Emotion, Absentees Don’t Explain Team USA’s WBC Exit

BOSTON—They barely even made it out of the first round of the World Baseball Classic.

Their offense looked lackluster in pool play, where their ace got the early hook in his first start and their No. 2 starter didn’t have his regular-season velocity.

They needed a late-inning rally to beat a heavy underdog and barely edged another one just to make it to the second round. Most of the damage the offense did at the tournament came against marginal pitching.

It’s hard to win the WBC when you’re fielding a team without several of your country’s top players, but on top of it, the players who were there showed little outward emotion.

And in the end, they’re headed to San Francisco.

No, that’s not Team USA. That would be Japan, the two-time reigning WBC champions.

The story arcs around Team USA’s second-round exit from the WBC are easy to generate. They lost because they didn’t have their best players. They lost because they didn’t care as much as the other countries. They didn’t play with energy or passion.

Those explanations simply don’t hold up.

Plenty Of Talent

Yes, Team USA didn’t have its perfect-world roster, but it still had a lineup loaded with stars, National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and a bullpen with some of the best relievers in baseball. Among the notable players missing who could have provided upgrades, how have they been doing in spring training through Friday’s games?

Buster Posey: .238/.360/.238 in 21 at-bats

Mike Trout: .407/.529/.704 in 27 at-bats

Matt Kemp: .136/.208/.136 in 22 at-bats  

Prince Fielder: .357/.471/.607 in 28 at-bats

Stephen Strasburg: 14 IP, 9 R, 5 BB, 18 SO, 5.79 ERA

Justin Verlander: 13.1 IP, 6 R, 3 BB, 11 SO, 4.05 ERA

David Price: 8 IP, 2 R, 1 BB, 10 SO, 2.25 ERA

Clayton Kershaw: 13 IP, 10 R, 4 BB, 14 SO, 5.54 ERA

It’s impossible to know how those players would have performed if they were in the WBC. Spring training statistics are virtually meaningless. Yet it’s just another example that nearly anything in baseball can happen in a small sample size—particularly in March—and that having Posey, Verlander or Kershaw on Team USA wouldn’t have necessarily been their golden ticket to San Francisco.

The United States was hardly the only team that didn’t have all of its best players. Consider Japan, which was without Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, Ichiro Suzuki, Norichika Aoki, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara and Hisashi Iwakuma. The Dominican Republic beat Team USA without Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols, Johnny Cueto, Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, Starlin Castro, Alexi Ogando and Rafael Soriano. Both teams are headed to San Francisco.

Cuba doesn’t allow players who left the island to play for their national team, but imagine how dangerous that team would be if the Cubans added Alexei Ramirez, Yoenis Cespedes, Kendrys Morales, Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal to an already dangerous lineup and Aroldis Chapman, Livan Hernandez and Jose Fernandez to a pitching staff that could use the help.

Would Team USA have been better with Trout in center field? Certainly. But Adam Jones hit 32 home runs in a .287/.334/.505 season last year. The Dominican Republic, meanwhile, had to go with 31-year-old Ricardo Nanita—who has zero major league experience—instead of Bautista. It had to start Samuel Deduno—who walked nearly as many batters as he struck out last season—instead of Cueto. Instead of Darvish, Japan gave two starts to 5-foot-9 lefty Kenji Otonari and his 86-89 mph fastball. The United States may have been missing some of its top players, but the drop-off in talent for other countries missing their stars was even steeper.

Then there’s the notion that Team USA didn’t care, didn’t take the tournament seriously or didn’t play with enough passion, emotion, fire, heart or whatever other intangible being attributed to their second-round exit. It was fun to watch the animation of the Dominican players, especially amidst the backdrop of a raucous crowd. But that’s not why they’re still in the tournament.

Cuba played with plenty of flair too. By the time one of Alfredo Despaigne’s home runs landed, he was barely out of the batter’s box. The players in the dugout and on the field were vocal about balls and strike calls. In two-out situations with two strikes, Cuban catchers and pitchers would start walking back to the dugout on borderline pitches.

