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MLB can learn some lessons from the WBC

Whether it’s pace of play or broader business lessons, much can be gleaned from the wild and entertaining World Baseball Classic.

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World Baseball Classic - Semifinals - Puerto Rico v Japan Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The World Baseball Classic came to a close on Wednesday night as the United States handily defeated Puerto Rico in Los Angeles to take home the country’s first WBC crown.

By and large, the tournament got positive reviews, and included multiple extra-inning games, clutch home runs, and dramatic defensive plays. Despite small early-round crowds on American soil, the energy and excitement from Mexico to Tokyo was evident throughout the entire event.

There are several lessons MLB can take away from a tournament they designed. It’s no secret the WBC is global a marketing ploy, a fun exhibition of some of the best players in the game, and a welcome distraction from the indifference of spring training where the biggest story of a day could be thunderous applause for a player grounding into a double play. (For more information on that particular player, here’s Grant Brisbee’s wonderful take.)

After three fun weeks (pitch limits and all), here are some takeaways from the 2017 World Baseball Classic. MLB would do well to take notice.

You don’t need the world’s best to have a compelling tournament.

No Mike Trout, no Clayton Kershaw, no Noah Syndergaard. No Bryce Harper, Chris Sale, or Madison problem. The fact of the matter is, an American team filled with the best American players would likely dominate most WBC teams. The entire point of the tournament is to enhance the image and excitement of the game in areas outside the United States. While it didn’t necessarily help that it was the United States versus a United States’ Territory in the final, the tournament generated excitement from the Netherlands (which made the semifinals) and Israel (where the team took an unexpected and undefeated run into the second round).

More and more, baseball is becoming a global game. It’s never going to replace soccer, but it can supplement it as an alternative national sport in various places across the world. The Netherlands going to the semifinals will surely give honkbal a publicity and popularity bump, and the games generated significant excitement in Mexico, which should at least be in the conversation for potential international expansion over the next decade.

Remember when Americans flooded to hockey rinks to sweep ice a few winters ago? For a sport few countries intimately knew five years ago, baseball’s popularity continues to grow.

MLB has a domestic marketing problem.

This is two-fold in creating an environment for increased energy levels at games, and the ability to market stars. As stated previously, you don’t need American stars to make the WBC a marketing success. The fans at games in Tokyo and Jalisco, Mexico exhibited excitement and energy similar to a playoff Game 7 — except it was like that for every game, even if the host country wasn’t playing.

Look, no one is going to be chanting and banging drums for a mid-April game between the Brewers and Reds, but MLB could take a lesson in bringing energy and fun to the ballpark by generating excitement about its stars. The excuse is often, “baseball is a regional game,” but is it really? With each passing year, baseball is a more global game. Many American knew Derek Jeter but would not be able to pick Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Adam Jones, or Andrew McCutchen out of a lineup. Kershaw in particular is a hero not for what he does on the field, but for what he does off of it. How many baseball fans even know about his charities and global initiatives and the philanthropic work of many others? It’s a tremendous opportunity for MLB.

There’s an appetite for energy and personality in the game. MLB has the personnel to take advantage of it, but they have yet to capitalize.

Extra-innings gimmicks are unnecessary and counterproductive.

I applaud Rob Manfred for his open-mindedness regarding extra innings rules (and openness to thinking outside the box on a variety of issues), but watching the WBC made it clear starting runners on base to “speed up the game” is a terrible idea. First and foremost, starting the top and bottom of any inning with the same base-run state yields an equal run expectancy for both teams. Adding runners on base makes it more likely both teams will score, which only serves to slow down the game.

Gifting each team what is essentially a rally slows down the game as pitchers take longer with runners on base, and mid-inning pitching changes and handedness matchups increase to stop the damage.

And those are the least awful impacts!

Monday night’s semi-final game between Puerto Rico and the Netherlands ended in the 11th inning. Sounds exciting! Except it wasn’t. The game ended when Puerto Rico bunted over the gifted runners, creating second and third with no outs. The Dutch decided to issue Javier Baez an international walk; a reasonable thing to do at that point, since the runner at first is irrelevant. Then Eddie Rosario hit a lazy popup to center field…..which won the game as Jurickson Profar tagged up from third. Who said small ball can’t be exhilarating!

There’s more than one way to respect the game.”

Bands, thunder-sticks, cheerleaders, and bat-flips are a definitive part of baseball culture around the world. Watching international players having fun on the field and acting the way they act at home is a refreshing view of baseball. Even several players, including Chris Archer and Christian Yelich, said the WBC was literally the most fun they’ve ever had playing the game. MLB players with reputations as “guardians of the game” do more harm than good and encourage a dull, albeit traditional, culture. This serves to alienate fans...particularly younger fans, international fans, and immigrants.

Many teams host celebrations of various ethnicities, which is a good start; still, the on-field culture has remained pretty bland. This is not necessarily something the league can control, as the tone and culture is set by coaches and players, but the more MLB can celebrate cultural diversity among its players and fans, the more the league will benefit.

The WBC is a success if its marketed as a success.

There will always be curmudgeonly baseball fans who have little use for the WBC. They’ll gripe the games are artificial, don’t include some of the game’s best players, and risk injury to their precious local stars. The fact is, that opinion is irrelevant.

The best lesson MLB can take from this tournament is controlling the narrative. Talk about how great it was, talk about how much fun it was, and most importantly, talk about how exciting it will be when in four years, it all happens again. The worst thing MLB can do after the WBC is to give credence to the discussion that it’s not going to continue or it’s fundamentally flawed. Regardless of whether there will be another WBC in 2021, it will become self-fulfilling if MLB does not take control of a positive narrative immediately; there’s tremendous opportunity here, how will Rob Manfred take advantage of it?


Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano