Appreciating the Emergence of Team Israel
The World Baseball Classic is an incredibly underrated event, especially in the United States. We have our spring training, we have our regular season, and we have our playoffs, so for a lot of casual fans out there who follow the sport from February to November, that’s basically enough.
But for the true enthusiasts, the ones who want to know about every player not only in our country, but around the world, the WBC is an awesome event and there’s nothing like it. While the Olympics would be the most ideal marketing campaign to the world, it just isn’t possible based on schedule concerns for all of the major leagues; MLB, KBO, and NPB aren’t closing shop for a month.
So with the WBC, you get the unique experience of seeing new players from lesser seen countries like Chinese Taipei and Cuba, and you get to see your favorite players from the United States, Japan, Korea, and the Dominican Republic.
This is what makes a team like Team Israel truly unique. Team Israel, whose rule is that you just need a Jewish grandparent to qualify, boasts a bevy of former big leaguers. Take their starting lineup against Korea, for example, along with wOBA true talent projections by Steamer:
- Sam Fuld – .274 wOBA
- Ty Kelly – .300 wOBA
- Blake Gailen – .295 wOBA
- Nate Frieman – N/A
- Zach Borenstein – .302 wOBA
- Cody Decker – .261 wOBA
- Ryan Lavarnway – .279 wOBA
- Tyler Kreiger – .249 wOBA
- Scott Burcham – .226 wOBA
- PH Mike Meyers – N/A
- PH Ike Davis – .319 wOBA
If I was putting together a major league club… sure, this isn’t great. But we’re dealing with a different scale on the international level, where the level of play is something akin to Double or Triple-A. Nicolas Stellini at FanGraphs says it right:
“Team Israel is good at baseball. It’s composed of talented players who’ve have played at a high level. The teams from Korea and Taipei are, too. But we forget just how good Double-A is and how good Triple-A is, even though, at times, those levels are cast in the light of baseball purgatory.”
That’s one of the odd quirks of the WBC, almost an optical illusion. It appears like this team should be much worse than it is, especially when you look at a sampling of what their wOBA would be in the big leagues. The flip side is that we assume there are these uber prospects around the world playing against these players that we don’t fully know, but they probably have the same spring priorities big leaguers stateside have.
We quickly forget the Bill James adage that baseball is like a pyramid, and that each level up the ladder is exponentially harder than the previous; but, at the same time, the difference between Double-A, Triple-A, and the big leagues is sometimes indistinguishable without the aid of statistics and known biases.
I can’t forget the pitching, right? Here’s a sampling of their available pitchers with Steamer ERA projections:
- Jason Marquis: 4.85 ERA
- Corey Baker: 4.86 ERA
- Jeremy Bleich: 4.46 ERA
- Danny Burawa: 4.38 ERA
- Tyler Herron: 4.78 ERA
- Jake Kalish: 4.87 ERA
- Troy Neiman: 5.35 ERA
- Zack Thornton: 4.48 ERA
- Joey Wagman: 4.90 ERA
It’s the same deal here. I’m not drafting them to my fantasy team, but there are some who have been, and might be in the future, on a major league roster. Someone with a true talent of about 4.50 ERA in the major leagues is still one of the best players in the world.
It’ll be interesting to see both what happens to this team in the current tournament, and what happens to the international team in the future. In the present, they face a tough challenge in Pool E, where they’ll have to face off against Cuba, the Netherlands, and Japan. Those teams have current major leaguers–the Dutch have Didi Gregorius and Xander Bogaerts, for example–so they’re already a step above. But if they get a little fluky, you just never know–sample sample size and all that.
In the future, I imagine this could continue to grow. With Jewish-American players eligible to play, I can easily see the likes of Ryan Bruan, or a Braun-like talent, opting to play for Israel, especially if their narrative of being a team on the rise continues.
This team is but a small microcosm of how international baseball has continued to skyrocket in popularity, and subsequently the level of play has tracked along with it. The top eight teams or so are truly Good Baseball and not what Olympic baseball may have been, which was essentially a step above NCAA. As the demands for better players increases, and the interest inevitably spikes in the US, we could see truly elite talent all across the globe competing. In any case, Team Israel will be there, and we won’t forget how good we expect them to be next time around.