The fifth installment of the World Baseball Classic is in the books and Japan, led by the singular Shohei Ohtani, is this year's champion. Japan defeated USA in Tuesday night's championship game to clinch a third WBC title. They also won the WBC in 2006 and 2009. Team USA fell just short of winning back-to-back titles.
Because of pandemic-related postponements, this was the first WBC since 2017, and it gave us several major upsets, memorable home runs, heavyweight clashes between some of the most baseball-crazed countries in the world, and a storybook finish. It's a shame we have to wait three years for the next WBC in 2026. What a fun event.
With the 2023 WBC in the books, let's name some winners and losers for this year's tournament, shall we? We shall. Let's get to it.
Winner: Shohei Ohtani and Japan
Really, the biggest winner is all of us. Ohtani and Japan are the WBC champions and Ohtani was named WBC MVP -- he hit .435/.606/.739 while also pitching to a 1.86 ERA in 9 2/3 innings -- but we were gifted an Ohtani vs. Mike Trout at-bat to close out the championship game. It would have been be cheesy if it were movie, but it was amazing because it was real life.
Here is the final out of the WBC. Ohtani threw two 100 mph fastballs by Trout, then put him away with a nasty 3-2 slider.
If you aren't impressed, you should be. Mike Trout has had 3 swinging strikes in only 24 of his 6,174 career MLB plate appearances!pic.twitter.com/VTlcRnAgPH— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) March 22, 2023
"If you were going to write a script, I was hoping it was going to go our way with Mikey popping (a homer) against Ohtani," USA manager Mark DeRosa told MLB.com. "But like I said, the baseball world, this thing is real. The WBC's real. The whole world got to see Ohtani come in in a big spot, battling. It's kind of how it was kind of scripted. I just wish it would have went different."
Japan has won three of the five WBCs (2006, 2009, 2023) and they are the second team to go undefeated in the WBC, joining the 2013 Dominican Republic squad. Japan has cemented itself as the titan of international baseball and with each passing year Ohtani lays more claim to the "greatest player ever" title. It's not hyperbole. I'm not even sure what the argument against it is at this point. Ohtani and Japan had a sensational WBC from start to finish.
(Another winner: me, for predicting Japan would run the table and Ohtani would be named WBC MVP. Just don't look at my other WBC predictions.)
Winner: Trea Turner
It ultimately went for naught, similar to Randy Arozarena's onslaught in the 2020 postseason, but Turner was a monster in the WBC. He hit five home runs in six games, including one in the win-or-go-home quarterfinal, two in the win-or-go-home semifinal, and one in the win-or-go-home championship game.
Turner's go-ahead grand slam against Venezuela was one of the WBC's most memorable moments:
"Individually, I think this is probably the biggest hit that I've had, probably right up there with any hit I've ever had," Turner, a 2019 World Series champion with the Nationals, told the Associated Press after the game.
Turner finished the WBC with a .391/.440/1.043 batting line along with those five home runs. He is the career home run leader among American players in the WBC -- this was Turner's first ever WBC -- and the five homers tie the single-WBC record:
- Trea Turner, USA: 5 HR in 2023
- Seung-Yuop Lee, Korea: 5 HR in 2006
- Adrián Beltré, Dominican Republic: 4 HR in 2006
- Wladimir Balentien, Netherlands: 4 HR in 2017
Ultimate, Turner and Team USA lost the championship game, and that stings. Turner had a fantastic WBC though. He provided big hit after big hit, and home run after home run.
Loser: Edwin Díaz and the Mets, Jose Altuve and the Astros
Two of the game's biggest stars suffered fluke injuries during or immediately after two of the WBC's most thrilling games. The injuries led to anti-WBC discourse and I totally understand fans firing off spicy takes in the immediate aftermath of a major injury or postseason defeat or whatever, but it's shortsighted. The WBC is a great thing for baseball overall.
Díaz, the Mets' All-Star closer and owner of the largest reliever contract in baseball history, tore the patellar tendon in his right knee celebrating Puerto Rico's upset win over the Dominican Republic. He had surgery last Thursday and is very likely to miss the 2023 season. The celebration wasn't excessive -- Díaz's teammates didn't throw him to the bottom of a dogpile or anything like that -- it was simply an out-of-nowhere fluke.
Altuve, meanwhile, took a 95.9 mph Daniel Bard fastball to the hand and suffered a broken right thumb. The pitch appeared to hit both hands, though only the right hand was injured. Altuve either had surgery already or will have surgery soon, and the Astros have not yet announced a timetable for his return. Needless to say, he will miss weeks, not days. Unlike Díaz, Altuve's injury occurred on a baseball play, though I'm not sure that makes anyone associated with the Astros feel any better.
Altuve and Díaz were not the only players injured during the WBC -- Freddie Freeman pulled his hamstring and Japanese shortstop Sosuke Genda broke a finger -- though they certainly suffered the most significant injuries. The Mets will be without their closer this year and the Astros will be without their leadoff hitter for several weeks. Two World Series contenders are down important players and both got hurt while away from the team. It's a tough pill to swallow.
That said, Altuve and Díaz wanted to represent their countries in the WBC, and we should be respectful of that. The Mets are Díaz's employer but Puerto Rico is his home. Same goes with Altuve and the Astros, and his native Venezuela. The injuries are unfortunate and losing Altuve and Díaz is a loss for baseball fans. Sometimes bad things happen though. We can leave it at that. No need to tear down the WBC in the aftermath.
