First came the pitch counts. Major League pitchers throwing in the WBC would be tethered to strict pitch counts to protect their valuable arms.
Then came the opt-outs. Barry Bonds pulled out of the tournament; Randy Johnson and John Smoltz declined invitations to pitch for Team USA; and Alex Rodriguez nearly single-handedly turned the WBC into a mockery of a tournament (or did the WBC turn A-Rod into a mockery of himself?).
But the latest rule transcends the other two. The World Baseball Classic will feature a mercy rule. Now, this grand tournament is no better off than a Little League game.
According to the latest from the WBC, the mercy rule is similar in spirit to the one in place during Little League games:
Games will be stopped after five innings when a team is ahead by 15 or more runs and after seven innings when a team is ahead by at least 10 runs. A game can be stopped in the middle of an inning if a team reaches the threshold.
As far as I can tell, WBC organizers felt it necessary to issue this rule so as to avoid potentially embarrassing outcomes. A quick glance at the tournament bracket reveals a few match-ups that could turn ugly fast. In fact, nearly every grouping in the first round features a mismatch.
Let’s take the Dominican Republic’s bracket. The DR team, favored to win the tournament, features numerous All Stars including Miguel Tejada, Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero and David Ortiz.
In the first round, the DR team squares off against Italy. While featuring 25 Major Leaguers, the preliminary Italian roster hardly strikes fear into the hearts of its opponents. The biggest star on the team is 37-year-old Mike Piazza who is still unemployed. He is joined by the likes of Matt Mantei, Mike Gallo, and, uh, Dan Miceli. Their team name is actually the Italian Journeyman.
In team USA’s bracket, USA, Mexico, and Canada all play South Africa. The most experienced player on South Africa’s team hasn’t played above AA ball and most of the guys on the team haven’t advanced beyond Rookie level. Is the South African club going to show up? Might they be mercy ruled out of existence?
In my opinion, chalk this one as just another flaw. The organizers of the World Baseball Classic couldn’t find 16 competitive teams. They’ve managed to field around 12 or 14 teams that are on a fairly even field. (I honestly cannot assess the all-Chinese, non-MLB China team and the few-MLB Chinese Taipei and Japan teams.) But at least two teams are filler, and the Netherlands make it only the strength of colonial ties to Caribbean islands.
Baseball has never been about the mercy rule. Teams must find ways to use pitchers to end the game without giving up innings to valuable arms. Managers in blow outs must find ways to keep their players from getting too discouraged.
But in the WBC the mercy rule now eliminates that. What’s from stopping the South African players from throwing in the towel before too long? And how demoralizing will the first national-televised mercy rule loss be the nation on the wrong end of the 15-run loss? When AA and Rookie Level teenagers are facing the best of the Majors, the kids will lose badly.
In the future, hopefully, WBC organizers can find teams that all have a shot at winning a game or two along the way. Getting beat up is no fun. Just ask the Devil Rays.