still has a slightly below-average SRS rating, far below Puerto Rico’s mark. According to SRS, Puerto Rico is the third-best team in WBC history, trailing only Japan and the Dominican Republic.

But if America does have one edge on Wednesday, it’s that the game is being played on U.S. soil, at Dodger Stadium. In the WBC, host teams outscore opponents by about one more run per game than they do when playing elsewhere, which translates to about 5 to 10 extra percentage points of win probability (or nearly twice what home-field is worth in Major League Baseball). That probably isn’t enough to close the gap between the U.S. and Puerto Rico completely, but in concert with Marcus Stroman taking the hill for the Stars and Stripes, Team USA might have a fighting chance to win this thing after all.

CORRECTION (March 22, 3:00 p.m.): A table in an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the records of the U.S. and Puerto Rico teams. Puerto Rico is 7-0 in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, not 7-1. The U.S. is 5-2, not 5-3.

Footnotes

  1. With a few tweaks: I amended the home-field advantage to better reflect past WBC results (more on that later). I also added a stabilizing factor that regresses each team’s rating to a mean of -4.5 runs per game (with a weight of about 12 games), to avoid overrating teams with few total games played.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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