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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

#BetweenTheBaselines: World Baseball Classic Preview
Special guest Matt Dunstone breaks down the action in the dirt


Time to dust off those cleats, break out the glove and start hitting the batting cages sports fans, baseball season is right around the corner.  Ok, for most of us living in Canada we look outside our office windows and still see an abundance of snow and feel the crisp cold temperatures when we sprint to our cars in the morning but there is a warm summer glow peaking out from around those clouds, I promise!

MLB spring training has begun in Florida and many of the top players are starting to get in the swing of things, literally.  But the upcoming MLB season is not the only excitement hitting the diamond right now.  The World Baseball Classic (WBC) has also drawn attention from around the world as 16 of the best baseball nations hit the dugout and try to lay claim to the #WBC title.

Now #TwineTime fans, if you have followed this blog since inception you are well aware baseball is not my best sport.  I know enough to get by but I would never declare myself to be an expert or very knowledgeable.  Given the importance of this event, and the fact it only takes place every four years, I thought it would be best to reach out to the #TwineTime family and invite a very special, very intelligent and HUGE baseball fan to join me for the #WBC2017 preview: Matt Dunstone!

Before we pick the brain of our expect guest blogger, some of you may not be too familiar with the World Baseball Classic.  Well have no fear sports fans, #TwineTime has you covered.  Before you settle in on the couch with a cold beverage, dreaming of your old glory days running the bases while watching the pro's do it, I have a brief history lesson for you to brush up your knowledge and wow your friends (assuming you are watching the games with someone and not alone, not that there is anything wrong with that *cough* me *cough*).
  • The World Baseball Classic originated in 2006.  The WBC was supported by the International Baseball Federation (IBF) until 2013 and now sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC).
  • The WBC is the only major international tournament in baseball since the elimination of the sport from the Olympic roster in 2008.  The winner of the tournament is crowned "World Champion".
  • The tournament format has evolved over the years.  2006 was a 16 team round robin where the top teams per pool advanced to the second round for another round of pool play.  The top two teams would then advance to the championship round semifinals and finals.  This is consistent with the format for the 2017 edition.
  • 2009 moved to a double elimination pool play format, similar to what we see at the NCAA level College World Series.  This proved to be less popular with fans around the world however and was deemed to be controversial and a fail.
  • 2013 combined the 2006 and 2009 formats with a pool play for the 16 qualified teams in the first round and then a double elimination pool play format for the second round where the top two remaining teams would be seeded for the championship round.  Less controversial but interest grew once again to see the format return to the 2006 version for the upcoming 2017 tournament.
  • 16 nations have been the staple for the event since inception.  However 2006 and 2009 were contested by the same 16 teams.  Beginning in 2013, only the 12 teams that won at least won game in the 2009 tournament would receive automatic qualification.  The remaining 4 spots would be decided by qualification tournaments.  For 2013, 12 nations entered the qualification tournament with 4 earning their spot.  For 2017, 16 nations entered qualification battling it out for the 4 remaining spots.
  • Japan has been the most successful nation in WBC history, having won the 2006 and 2009 tournament.  Japan also found the podium with a bronze medal performance in 2013.  South Korea is second with 2 medals, a silver (2009) and bronze (2006).  Four other nations have won a WBC medal, including Dominican Republic (2013 gold), Cuba (2006 silver), Puerto Rico (2013 silver) and Venezuela (2009 bronze).  Oddly enough the best USA finish was 4th back in 2009.
  • Overall 20 nations have competed in the WBC at least once.  Included in the list of one-time participants are: Spain and Brazil (2013) and Columbia and Israel (2017).  14 nations have competed in all 4 WBC tournaments: Australia, Canada, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Chinese Taipei, USA and Venezuela.
  • Every edition of the tournament has seen a dark horse nation surprise a few "power house" contending teams.  Venezuela stole the title of surprise contender in the early going's with a 7th place finish in 2006 and a bronze medal win in 2009.  The Netherlands were the surprise of the 2013 edition, reaching the championship round and finishing 4th.  Who will surprise in 2017?  More on that below.
  • Tokyo, Japan has served as a host city every year of the tournament, the most by any host city.  San Jaun, Puerto Rico is next with 4 (not serving as host for 2017).  Overall, 15 cities have played host to at least one round of one edition of the WBC.  The 2017 host cities include: Seoul, Tokyo, Miami, San Diego, Los Angeles and Zapopan, Mexico.  The 2017 championship round will take place at Dodger Stadium.
  • Professional players from the MLB and other leagues around the world have been invited to participate in the WBC and represent their country.  Many top players have donned their national pride to play, including Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr, Ichiro Suzuki, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Jose Bautista, R.A. Dickey, Joey Votto, Robinson Cano and Chipper Jones.  Yoenis Cespedes even made his international debut at this event!
  • Standard baseball rules are used in the WBC tournament with a few minor exception.  The max pitches allowed per pitcher per game vary depending on the round of play: 65 (R1), 80 (R2) and 95 (Championship Round).  Also mercy rules are in effect when 10 or more runs are scored after the opposition has batted at least seven innings OR 15 or more runs scored after the opposition has batted at least 5 innings.  For extra innings, starting in the 13th, teams start with runners on first and second base.
There you have it, a brief history lesson to get you familiar with this unique and special event.  But let's dive into the 2017 edition shall we?  2017 will once again see the same 14 teams we have seen every edition of this tournament and welcome the two rookie nations, Columbia and Israel, into the WBC participant family.  15 fo the Top 20 teams according to the WBSC ranking will be participating with #1 Japan leading the way.  Israel is the lowest ranked nation competing, ranked #41.  But rankings do not always equate to results as we know.