Winner: Fans and the ballpark atmospheres
Thanks largely to fans of WBC loving non-USA countries, the atmospheres at each ballpark were fantastic throughout the WBC. They always are, every WBC. The Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico crowd was electric (61% of televisions in Puerto Rico were tuned into the game too) and first round games in Taichung, Taiwan, were a giant party with a little baseball on the side.
It is a PARTY right now at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium 🕺💃 pic.twitter.com/y95U32MaUh— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) March 10, 2023
Sustaining that kind of atmosphere for 81 home games a year probably isn't realistic, but gosh, I would love to get some of that energy into MLB stadiums. There's definitely something to be said for a chill, low-key night at the ballpark. An absolute rager every now and then is fun too. The fans always bring it during the WBC. The atmosphere throughout was incredible.
Winner: Czech Republic and Great Britain
The WBC expanded from 16 teams to 20 teams this year and four teams -- Czech Republic, Great Britain, Panama, Nicaragua -- earned their WBC berth in qualifying tournaments last fall. With the expansion to 20 teams came a relegation system. The last place team in each pool this year is relegated and must advance through a qualifying tournament to earn a spot in the 2026 WBC.
For the Czech Republic and Great Britain, two countries with nascent baseball programs, simply advancing out of the qualifier last fall and into the WBC is a tremendous accomplishment. Going 0-4 in pool play would have been understandable. Instead, they both won a game and avoided a last-place finish in their pool, securing an automatic berth into the 2026 WBC. How about that?
The Czech Republic stunned China with a four-run ninth inning comeback to pick up their first WBC win in their first WBC game. Great Britain rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat a Colombia team with multiple big leaguers. Due in part to those games, China and Colombia have been relegated (Chinese Taipei and Nicaragua were also relegated).
Clinching a berth in the 2026 WBC opens up additional funding for the Czech Republic and Great Britain baseball programs, plus it will create interest in the sport and potentially inspire future players. I mean, the Czech Republic team is a bunch of regular guys with regular jobs who play in the Czech Baseball Extraliga on the weekends! What monument wins for these two countries.
"We will be stronger in three years' time, although we know success is something which comes in generations," Great Britain manager Drew Spencer told BBC. "I imagine there are some 17, 18, 19-year-olds in the UK or the British Virgin Islands or wherever that will see they have a real opportunity if they work really hard. It's exciting."
Loser: Dominican Republic
What was touted as the most talented roster in WBC history produced a 2-2 record and a first-round exit. The Dominican Republic outscored its opponents 19-11 in the four games, but sequencing matters, and the big hit -- and often the big pitch -- eluded them. Two wins against undermanned Israel and Nicaragua, two losses to baseball-crazed Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I think it's fair to call the 2023 Dominican Republic team the biggest disappointment in WBC history. They massively underperformed.
Winner: Duque Hebbert
Hebbert, a 21-year-old who pitched to a 4.71 ERA in 28 1/3 innings in the Nicaraguan Winter League last year, struck out Juan Soto, Julio Rodríguez, and Rafael Devers in Nicaragua's loss to the Dominican Republic. Those three have combined for five All-Star Games and over $700 million in contracts, and Hebbert struck 'em all out in his lone WBC inning. Not bad, eh?
"I felt a little nervous when I was in the bullpen," Hebbert told ESPN after the game. "But when I came out I told myself, 'In baseball, you can't be scared. You have to enjoy it.' I went out there and enjoyed it to the fullest."
Luis Molina, a scout with the Tigers who served on Nicaragua's coaching staff, was so impressed with Hebbert's outing that he tracked him down after the game and signed him to a minor-league contract. The 21-year-old earned his first opportunity in affiliated ball with that one dominant WBC inning. Is that a cool story or what? A life-changing inning for Hebbert, that was.
Loser: The tiebreaker rule
Lowest quotient of fewest runs allowed divided by the number of defensive outs recorded? Come on guys. For all I know that might be the fairest way to break ties, but it certainly is not the simplest. Pool A finished in a massive five-team tie and in the final few innings of pool play, the broadcasters had no idea who needed to score how many runs to win the tiebreaker. I don't blame them! It's really complicated. Feels like there is a better and easier to understand way to break ties, WBC people. Hopefully something a little less headache-inducing is in place for the 2006 WBC.
(For what it's worth, the Pool A results would have been exactly the same had the WBC used run differential as the tiebreaker rather than the complicated formula. Cuba and Italy still would have advanced.)
Winner: The pitch clock
Is anyone still against MLB's new pitch timer? It's fantastic. The WBC was not played with MLB's new rules (no pitch clock, no limit on extreme shifts, etc.) and the average WBC game lasted 3:16. And that's with six first-round games ending early courtesy of the mercy rule too. With the pitch timer, the average spring training game is 2:36 this year. That's down from 3:01 last spring.
The pitch timer is not really about time of game though. It's about reducing dead time within games and improving the pace. MLB wants less standing around between pitches. With the pitch timer, the flow of the game is greatly improved and it was noticeably absent during the WBC. Hitters stepped out multiple times in an at-bat, pitchers wandering around the mound for a bit, so on and so forth. There were times the game ground to a halt. Minutes would pass with nothing happening.
The WBC is blast and I greatly enjoyed it. I'm not sure how anyone could have watched these last few days and not loved it. It was also a reminder of life before the pitch timer, and reader, I did not enjoy that aspect of it. In a year or two I suspect we're all going to wonder how we ever lived without baseball on the clock.