The Cubans took nothing for granted. In a 12-0 mercy rule win over China, they tricked a confused Chinese basestealer into thinking a passed ball was actually a foul ball, then tagged him out when he jogged back from second to first. Later in the game when the Chinese pitcher needed an interpreter to come to the mound to explain to him how to step off the rubber and conduct a proper appeal play to first base, Erisbel Arruebarruena took off from second and swiped third base. Bush league, maybe, but they played with no shortage of urgency or emotion.

Japan’s fans may have been enthusiastic for their home team in Fukuoka and Tokyo, but the players themselves were calm and subdued. There were no in-game theatrics or choreographed postgame celebrations. Yet Japan is in the semifinals and Cuba is already home. Aside from it being hard to celebrate when you don’t win, Team USA’s perceived lack of emotion isn’t the reason they’re out of the tournament.

Close Calls

So why couldn’t Team USA advance past the second round?

Against the Dominican Republic, they ran into a lineup full of stars and lost a one-run game with Craig Kimbrel, the best reliever in baseball, giving up two runs in the ninth inning. The hitters mostly struggled for six games, posting a .688 OPS as a team that ranked 10th of the 16 teams in the WBC, and they missed opportunities to score against Deduno. With Dickey on the mound, the U.S. was the favorite to win the game, but losing a two-run game in the ninth inning to a star-filled Dominican team isn’t an embarrassment.

Puerto Rico doesn’t have as much talent as the Dominican Republic, but Team USA lost a one-run game to a team that has Yadier Molina (6.7 WAR in 2012 per Baseball-Reference.com), Alex Rios (4.2), Angel Pagan (4.0), Carlos Beltran (3.6) and Mike Aviles (2.0). No, Puerto Rico’s pitching isn’t good, but this isn’t like Team USA lost to Lithuania.

Team USA also ran into Nelson Figueroa pitching the game of his life. While others may try to discredit Figueroa for his 86-88 mph fastball, they’re missing the point. Figueroa threw 70 percent of his pitches for strikes and had exquisite fastball command. He painted the black on both sides of the plate and changed speeds just enough to keep Team USA’s hitters off balance.

This wasn’t some Rookie ball pitcher befuddling Team USA hitters. Figueroa has pitched more than 500 big league innings over nine seasons—most recently in 2011—and maintained a 3.89 ERA last year in Triple-A. He came to the WBC prepared to pitch after throwing 60 innings in winter ball in the Dominican Republic, with his last appearance coming on Jan. 20.

Should Figueroa be anything more than a mop-up man in the major leagues right now? Probably not. Over a full season, Figueroa will make more mistakes than he did on Friday, mistakes that hitters will punish because his stuff is below-average.

But in one game, for 82 pitches over six innings, he didn’t make many mistakes. He hit his spots with his fastball. He worked ahead of hitters and operated with count leverage in his favor. Puerto Rico beating Team USA was an upset, but this wasn’t the Americans choking in a key game. This was Figueroa coming up with a masterful performance, backed by a talented lineup behind him.

The United States may have more depth of players than any country, but at the top end of the talent pool, the gap between the U.S. and other countries is overstated, especially over what can be expected in the outcome of six games. Six games are heavy on randomness. Through the first six games of the 2012 season, the Mets were 4-2 after starting the year against the Braves and Nationals. The Giants were 2-4 after opening the season against the mighty Diamondbacks and Rockies. It happens.

So while it’s tempting to want to draw sweeping conclusions, label Team USA as a massive failure, point to the players who didn’t show up or contrast the outward emotion of the Dominican Republic to the United States, the reality is that it’s still just six games, with two close losses to a pair of teams that each have several above-average big leaguers.

It may be a frustrating exit for Team USA players and its fans, but maybe it’s not that there’s anything inherently flawed about the team. Maybe it’s that expectations of any team in a tournament that lasts three to nine games need to be adjusted.