Let's welcome our special guest, and #TwineTime family member, Matt Dunstone into the conversation.  For those who may not know, Dunstone is not only #DunnyIsMoney on the ice but also in the dirt.  A strong baseball background, Dunstone started slipping on the baseball jersey at the young age of 7 and played competitively until 20.  Matty made the Manitoba provincial team three times (15u, 16u, 17u) and was named Manitoba Midget Player of the Year in 2012 at 17 years old.  He was a crafty right handed pitcher who loved to toss the curve ball.  Dunstone also played 3B/2B when he won his POY achievement.  He has played ball with MLB drafted player Chris Shaw (Baltimore Orioles) and Stetson University standout Ben Onyshko.  Dunstone himself had an offer to go play college ball but gave up the sport to focus on his other athletic passion, curling.  How many of you knew all of this about young Matt Dunstone?  Bet you didn't know he is a dual-sport stud did you?

Welcome Matty, I am in tough to take you on for a preview/prediction special in this sport but I will try to hold my balls (picks) against yours (again, I mean picks here folks...stop thinking dirty!).  Let's get to our #WBC2017 preview:

2017 World Baseball Classic

Host Nations: Japan, Mexico, South Korea, USA

2013 Champion: Dominican Republic

Format:  16 team RR for R1.  Top 2 teams advance to RR for R2.  Top 2 teams advance to Championship Round SF.


FIRST ROUND

Pool A

Participants:  Chinese Taipei (WBSC Ranking: 4), Israel (41), Korea (3), Netherlands (9)

Favourite:

#DunnyIsMoney
My favourite to win this pool would be the Netherlands.  With shut down closer Kenley Jansen and a star studded infield headed by Xander Bogaerts, I think this team will give the other 3 plenty of issues in the opening round.  I think Israel is the second team that slides in behind the Netherlands with a 2-1 record.

#TwineTime
I agree with Matty here.  The Dutch are going to be the cream of the crop here.  They have come along way as a program since their surprise championship round appearance 4 years ago and shouldn't surprise anyone with a strong result in the first round.  Interesting to note though, most players on this team do not technically live in the Netherlands but rather from Caribbean stronghold nations like Aruba and Curacao.

Dark Horse:

#DunnyIsMoney
My dark horse to make the next round would be Korea, who with one loss already, has their backs against the wall.  They could sneak their way in if they upset the Netherlands.

