The fourth iteration of the World Baseball Classic (“WBC”) took place from March 6th to 22nd, with a triumphant team U.S.A. dismantling Puerto Rico 8-0 in the championship game. The event was generally well-regarded by press and fans alike, with some exciting comebacks, great plays all over the field and the highest attendance in WBC history. Unfortunately, a high profile event like the WBC is a breeding ground for lazy reporters to promulgate bad baseball takes.
Buster Olney is generally a solid baseball reporter. His style is more traditional and less stats-based, but he’s by no means a Tim McCarver or Harold Reynolds when it comes to dispensing bad takes. He has solid industry contacts and a good voice for reporting. I like him.
However, his May 14th ESPN blog discussing the hypothetical negative impact the WBC has had on participating players is extremely lazy reporting. Olney covers nine hitters who played in the WBC who experienced supposed slow starts to the season. Of course, these players are cherry picked, and some haven’t even been that bad. There is also limited discussion of the pitchers who took part in the WBC and the hitters who have done well to start the 2017 season.
Let’s take a look at what Buster had to say:
An evaluator trailing the St. Louis Cardinals early last month was astonished by Yadier Molina’s sluggishness, because he had seen how Molina led Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic — the fist-pumping, the shouting, the inspired play.
“He looks like a completely different guy,” the evaluator said, noting how Molina wasn’t showing nearly as much of that at the outset of the regular season. “Very little energy.”
What is an “evaluator”? Is that some type of scout? If so, why didn’t Olney just say “scout”? The nebulous nature of the opening couple sentences makes me think Olney just made this supposed source up, because really, who would know any better? Of course, the source actually might be Detroit second baseman and U.S.A. WBC participant Ian Kinsler, who thought that those dang Puerto Ricans show too much emotion out there.
Similar observations have been made about other players who served in prominent roles in the WBC — so much so, that it is now accepted as a reality by many folks in the game that some players have struggled because of their participation in spring training’s great event.
Olney continues with generic, unsourced writing that vaguely supports the thesis of the article. I think I heard Frank from Staten Island call-up Mike Francesa and complain that Betances isn’t as good because he pitched in the WBC. Maybe that’s what Olney is referring to by “similar observations”.
The vast majority of the comments are not meant to be complaints or whining about the WBC, but as loose conclusions based on the early regular-season play of some of the participants. Some players from the WBC, such as the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey and the Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones, have performed well. Marcus Stroman is also off to a good start.
Should we really be writing articles based on “loose conclusions”? I’ve noticed that Gregory Polanco performs better when I wear boxer briefs compared to baggy boxers. Is that deserving of a FunGraphs post? And not sure what Olney is referring to with Adam Jones. He has a 95 wRC+ (meaning that his offensive production, adjusted for run scoring environment, is 5% worse than league average) and a middling .707 OPS.
Olney now gets into the players whose “slumps” were caused by the WBC:
Kansas City Royals and Team USA
He’s had much better days recently after hitting .195 through April 25.
A lot of detailed analysis here. Don’t know where to start. FunGraphs has already observed that Hos’ is a very overrated player, so I’m not sure where the shock is. On top of that, the entire Royals team stunk out of the gate.
Chicago Cubs and Puerto Rico
He batted .203 with one homer in April. Manager Joe Maddon, believing that Baez was still resetting after the WBC, sat him down for a couple of days to give him an emotional breather.
If there is one thing I’m getting from this article, it’s that those hot-blooded Puerto Ricans just don’t know how to reign in their emotions. Baez’s 2017 wRC+ of 82 is actually identical to his career figure. Javy is certainly an exciting baseballer, but might be the most overrated player in the game next to Hosmer.
Texas Rangers and the Netherlands
He was batting .135 when Texas optioned him to the minors at the outset of what is an important year for him, as he is the fourth outfielder in Texas’ lineup and is being mentioned in trade rumors.
While Profar has never been a good hitter at the MLB level, his start to 2017 was mired in bad luck. He actually posted a 1:1 strikeout to walk ratio (which is very good), propped up by a 17.4% walk rate. His BABIP of .172 is unsustainably low. Don’t be surprised if Profar makes some noise at the MLB level later this season.
Texas Rangers and Team USA
Through May 1, he was hitting .200, with a .246 on-base percentage, and he is now up to .263 batting average. “He’s a better player than what he’s shown,” one evaluator said.
The mysterious “evaluator” strikes again! I wonder if there is some type of evaluator certificate. If so, the test must be pretty easy, because asserting that Lucroy, a career .283 AVG / .342 OBP / .439 SLG hitter, is “better than what he’s shown” is a very flaccid statement.
Houston Astros and Puerto Rico
Through April 27, he was batting .219, with a .638 OPS. He hit two homers in his first 24 games and has gotten hot lately.
