On top of all those strange new rules, there’s another twist to baseball this March: the return of the World Baseball Classic, the always-entertaining tournament that is essentially baseball’s equivalent of the World Cup. (The rules are similar, too, with a 20-team group stage followed by an eight-team knockout round.)
Thanks to the pandemic, it has been six years since baseball crowned a true “world champion,” but this year’s edition promises to be worth the wait. MLB stars like Mike Trout (the U.S.), Shohei Ohtani (Japan), Manny Machado (the Dominican Republic) and Francisco Lindor (Puerto Rico) are suiting up for their respective nations, and the tournament will also introduce American audiences to some of the best players from top foreign leagues like Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and South Korea’s Korea Baseball Organization. (For instance, it was the 2006 WBC where the world first met Daisuke Matsuzaka and his mythical gyroball.)
The WBC officially starts Wednesday in Taiwan (though thanks to the time difference, it actually started Tuesday night if you live in the U.S.). But who will be the last team standing after the final game in Miami on March 21? Let’s handicap the field in a few different ways.
To make our MLB predictions (and our NFL predictions, and our NBA predictions, and our… you get the idea), FiveThirtyEight uses the Elo rating system, so we figured we might as well start off by looking at the WBC through the same lens.
The WBC is a bit different from regular major league action, though. Home-field advantage (for the host country) is stronger, the spread of talent between teams is greater and blowouts are more common.1 So we made a few changes to Elo for the WBC compared with our usual MLB version.2
After accounting for those differences and regressing the most recent tournament’s final ratings to the mean, Elo recognizes Japan — and to a lesser extent, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico — as the strongest teams in the WBC.
|4||South Korea||15||7||1519||14||Chinese Taipei||3||10||1468|
This makes sense, as Japan has dominated the WBC over the years, winning more games (23) than any other nation while racking up two titles and two more podium appearances in four tournaments. Others from that top group have seen their ratings ebb and flow: The Dominican team has been very dominant recently (winning 12 times in 14 games since the start of the 2013 WBC) after an up-and-down first two appearances.3 Likewise, the U.S. had a history of mediocrity at the WBC until winning it all in 2017, while its finals adversary — Puerto Rico — found another gear during the lead-up to the title game, rattling off seven straight wins to begin the tournament. Meanwhile, Cuba and South Korea were more dominant during earlier iterations of the WBC — finishing second in 2006 and 2009, respectively — though they still carry strong Elo ratings.
But Elo has some drawbacks in the context of a quasi-quadrennial international tournament. Most obviously, it doesn’t know the particulars of who is actually on each team’s roster; it’s only based on who has been good at the WBC in the past, and some teams look very different from their 2017 (and earlier) iterations.
|Rk||Team||MLB Players||2022 WAR||Rk||Team||MLB Players||2022 WAR|
|7||South Korea||2||10.4||17||Chinese Taipei||1||0.1|
By this standard, the Americans have the strongest WBC team by a comfortable margin. That contradicts Elo, but there’s good reason to trust the WAR-based rankings in this case: American baseball stars used to have a reputation for apathy about the WBC, but Team USA really ramped up its recruiting efforts this year and added stars like Trout, Mookie Betts and Trea Turner.
The Dominican Republic ranks second (just as it does in Elo), followed by Venezuela and Mexico, both of whom are perhaps underrated by Elo. Despite limping to a 2-5 record in 2017, Venezuela has a sneaky-good roster that includes underrated players like Andrés Giménez, Eugenio Suárez and Luis Arráez. And Mexico has never gotten past the second round of the WBC, but don’t sleep on its starting rotation of Julio Urías, Patrick Sandoval and Taijuan Walker.
Meanwhile, Elo may be a bit too high on Puerto Rico, which ranks just fifth in the tourney by WAR. Carlos Beltrán and Yadier Molina were two of its best players when it went on its remarkable run in the 2017 WBC, but they are both now retired,6 and Carlos Correa had to withdraw from the roster after the birth of his child (and his eventful offseason).
Of course, a WAR-based approach to predicting the WBC has its flaws too. Glaringly, it’s way too low on Japan (Elo’s favorite team), South Korea and probably Cuba too. What do those countries have in common? They each have a well-established domestic league from which their rosters can draw. And those players likely would produce far more than zero WAR if they played in the U.S.
Nippon Professional Baseball is often regarded to be somewhere between Triple A and MLB in terms of talent, and you can bet that the players on Samurai Japan’s WBC roster — like Munetaka Murakami, who just broke the single-season record for most home runs by a Japanese-born player, and Roki Sasaki, who followed up a 19-strikeout perfect game last year by almost throwing another perfect game in his very next start — are closer to the MLB side of the ledger. At the same time, the Korea Baseball Organization has stars like Jung-Hoo Lee, who could be the next great young MLB hitter. And while geopolitical decisions and defections have made Cuba’s Serie Nacional de Béisbol a shell of its former self, the Cuban WBC team is surely more talented than just its two current major leaguers.7 Many Cuban players now play in Japan or other foreign leagues.
Clearly, neither Elo nor WAR is a perfect tool on its own for predicting the WBC, so let’s turn to a third: betting odds. While they can be as fallible as the humans who set them, the odds have the advantage of taking all of the factors above into account. And having done so, FanDuel, at least, sees the Dominican Republic as being the biggest favorite, a bit ahead of the U.S. and Japan:
It’s hard to argue against this Dominican team, given the world-beating lineup it will pencil in for every game: Julio Rodríguez, Juan Soto, Machado, Rafael Devers, Wander Franco … plus a pitching staff anchored by Sandy Alcántara and Cristian Javier. But it’s worth noting that even the vaunted D.R. has only an implied 27 percent chance to win. The WBC’s format — specifically, the single-elimination games that start March 15 — and baseball’s penchant for single-game randomness make it incredibly easy for one shocking upset to crush the dreams of an entire nation. And the fact that no one has yet seen these teams in action8 makes them even harder to handicap (some people even have to resort to using three different approaches!). So only one thing is for sure: The 2023 World Baseball Classic is going to be a fearsome fight.