#TwineTime
If we go on history alone, the true dark horse will be Israel.  Entering the tournament as the lowest ranked nation, by a mile, and having had to go through qualifying to get here.  However, based on their roster and this pool, they are loaded with more professional talent then hosts Korea and Taipei.  Israel is a dark horse contender for this event...but should comfortably advance as well.

Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney - Netherlands, Israel

#TwineTime -  Netherlands, Israel

Pool B

Participants:  Australia (11), China (18), Cuba (5), Japan (1)

Favourite:

#DunnyIsMoney
My pick to win this pool is Japan.  Japan has an extremely competitive major league with tons of players who could have made it to the MLB but choose to stay at home. 

#TwineTime
Again, I agree with Matty.  The most successful team in #WBC history, including a leading 17 victories overall, should easily advance from the weakest pool in the first round.  Watch out for stud pitcher Shintaro Fujinami.

Dark Horse:

#DunnyIsMoney
The dark horse in this pool for me would be Australia.  This is a fairly young team with lots of potential.  Playing with nothing to lose may be in their favour this time around.

#TwineTime
Australia has more experience being here.  China has more wins.  Australia has more MLB players in it's history.  China hit the first-ever home run in #WBC history.  Australia has pitching but lacks scoring.  China can score but lacks pitching.  Which side gives?  I just got back from Australia.  I'm going with the Koala nation as my dark horse pick....but really neither side has a shot at advancing.

Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney - Japan, Cuba

#TwineTime -  Japan, Cuba

Pool C

Participants:  Canada (8), Columbia (19), Dominican Republic (13), USA (2)

Favourite:

#DunnyIsMoney
Pool C is a pool of death filled with major league talent on every single one of the teams.  Between Canada, USA, Columbia and Dominican Republic we have World Series Champions, MVP's, CY Young winners and everybody's favourite player Bartolo Colon.  I see the Dominican's winning this pool headed by Manny Machado and shut down reliever Dellin Betances.  Sliding in at second will be the USA, led by Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Chris Archer.

#TwineTime
Ok folks I promise Matt and I did not swap notes before writing this preview nor discuss one another's predictions but, again, I agree with him.  This is the ultimate pool of death as any of these teams, if grouped in another pool, could have a strong argument of advancing beyond the first round.  The Dominican Republic are the defending champs though and are loaded with talent once again.  Don't forget 2013 WBC MVP Robinson Cano also returns.  They are the favourites not only in this pool but to repeat their 2013 title.  Until they get knocked off, right now at least, they are the pick.

Dark Horse:

#DunnyIsMoney
Look for Canada to possibly give these two teams a run for their money with veterans Justin Mourneau, Joey Votto and young sluggers Josh Naylor and Tyler O'Neil.  Simply I just do not think Canada has the pitching to compete with the DR and USA.

#TwineTime
The homer pick here would be Canada...but also with valid reasons.  As Matt mentioned, they have a a star-studded team as well, just not as bright of stars as the DR and USA.  But actually qualifier Columbia is my dark horse team here.  I think they have a stronger pitching rotation than Canada, including White Sox starter Jose Quintana pitching their opening game vs. USA and Atlanta Braves pitcher Julio Teheran going against Canada for game two.  The offense is going to be the trouble spot but with an experienced pitcher taking the mound against Canada and the offense having a game under their belt, they could surprise the Canadians.  Remember the winner of that game will probably earn automatic qualification for the 2021 tournament while the loser will be relegated to qualification.  
Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney -  Dominican Republic, USA

#TwineTime -  Dominican Republic, USA

Pool D

Participants:  Italy (10), Mexico (6), Puerto Rico (12), Venezuela (7)

Favourite:

#DunnyIsMoney
My pick to win this pool is Venezuela, led by King Felix, one of the best hitters of all time Miguel Cabrera and one of the world's best all around players Jose Altuve.  They are one of the favourites to win this thing and I cannot see them having problems until the next round.  Second place in this pool will be Puerto Rico, led by young superstars Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez and Carlos Correa.  They own the best middle infield in the event.

#TwineTime
Let's make it 4 for 4 on favourites.  Venezuela is without a doubt the leader of this pool.  Their overall roster is the deepest and most talented...and not just in this pool but, arguably, throughout this entire tournament.  This team will also be very motivated to prove 2013's shocking elimination in the first round, after a bronze medal win in 2009, was a small bump in the road to the greater good.  They are hungry.  They are angry.  They are motivated.  They are talented.  They are dangerous!  And no surprise Matt mentioned Jose Altuve.  If you read his #TwineTime interview, you would know why!

Dark Horse:

#DunnyIsMoney
Mexico could be a team who makes a big run in this thing with the pitching staff they have, perhaps the best pitching staff in this pool.  If this pitching staff can shut down the powerhouses that are Puerto Rico and Venezuela, they may be able to make it to the next round.

#TwineTime
Again, I agree.  Mexico could be the perfect dark horse team.  They have a strong roster, led by Adrian Gonzalez.  Similar to Venezuela, they also may have a slight chip on their shoulder of wanting to quiet the doubters.  The nation has been on a steady decline in the history of this event, going from 6th place (2006) to 9th place (2009) to failing to advance out of the first round (2013).  However, remember in 2013 they did have that huge win over USA.  Don't underestimate the Mexicans, especially playing at home!

Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney -  Venezuela, Puerto Rico

#TwineTime -  Venezuela, Mexico

SECOND ROUND

Pool E

#DunnyIsMoney
In Pool E we will have the Netherlands, Israel, Cuba and Japan.  I like the Netherlands winning their second consecutive pool with Japan right behind them also moving to the semifinals.  Israel does not simply have enough fire power in their lineup to compete with the Netherlands pitching and the consistency of the Japanese will move them into the semifinals as well.

#TwineTime
True to form, Matt and I have the same four nations battling it out for SF spots.  I think we can all agree the Israel story is going to be a great one but this is where Cinderella's glass slipper falls off and midnight strikes.  In 2013, Japan, Netherlands and Cuba all found themselves in the same pool...hmmm weird coincidence here?  Japan is a slam dunk for the SF.  Which leaves us with the Netherlands and Cuba.  Sound familiar?  Netherlands and Japan played in the second round (twice!!) and battled for a spot back in 2013, won by the Dutch (twice!!).  I agree with Matt, we will see some #HistoryRepeating and the SF round will be layered in #Oranje once again.

Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney -  Netherlands, Japan

#TwineTime -  Japan, Netherlands

Pool F

#DunnyIsMoney
Pool F will be the best part of the World Baseball Classic, featuring the USA, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.  I am taking the Dominican Republic to stay on their hot streak and win this pool.  They simply have too much fire power up and down the lineup.  I also do believe Venezuela will find a way to make it through this pool with a big win over USA.  The USA will not make it through to the semifinals due to the lack of shut down starting pitching.

#TwineTime
Flip a coin here?  Pool F is going to be a dog fight as honestly any four of the nations I have in this pool (Dominican Republic, USA, Venezuela, Mexico) could honestly reach the championship round and have strong arguments to why they could win this entire event.  Make no mistake, our 2017 #WBC champion will come from this group of four (similar to 2013)!  The question is which two live to fight another day.  The DR are still, on paper, the strongest team here and should survive.  Mexico is probably going to put up a good fight but ultimately succumb to the three stronger teams they face.  Similar to Pool E we have a final spot up for grabs between two talented nations: USA and Venezuela.  Both under-performed in 2013.  In fact the USA has only reached the Championship Round once....a bit shocking given the talent they possess as a country and a nation known for baseball.  They will also have home diamond advantage here as these games will be played at Petco Park in San Diego.  However, call it fate friends, this Venezuela team just has something to them that I really like.  I'm calling a minor upset here, agreeing with Matt though, and picking them to take out the "home" team.

Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney -  Dominican Republic, Venezuela

#TwineTime -  Dominican Republic, Venezuela

CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND

Semifinals

#DunnyIsMoney
Our first semifinal matchup will be between the Netherlands and Venezuela.  I see the Netherlands run come to an end against a super-talented Venezuelan team.  The Netherlands haven't really had to play an extremely strong team up until this point and they are going to run into a brick wall.

Semifinal matchup number two will have the Dominican Republic taking on Japan.  I cannot see this game being very close.  Look for Carlos Martiniez to shut down the Japanese and Starling Marte go 4/5 to lead the offence past Japan.

#TwineTime
My first SF will feature Japan take on Venezuela.  The Japanese will have skated along this tournament based more on weaker competition than possessing a strong overall team.  This fact will become very prevalent when Venezuela comes calling and roughs them up.  Expect a close game the first few innings but Venezuela will pull away for the championship final by the 5th end.

The second SF will see defending champions Dominican Republic take on the Netherlands in a 2013 semifinal rematch.  Back in 2013, the DR team silences a Dutch team averaging 5 runs per game in a 4-1 win.  Again, the Dutch will be quite pleased with this SF result but stronger pitching and explosive offense from the DR side will win out in the long run once again.

Semifinal Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney - Venezuela, Dominican Republic

#TwineTime - Venezuela, Dominican Republic

Championship:

#DunnyIsMoney
In the championship final we now have Venezuela against the Dominican Republic.  Both lineups have awesome balance between speed, power, contact and discipline.  I think this will be a fantastic game to watch.  I think it will a low scoring battle with tons of strategic pitching changes, small ball and big moments.  I like Venezuela to take this year's World Baseball Classic.  If they can find a way to get King Felix on the bump, who can totally take over a game, the Dominican Republic will be in tough.  With Salvador Perez, Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Roughned Odor, Cargo and Victor Martinez in your lineup, it is tough to lose regardless of who you are playing.  Venezuela will be your 2017 World Baseball Classic Champions!

#TwineTime
Well, well, well...could Matt and I agree one last time?  We agree on the 2017 #WBC finalists.  We agree it is going to be a close game with probably more outstanding pitching and defensive plays than long ball shots and players on base.  And while I agree with the points Matt makes on why Venezuela is a strong bet to place on taking home the title, I am a bit undecided on this one.  To be honest, my initial thought on this tournament when the teams were announced was Venezuela takes this home.  However, Venezuela was expected to reach the championship round in 2013 and ended up being a huge disappointment.  The Dominican Republic, on the other hand, has already shown they can handle the pressure, big games and attraction this event will receive.  They have one of the strongest bullpens and lineups in the entire tournament.  Ok yes, perhaps not THE strongest in both categories but, combined, they are overall the strongest team here.  They are the defending champs and I am not so sure I see them being unseated...at least not this time around.  Plus, for the Pirates fan in me, I really wants to see Sterling Marte and Gregory Polanco take home this title!

Championship Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney -  Venezuela def. Dominican Republic

#TwineTime -  Dominican Republic def. Venezuela

Bronze Medal Predictions:

#DunnyIsMoney - Netherlands def. Japan

#TwineTime -  Netherlands def. Japan

Mr. Dunstone and I certainly seemed to agree on MOST of the action about to take place on the diamond but we do have a few subtle differences.  Of course, most noticeably, we may have predicted the same championship finalists but we each went with a different champion.  Hmmmm, given Matt's history with the sport and my...ummmmm....lack of history (?) perhaps I should be second guessing myself already?!  Nope, sticking with my #TwineTime gut and hoping for the best.  Plus, let's be honest, it would be kind of cool to knock off Dunstone in something...even if it is something as minor as 2017 World Baseball Classic predictions. LOL

Special thanks to Matt Dunstone for returning to the #TwineTime blog and offering his insight, expertise and baseball knowledge for this special preview.  Perhaps I can entice him to return for the MLB season preview?  What do you think #TwineTime readers?

Let #DunnyIsMoney and myself know what you think of our picks, agree or disagree, by leaving a comment below or hitting either of us up on twitter.  And if you don't already follow Matt Dunstone on twitter (what's wrong with you??) add him HERE.

Enjoy the baseball action everyone and, secretly, #GoCANADAGo!!!!