WBC's new format better ... but it still leaves something to be desired
The 2006 WBC featured four pools and an unsatisfying round-robin structure
The WBC has switched to a double-elimination format for the first two rounds
That's an improvement to be sure, but the new format is less than perfect
The inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006 was a surprising success, proving that the lure of the game and the passion of international competition can outshine even a hastily cobbled together format and unsatisfying results. The 2006 WBC featured four four-team pools and a round-robin structure. Under those rules, each team played each of the three others from its pool once, after which a series of unsatisfying tie-breaker metrics were applied to decide which of the many 2-1 and 1-2 teams advanced.
That method eliminated 2-1 Canada after Round 1, despite the fact that it had defeated the advancing USA team (also 2-1) head-to-head. It then allowed Japan to advance out of Round 2 with a 1-2 record despite its having lost head-to-head to the USA, which was also 1-2 in Round 2 but did not advance. In the semifinals, Japan, who had gone 3-3 in the first two rounds, was able to eliminate 6-0 Korea in a single game despite the fact that it had lost two previous head-to-head matchups against the Koreans.
That was all quite unsatisfactory, so this year, the WBC has switched to a double-elimination format for the first two rounds. With that structure, the only stats that matter are wins and losses. Keeping the same four-by-four pool structure (with the nations in the three non-Asian pools shuffled slightly), the new rules eliminate any team that loses twice in a single round and rewards any team that wins twice in a single round with advancement. After the first two rounds, four teams will remain, and the tournament will return to simple single-elimination semifinals and finals as in 2006.
That's an improvement to be sure, but the new format is less than perfect. It's still possible for one team to defeat another twice in Round 1 and still have to face it again in Round 2. In fact, it's possible for two teams to play each other four times in the first two rounds, and a fifth time if they both make it to the finals (it is possible for two teams from the same pool to make the finals). The reason for this is that the sixth game in each of the first two rounds exists purely to determine the seeding for the next round. Both teams in that game will have already advanced, making it an oddly unsatisfying meeting between the two best teams in each pool. The sixth games in the second round will actually have two semifinalists face off with nothing at stake other than the identity of their semifinal opponent from the other pool.
In Round 1, it's actually quite likely that Games 3 and 6 will feature the same two teams, as Game 3 pits the winners of Games 1 and 2 against each other, and Game 6 features the two advancing teams. Given that, the sixth games in the first two rounds seem highly redundant and unnecessary, as it seems clear that the winner of Game 3, who will clinch advancement with a 2-0 record, should be the pool winner with the winner of Game 5, who will advance with a record of 2-1, the runner-up. Maybe they'll get it right in 2012.
Taking a closer look at the four pools, the split between the have and have-nots is pretty severe. The top two teams from each pool advance to Round 2, and it would be a major upset if any of the "second division" teams -- Chinese Taipei, China, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Italy, Panama, Netherlands -- were to advance at the expense of any of the "first division" teams -- Japan, Korea, Cuba, Mexico, USA, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico. That will make the fifth games in each pool the most compelling of the first round as the loser of Game 3 (between the winners of Games 1 and 2) will face elimination against the winner of the Game 4 contest (between the losers of Games 1 and 2). In other words, if an upset were to happen, it would most likely happen in Game 5, which is the only game in each of the first two rounds in which the winner will advance while the loser is eliminated. With the weak half of the teams eliminated, the competition should really start to heat up in Round 2. It will take just nine days for the elite eight to yield a champion via the final at Dodger Stadium on March 23.
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