How Pool A Descended Into a Five-Way Chaotic Tie
Chaos descended upon Pool A’s final day of pool play.
It was a slow-moving, hard-to-fathom but easy-to-see-coming chaos. After the second-to-last day of Pool A games, there was a scenario where all five teams could end up tied with 2-2 records. All that had to happen was for Cuba to beat Taiwan and Italy to beat the Netherlands.
Cuba scored six runs in the first two innings of its game against Taiwan. It cruised to a 7-1 win that brought the unthinkable one step closer to reality.
That left the Netherlands as the lone bulwark against anarchy. If the Netherlands won, it would be the No. 1 seed in Pool A and Cuba would be the No. 2 seed thanks to claiming the head-to-head tiebreakers against Panama and Taiwan.
The Netherlands did jump out to an early lead with a run in the third, but Italy scored six runs in the bottom of the fourth, thanks in large part to a two-RBI single by Sal Frelick and a two-RBI triple by Nicky Lopez.
And from then on, the possibility of the World Baseball Classic’s worst nightmare hung over Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium like a cloud. Baseball is best when it's settled in a head-to-head game. But in pool play in a short tournament, that's not always possible. A two-way tiebreaker is just as easy to settle, however, as it can be resolved by head-to-head record.
And head-to-head record is the first tiebreaker in the WBC. That’s something simple and easy for everyone to understand. But when you have five teams tied at 2-2, there is no way to have a team who holds a head-to-head advantage on the others.
And at that point, there are not going to be any easy answers. And there's going to be a lot more math.
The second tiebreaker was run quotient. If head-to-head record is easy and simple to understand, run quotient is likely something that if you polled 100 diehard baseball fans, zero of them would be able to describe what it means.
For this tournament, and international tournaments in general, run quotient is an attempt to base a tiebreaker on how many runs a team allows. It’s runs allowed divided by outs made.
From best as Baseball America has been able to understand, the reasons for using run quotients rather than run differential is because of the nature of international tournament play. Often, there are teams in a tournament that are massively overmatched. Run differential would encourage a team winning 25-0 in the fourth inning to try to pile on additional runs to help boost its run differential before the 15-run rule comes into play in the fifth. That's not seen as particularly sporting.
Understandably, the World Baseball/Softball Confederation does not see teams getting beaten 35-0 as helpful for the development of baseball in countries with a limited number of burgeoning baseball players.
Runs allowed avoids those issues. It focuses solely on run prevention. Piling up runs on the worst team in the tournament does you little good. You just ask the pitching staff to throw up zeroes.
And so you had a situation where Cuba entered its final game knowing it needed to beat Taiwan, but also do so in a game where it kept Taiwan off the scoreboard. An 8-7 win would be very different than a 1-0 victory.
“We knew the game was going to be difficult but we had to manage the pitching well so that they wouldn't score runs because that was the key to qualify or not qualify,” Cuba manager Armando Johnson said.
The additional tiebreakers are truly nightmarish. If runs quotient couldn’t break the tie, then the next tiebreaker would be earned runs allowed divided by outs among the tied teams, which would mean that an official scorer's decision could be the difference between a team advancing or going home. If that didn’t work, team batting average in the games played between the tied teams would serve as the fourth tiebreaker, which again puts more power in the hands of an official scorer than should ever be considered. The fifth tiebreaker would be to draw lots.
Italy added one more run in the eighth inning of its game against the Netherlands. Anyone with spreadsheet skills could tell that if Italy didn’t allow a big inning from the Netherlands in the ninth, team Italy would advance to the second round for the second time in WBC history—it also did so in 2013.
But on the broadcast, that wasn’t as apparent. Without official word from MLB or the WBSC, the broadcast hedged and emphasized the need to wait for official word. As Mitchell Stumpo recorded the final out of the ninth inning to clinch Italy’s win, everyone at home and everyone in the stands just waited and wondered.
A few minutes after the final out was recorded, the video board in center field announced that Cuba and Italy had advanced to the quarterfinals round. At that point, with the grounds crew already dragging the field, the broadcast and the crowd in the stands finally knew what had been apparent several innings before to anyone who did the math.
The final run quotient tiebreaker broke down as this.
Just a day after it beat the Netherlands in one of its biggest international wins ever, Taiwan found itself finishing last in the tiebreaker because it played a number of high scoring games. Its 31 runs allowed were easily the most in the pool, so it is now relegated and will have to qualify to earn a spot in the next World Baseball Classic.
If Taiwan had won its game against Cuba, it would have been the No. 1 seed that advanced to the quarterfinals. As chaos reigned, the margins between ultimate success and ultimate failure came down to decimal points on a spreadsheet.