Correa has a 135 wRC+, 35% better than a league average hitter thus far, which matches the level he sustained in his remarkable rookie season. Bit of a stretch Buster?
St. Louis Cardinals and Puerto Rico
He distinguished himself as a leader in the WBC, starting last summer when prospective members of the Puerto Rican team started texting each other. But early this season, scouts felt he was not nearly as active behind the plate in blocking pitches in the dirt.
Newsflash: Yadier Molina is a great texter. That’s good to know at least.
Notice how Olney is now quoting “scouts”. Of course, those scouts provided a suspect and ultimately vague opinion on a micro-aspect of Molina’s game. A quick look at the numbers reveals that Molina’s ball-blocking skills haven’t changed much from 2016. His two passed balls and 10 wild pitches allowed through 264 innings behind the plate in 2017 are at similar rates to his eight passed balls and 42 wild pitches in 1218 innings last season. That took all of 14 seconds to lookup.
Houston Astros and Team USA
He has an 8.49 ERA for the Astros this season, having allowed 17 hits and five walks in 11 2/3 innings.
Gregerson has struggled to start the season. Then again, it’s barely 12 innings. A lot of relief pitchers who didn’t pitch in the WBC have struggled to start the season.
Houston Astros and Team USA
He didn’t play as much as expected in the WBC and opened the regular season hitting second in the Houston lineup. But after scoring one run in the first 10 games and hitting .231 through April 14, he was moved down in the Astros batting order.
Bregman’s case might be one of the few worth exploring. After raking at AA, AAA and the MLB last year, Bregman’s power has been sapped to the tune of a .342 SLG rate in 2017. He’s walking at a decent clip and striking out less, but he doesn’t look like the guy who put up 28 homers in 129 games across all levels last season.
It’s worth noting that if Bregman was negatively impacted by the WBC, it was likely due to rust from accruing a paltry four at bats during the tournament. Not some emotional comedown.
Baltimore Orioles and the Dominican Republic
With his nightly defensive highlight show, he was one of the real stars of the WBC. But on April 25, he was batting .188 for the Orioles, with six extra-base hits. He has had a burst of power lately.
Machado is on pace for over 40 home runs and has been murdering the ball lately. I’m surprised Olney didn’t quote an ambiguous evaluator who thought that Machado’s recent dustups with the Red Sox ignited his hot streak.
And these are just some of the examples. “I do think there’s an emotional high/low that affects these guys,” one evaluator said. “There’s an exhale moment when the tournament is over that you don’t get with spring training. I am still a fan of the tournament, but there are definite risks that come with it.”
Said an American League official: “It impacted our guys.”
The evaluator strikes again! At least Olney includes an actual quote, which makes me think there’s a lower likelihood the mythical evaluator is Olney’s invisible friend. At this point, we’ve established that some of the true slow starts are from players who aren’t that good to begin with. And that some of the players haven’t even had slow starts.
A number of Astros participated in the WBC, including Jose Altuve, Correa, Bregman and Gregerson.
“We [had] a lot of participants, and I think the impact has been individually based,” said Houston manager A.J. Hinch. “For all of them, though, I think we underestimate the impact of disrupting the preparation routines of players. It impacts players differently case by case, but I have seen it with virtually all our guys. The letdown after the intense games was pretty obvious the last week of spring training preparation, before the season.”
At least Olney concludes the article with a quote from an actual named source. Hinch is a pretty smart and forward-thinking manager, so I’ll take his word for it. He’s obviously referring to Bregman here, one of the few players who might have actually been negatively effected by the WBC, but mainly through lack of playing time. Someone who missed spring training because of injury would have the same potential issues.
And not only did Olney (woah, that’s a tongue twister) do a poor job providing evidence for WBC-related slumps, he largely ignored the WBC players who have had good starts to their 2017 campaigns, likely because it would be mess up the thesis of his lazily put together post. Below are some of those players:
Nolan Arenado (COL) – .294 AVG / .346 OBP / .559 SLG (.905 OPS)
Jose Altuve (HOU) – .298 AVG / .367 OBP / .458 SLG (.825 OPS)
Jonathan Schoop (BAL) – .293 AVG / .341 OBP / .509 SLG (.850 OPS)
Xander Bogaerts (BOS) – .339 AVG / .393 OBP / .427 SLG (.820 OPS)
Robinson Cano (SEA) – .296 AVG / .362 OBP / .533 SLG ( .895 OPS)
Marcos Stroman (TOR) – 3.33 ERA / 3.33 FIP / 3.45 xFIP
Danny Duffy (KC) – 3.38 ERA / 3.31 FIP / 4.64 xFIP
Carlos Martinez (STL) – 3.88 ERA / 3.94 FIP / 3.37 xFIP