Image credit: Japan players pose after the Asia Professional Baseball Championship Final between South Korea and Japan at Tokyo Dome on November 19, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Gene Wang/Getty Images)
As 2024 begins, Japan remains on top of the World Baseball Softball Confederation men’s baseball rankings.
That’s to be expected. In 2023, Japan won the World Baseball Classic title, the most significant event of the international baseball schedule. Japan also won the 18U World Cup this year as well as the recent U23 Asia qualifier. Team Japan has undoubtedly had the best year of anyone internationally. In the back-and-forth battle with Team USA for international baseball supremacy, Japan stood a notch above in 2023.
But if you’re expecting to see Team USA right behind Samurai Japan, you’ll be mistaken.
Mexico, which ranked as low as 12th a decade ago, is now ranked second, ahead of Team USA, which has dropped to third.
That may seem odd, but it can be explained this way: the WBSC rankings have always had more to do with participation, especially in WBSC-led events, than winning.
These current rankings involve results that stretch back to 2019. Team USA has almost always finished ahead of Mexico when the two teams have both participated in a tournament. The U.S. has six titles, two second-place finishes, a third and two fourths in its 11 events it has participated in.
Mexico has two first-place finishes, two second-place finishes, four third-place finishes, two fourths, three sixths, three sevenths and an eighth. But Mexico has 17 events it has participated in over the four years the rankings cover, while Team USA has only participated in 11 events.
Mexico finished fourth at the World Baseball Classic. It finished seventh at the 12U World Cup. It finished eighth at the 18U World Cup. It finished seventh at the 23U World Cup Qualifier. Mexico’s only tournament win this year was a first-place finish at the Central American and Caribbean Games.
So even though Team USA was finishing ahead of Mexico every time the two teams faced off in a tournament (World Baseball Classic, 12U qualifier, 12U World Cup and 18U World Cup), the fact that Mexico also participated in the Pan Am Games and a 23U World Cup qualifier (an event the U.S. has regularly ignored) is enough to put Mexico ahead in the rankings.
Winning the 12U World Cup earned the U.S. 345 points. Finishing eighth in that same tournament earned Mexico 214 points. Mexico made up that point difference by finishing seventh in a U23 World Cup qualifier (55 points) and third in a 18U qualifier (78 points). Finishing second in the World Baseball Classic only earned Team USA 48 more points than Mexico did for finishing fourth.
Team USA won the 12U World Cup, finished second to Japan at the World Baseball Classic and finished fourth at the 18U World Cup. But other than a first-place finish at the 12U World Cup qualifier, those were the only events the U.S. participated in this year.
This has long been the story of the WBSC rankings. Japan has held the No. 1 ranking for the entirety of the past decade. Right now, that makes plenty of sense. There have been multiple times in the past when it seemed utterly illogical.
Team USA has never led the ranking, even in 2018 when Team USA was the reigning champions in the World Baseball Classic, 12U World Cup, 15U World Cup and 18U World Cup all at the same time. The point difference a team can gain by winning major tournaments can easily be made up by finishing much further down the standings in those tournaments, while also participating in smaller tournaments. Since the U.S. has often skipped smaller events and the 23U tournaments, it is unlikely to lead the rankings no matter how many tournaments it wins.
The complete Top 20 of the men’s rankings to begin 2024 are as follows:
The rankings seem even more puzzling when you look at the women’s baseball rankings. Japan ranks No. 1, as expected. Japan dominated the Group B qualifier and is the six-time consecutive defending World Cup champions. Japan has been the undisputed best team in women’s baseball for more than a decade.
But Team USA, which went 5-0 in the World Cup Group A qualifier by outscoring its opponents 71-2, ranks fourth behind Taiwan (the Group B runner-up) and Venezuela (the Group B third-place finisher).
Team USA ranks behind them because it did not need to participate in a World Cup qualifier thanks to its fourth-place finish in the 2018 Women’s World Cup. The women’s baseball tournament schedule has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, which plays a role in this rankings oddity. The 2021 World Cup had to be cancelled.
Because Taiwan and Venezuela needed to qualify, they received enough points in those qualifiers to rank ahead of Team USA, even if Team USA has been more successful in the tournament it participated in. Canada finished third in the most recent World Cup (2018) and finished second in Group A’s qualifier, but the Canadians rank only seventh because they are behind teams that also had to participate in qualifiers.
Here’s the Top 10 in the women’s baseball rankings: