So the narrative surrounding the USA World Baseball Classic team is that it’s not worth it because of all the players missing. They say "there’s no Verlander, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, <insert your favorite good player here>. I felt like this was pretty specious and quick reasoning. So I decided to investigate and actually see if this is true. It turns out, besides starting pitching, it really is not.
Bill James, in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, made this observation a while ago, that we think there is more depth in baseball positions than there actually is. For example, realistically there is only one super star second baseman in baseball right now (Robinson Cano) and he is not American. So, whoever the US uses at second base is not going to be the best.
So with that in mind let’s look at the US current roster vs. best potential US roster. I used 2012 fWAR to make these comparisons I understand that WAR has its problems and I agree with them. However, it’s shorthand and one can make the argument (and I will) that some of the US picks make more sense in spite of what WAR says.(I used fWAR because fangraphs position by position ranker is much easier to access than B-R's)
Best possible vs. Actual US Roster: (WAR rank in parentheses).
Quick note on numbers: For the best possible I used the player’s rank vs. all of MLB. So for example Buster Posey led all catchers in fWAR. However, for the actual roster I used their rank vs. other American players. So, for example, Joe Mauer is actually 3rd overall in WAR but in second place is Yadier Molina who is not American, and therefore, obviously, ineligible to play for Team USA.
C: Buster Posey (1) v. Joe Mauer (2) – I would say you would rather want Posey with Mauer as a backup. However, thinking about things like experience as well as reputation one could make a pretty compelling case that Joe Mauer should be the starter anyways. Jonathan Lucroy, who has been doing most of the catching, would finish 5th in WAR among Americans but that is only in 346 PAs. He hit .320/.368/.513 last year in those appearances for a .378 wOBA. In other words, most likely, with more time he would have put up a better WAR. Or, his BABIP would have stabilized and it would have been slightly lower. Either way, considering the season he had last year he’s not a bad choice for the team.
1b: Prince Fielder (1) v. Eric Hosmer (Bad)- I didn’t even bother to check Hosmer’s rank vs. other Americans. He’s 24th overall for first basemen with a -1.1 WAR. It’s bad. This is obviously a mismatch and the first position where the hypothetical Team USA gets a huge boost over actual Team USA. However, remember that Hosmer was a last second replacement for Mark Teixeira who finished 6th among Americans. Fielder is still obviously better but at least Tex is defensible. The other American first basemen in between them are: Nick Swisher, Paul Goldschmitt, Adam LaRoche, Alan Craig, and Corey Hart. While not a poo-poo platter, Teixeira is clearly the most established name there and anyway started at first over Swisher for the Yankees last year. So with Tex there it really becomes a 1 vs. 2 dichotomy with some preferring Tex for his, at least, average defense vs. Fielder’s clear weaknesses in the field.
2b: Aaron Hill (2) v. Brandon Philips (4) – The best second basemen in baseball is Robinson Cano. Of course he’s Dominican, so the US has to make do with what it’s got. Aaron Hill’s season last year came after two years where he was well below average so skipping him makes a lot of sense. I’d probably say the US team should skip him. The obvious analogy here would be whether the US in basketball should take somebody like Larry Sanders, who currently leads the league in blocks, but is in his first season as a starter over someone more established, or whether the US should wait to see if he can keep it up. I’d say wait.
The real person who should be starting at second base is Ben Zobrist. Of course Zobrist is on the team and is perennially underrated so no surprise that he’s not starting. Dustin Pedroia is ranked third and probably also a better option than Phillips. But quite frankly, I’d rather have a Red than Red Sock because, seemingly, wherever Red Sox go, controversy follows and I don’t want a controversial WBC team for the US. In Phillips’ favor he might be the best defensive second baseman in baseball so if people want defense over offense he’s certainly not a bad pick.
SS: Ben Zobrist (1) on team v. Jimmy Rollins (3) – So Ben Zobrist is apparently the best SS in baseball by WAR. Of course, he can really only fake shortstop so he’s probably not the best option to have as a starter there. More as a backup in case things go wrong. Rollins is the actual starter as well as the better shortstop of the two. Ian Desmond is the number 2 SS, (I like switching back and forth between SS and shortstop) and Rollins is the more established name. While you can argue that Desmond deserves it more and should be playing Rollins is certainly a fine pick.
3b: David Wright (1) v. David Wright (1) - So try arguing this one! You want the best, you got the best. David Wright (not KISS).
LF: Ryan Braun (1) v. Ryan Braun (1) - Again, argue away. Actually, my dad thought that the US should have two or maybe even three centerfielders man the outfield and just use their defense to catch basically everything while using players like Braun as a DH. So for example put Andrew McCutchen in left with Trout in center or something like that. While that is certainly a valid argument, it’s hard to argue with the 2011 MVP, who may have had a better season in 2012, being a starter. Anyway, with the roster as currently structured the US has the best left fielder on the planet.
CF: Mike Trout (1) v. Adam Jones (6) – So this is the second position, and maybe third, if you include catcher, where the US is clearly worse off. Trout watched the US play Italy on Saturday, which makes him a traitor and therefore liable to treason charges. (If you’re going to go watch them play, just play for them!!!!! Playing is always more fun than watching!) Jones had a very good year last year but is no way as good as Trout or the next three players on the list (McCutchen, Bourn, Austin Jackson. I would rather have Jones than Bryce Harper on the team right now).
His WAR is also hurt by defensive statistics’ hatred of him. With wOBA he finishes 6th among Americans again, behind Trout, McCutchen, Jackson, as well as Josh Hamilton and Dexter Fowler, two players who were considered worse defensively than Jones was. So Jones is obviously not the best centerfielder but certainly not a bad one.
However, the outfield of Austin Jackson, Mike Trout, and Andrew McCutchen would be all kinds of awesome. I can see where my dad is coming from.
RF: Jason Heyward (1) v. Giancarlo Stanton (2) – One note here, technically Ben Zobrist had 5.9 WAR while Stanton had 5.8 but Zobrist has been covered elsewhere (Heyward was 6.6). If you think Zobrist should be in RF, fine. (Also for reasons that are unclear Giancarlo Stanton does not come up in any Fangraphs leaderboards last year). However, this conflict is one where I think it depends on lineup construction. Heyward is most definitely the better overall player, particularly in the field. However, Stanton is the better hitter. Heyward’s large WAR number is based on his 21.1 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) which is ridiculous and wonderful but Stanton got a 9.3 FRAA so is no slouch defensively either. bWAR had Heyward at 5.5 with Stanton at 5.4 for example. So with that said, one could easily say that Stanton is a good enough defender and enough of a better hitter to make the cut over Heyward. At the very least there is an argument there.
So out of the 8 positions in the field, there are two positions where the US is not at its best (1b, CF), 2 positions where the US is at its best (3b, LF), and 4 positions where it is arguably at its best, some with better arguments than others (C, 2b, SS, RF)
Now let’s look at the pitching staff. Obviously, I’m going to split it off starters vs. relievers make things easier on myself.
Best Possible v. Actual:
Quick note: I did the order for the US team based on what game number the pitcher started. So Gio Gonzalez because he started the first game in Pool 2 against Puerto Rico and didn’t join the US until Pool 2, not because I actually think he is the 4th best US starter on the roster.
Gio Gonzalez (4) v. Derek Holland (Ditto)
David Price (5) v. Gio Gonzalez (4)
So this is what people are really talking about when they say that the US didn’t put their best team on the field. While, you could make the argument that R.A. Dickey should be there as he did win the NL Cy Young (deservedly), Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland have no place in a potential US rotation that could include Kershaw, Verlander, etc. If anything the best possible US rotation would be Verlander, Kershaw, Price and Dickey with Gonzalez left out.
Anyway, even if you didn’t like that rotation, you could have Sabathia, Lee, Chris Sale, Grienke as a potential second string US rotation (all higher than Dickey based on WAR, yes I excluded Wade Miley, I don’t care). That’s still significantly better than the one that is out there right now. Whatever you want it’s ridiculous that this is the best US starting rotation that can be put out right now.
Best possible vs. Actual:
I’m not going to go pitcher by pitcher because the US has 11 relievers and I’m lazy. I’ll do it simple and say that US has two relievers on the top 30 leaderboard of fWAR (Craig Kimbrel and David Hernandez) with an additional in the top 60. (Affeldt, Perkins, Collins, Pestano, Cishek). Affeldt and Perkins are actually 31 and 32 overall and considering that some of the top 30 are foreigners they are technically top 30 Americans.There are probably better pitchers the US could have used but considering that the bullpen has been the best part of the team so far and that the building a bullpen should be more than just get all the best closers I don't think it's that worse than a possible best bullpen. For example, Sean Marshall had more WAR than Jeremy Affeldt despite both of them potentially being LOOGY-esque guys coming out of the bullpen. Choosing Affeldt over Marshall might have nothing to do with WAR and everything to do with Joe Torre believing that Affeldt would be better at getting lefties out. (Marshall was better against lefties last year). I could try to break it down but I think it will end up being my subjective findings as much as any objective view point over which potential bullpen is better.
What have we learned:
The US line up is more or less arguably the best they could field. The relievers could also be arguable simply because of matchups and the fact that WAR is a pretty terrible way to judge relievers. However, the starting pitching should be much much better and that deficiency is causing people to believe that the US does not have its best players on the field.