This week, you will read quite a few World Baseball Classic previews that will start with a joke about the World Baseball Classic starting on Friday/Saturday and no one even realizing that it was happening. These jokes will be wrong, because the World Baseball Classic actually started with a qualifying round that happened last September.
That's right: there was a World Baseball Classic qualifying round that's already happened. As it turns out, only 12 of the 16 teams in this year's WBC automatically qualified. The 12 qualifiers were chosen by being the 12 teams that actually managed to win a WBC game in 2009. If a little voice in your head said, "choosing automatic qualifiers by a standard set four years ago is dumb," well, your little voice has a point! The 12 automatic WBC qualifers in 2013 are: USA, Dominican Republic, Australia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, China, Cuba and Italy. You will notice that that list includes the noted baseball powerhouses of Australia, China, and Italy, but not Canada or Panama (who both have a number of big leaguers) or Taiwan (the IBAF's #5 team). So, did those teams make it? Don't look at a bracket! That's cheating! Let's recap the qualifying round that you didn't even know existed after the jump!
Spain, France, Israel, and South Africa faced off in Jupiter from September 19-23. The only minor league player I can name from any of these four countries is Gift Ngoepe, who's a borderline middle infield prospect in the Pirates' system. I'm only capable of this much because I'm a Pirate fan. If you're not a Pirate fan and you know who Gift Ngoepe is, I don't know what to tell you. There were probably a couple of other minor leaguers in this bracket, but I'm not even going to bother looking them up.
ANYWAY, because of the utter terribleness of all four teams this was the most exciting qualifying pool. Probably. I'm inferring that from reading box scores on the internet six months after the fact. What happened here was that France was unsurprisingly terrible at baseball, getting immediately eliminated by losing 8-0 to Spain and 5-2 to South Africa. South Africa was only able to beat France: they lost their first round matchup with Israel and were crushed 13-3 by Spain in the elimination game to qualify for the qualifier final. This leaves us with Spain and Israel as the only two teams from this bracket worth talking about, and they immediately exposed the weakness of the qualifying system for a tournament that no one even realized had a qualifying round until six months after it took place. What happened was that Spain and Israel both won their first round games, then played in the second round where Israel beat Spain 4-2. As mentioned above, Spain then beat South Africa to bounce back to the finals, where they beat Israel 9-7 in what looks like was probably an exciting 10-inning game, and that was it. Even though Spain and Israel both only lost once and split two games, Spain qualified and Israel didn't. If it mattered, I'd be outraged. It doesn't: Spain's prize is a spot in Group C with Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.
Once again, it seems foolish to me that Canada didn't qualify for the WBC automatically while Italy did. As a result a Joey Votto-less Canada they had to play in the qualifying round against the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and the hosts, Germany. They obliterated everyone, beating Great Britain 11-1 in the first round, then crushing Germany 16-7 and 11-1 in the winner's bracket final and qualifier final. I briefly thought that there was something else interesting about this group when I saw a Petr Cech on the Czech's roster, but of course it wasn't that Petr Cech.
If one of the weaknesses of the WBC qualifying round is that it wasn't a true double-elimination tournament, the second is that it happened in September. September is during the MLB season and after the minor league season, which means that any big leaguers wouldn't be able to play and that most prospects (particularly pitching prospects) would probably be asked by their team not to participate. As a result a team like Panama -- which has a decent but not spectacular baseball pedigree -- wasn't able to field their best team. Whereas a full-strength Panama might've been expected to handle a qualifying group with Brazil, Colombia, and Nicaragua fairly easily, this Panama team lost twice to Brazil, a country which has a rather different baseball pedigree than Panama. I don't want to take anything away from Brazil there, though. They went undefeated in this group and qualified fair and square. They only allowed three runs in three games. That includes a three-hit shutout tossed by Rafael Fernandes, Murilo Gouvea, and Thyago Viera in the final against Panama. Two of those guys are even minor leaguers!
Like the Regensberg qualifier, you probably could've looked at a pool that included Chinese Taipei (that is, Taiwan), New Zealand, Philippines, and Thailand and assumed that Chinese Taipei was going to absolutely wipe the floor with inferior baseball opponents from countries that may or may not have even heard about baseball before being asked to take part in the qualifier. They did just that, winning three games against New Zealand, Philippines, and New Zealand again by a score of 35-0. In three games in this pool, they only allowed 11 hits. I don't even know why they made them play, if we're being honest with each other.
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