2023 World Baseball Classic: Four reasons Team USA won’t win the WBC, even with Mike Trout and Mookie Betts

Team USA will begin play at the 2023 World Baseball Classic Saturday night, taking on Great Britain at Chase Field, home of MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks. (You can see the full WBC schedule and format by clicking these links.) Adam Wainwright, long an anchor for the St. Louis Cardinals rotation, is awarded to Americans hoping to establish themselves as the WBC champion repeat.

It’s easy to forget that Team USA won the last WBC back in 2017. The follow-up tournament was scheduled for 2021, but the global COVID-19 pandemic forced its postponement until now, creating the longest gap between tournaments in WBC history. (The tournament is scheduled to be played every four years, but the next one will be in 2026.)

The Americans enter the tournament with a stacked lineup that includes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Nolan Arenado, among other MLB All-Star dudes. Still, here at CBS Sports we’re not ready to pick them as favorites – in fact, none of our staff picked the Americans in a recent panel discussion.

Of course nobody knows how the tournament will end. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Americans end up winning it all over again. Nonetheless, we’ve identified four reasons why we keep their odds low below.

1. Muted Home Field Advantage

In theory, the Americans should have the advantage in terms of venue. Any other country needs to win at least a few games abroad to win the WBC. Americans never do that. The United States always serves as the host for their pool and later as the exclusive host for late-round games.

Home field advantage is still a thing in MLB. The hosts have won about 53 percent of games in the last two seasons. While home field court advantage does not fully translate into the WBC environment for a variety of reasons, most players are not as familiar with these stadiums as they would be with their club teams’ stadiums; the fan atmosphere can even favor the opponent; and so on – you would think it would transfer a few.

If it ported, it didn’t make a difference to Americans. In the last four tournaments, Team USA has made it to the finals only once (in 2017). Otherwise, they didn’t make the top three in the other three tournaments, their second-best result coming in 2009 in fourth place.

Perhaps the Americans’ results would be even worse if they were forced to play a few games in another country or continent, so we can’t say with certainty that there will be no impact on hosting. We can say that it doesn’t appear to be a free pass to the proverbial medal rounds.

2. Questionable pitching staff

There’s no denying the Americans have an impressive lineup. Joining the aforementioned Trout, Betts and Arenado are Paul Goldschmidt, Tim Anderson, JT Realmuto and Trea Turner, among others. However, their pitching staff seems to leave something to be desired.

In fairness, the Americans suffered two notable losses in the spring, when New York Yankees left-hander Nestor Cortes (hamstring injury) and Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (reportedly with insurance problems) retired. Here are the 15 pitchers Team USA will field for the tournament:

  • Jason Adam, Rays
  • Daniel Bard, Rockies
  • David Bednar, Pirates
  • Kyle Freeland, Rockies
  • Kendall Graveman, White Sox
  • Merrill Kelly, Diamondbacks
  • Lance Lynn, White Sox
  • Nick Martinez, Padres
  • Miles Mikolas, Cardinals
  • Adam Ottavino, Mets
  • Ryan Pressly, Astros
  • Brooks Raley, Mets
  • Brady Singer, Royals
  • Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
  • Devin Williams, Brewer

If that group doesn’t seem convincing compared to what it is could be, that’s because it is. There is no Max Scherzer or Shane McClanahan or even Spencer Strider. In other words, there is no surefire ace type.

However, to test our prior knowledge and quantify the point, we resorted to taking each pitcher’s ERA and innings projection from the ZiPS system. We then weighed the projected ERA by the projected innings total to form an aggregate staff ERA. That aggregate predicted personal ERA of 3.85 would have placed him 13th in the majors last season — or, you know, about mid-table.

Team USA’s pitching staff is certainly not as good as it should be, but we feel compelled to point out that it will likely do better than people are expecting. That’s because MLB’s overall level of competition is higher than WBC’s, meaning the average MLB pitcher will likely do better in this tournament than if they were in a similar run against MLB teams. That might sound counterintuitive given the national and world dynamics, but MLB is just the best league in the world Because It attracts the best talent from around the world. In the other top leagues in the world, including Nippon Professional Baseball and Korea Baseball Organization, several of their top players often make it into MLB. The opposite is never true.

Still, we think it’s fair to have reservations about this portion of the Team USA roster. Team Japan – with a rotation that includes Shohei Ohtani, Yu Darvish, Roki Sasaki and Yoshinobu Yamamoto – most certainly isn’t.

3. Underestimated competition

As we noted above, MLB is a great league in large part because of the global aspect. Baseball may be America’s pastime, but increasingly the best baseball players come from outside America’s borders. A 2016 SABR study by Mark Armor and Daniel R. Levitt found that about 29 percent of MLB players were either Hispanic or Asian. In 1996, this proportion was still 20 percent. And it’s not just about the quantity of foreign-born players, it’s about their quality.

In other words, take a look at the FanGraphs leaderboards to see how you’re making and placing ‘wins over spares’. Four of last year’s top 10 singles position players will compete for non-US WBC teams: Manny Machado (Dominican Republic), Freddie Freeman (Canada), Francisco Lindor (Puerto Rico) and Jose Altuve (Venezuela); Jordan Alvarez (Cuba) would have made it to fifth. Meanwhile, the same applies to two of the top 10 pitchers: Shohei Ohtani (Japan) and Sandy Alcantara (Dominican Republic). For his part, Astros left-hander Framber Valdez chose to sit out the WBC or he would have made it three.

For those not counting, this means that eight of the top 20 individual artists were from other countries. It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone that other countries have proven to be powerhouses in the international game. Japan has won two WBC and finished in the top three in all four tournaments; the Dominican Republic, the only country outside of Japan and the US to have won a WBC, also ranks fourth; and Puerto Rico and the Netherlands have finished in the top four at the last two tournaments, with the former finishing runners-up twice.

4. Pure probability

Longtime readers surely guessed this was coming. The reality is that whenever the question is “X or the field” and X has no ungodly advantage over everyone else, you should be wise to choose the field.

Think of it this way: Assuming the Americans get beyond the game of billiards, they would still need to win three single-elimination games to earn another trophy. Even if they have a 70 percent chance of winning every game – and in fairness that’s an overzealous estimate – their odds of winning all three games are about the same Only 34 percent. That’s a very desirable number in this case, but what we’re saying is that overall odds would still favor the field.

Anyone who has watched baseball regularly knows that good teams have nights off. Sometimes good teams lose their losing streak. The WBC structure doesn’t leave much room for recovery. If you’re having a bad night at an inconvenient time, you’re likely to look inside from the outside.

That’s part of what makes WBC fun: It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, the perils of single-elimination baseball come to us all after all.

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