The 2023 World Baseball Classic kicks off in the United States, Japan and Taiwan on Wednesday as 20 countries vie to lift the sport’s sole international trophy.
This year marks the fifth edition of the tournament, originally scheduled to be held in 2021 but delayed two years by the Covid-19 pandemic. The 20 competing countries are divided into four pools for the group stage, playing in different cities and then coming together for the knockout round.
Pool A will play in Tokyo, Pool B in Taichung, Taiwan, Pool C in Phoenix and Pool D in Miami.
The top two teams from each pool will advance to the quarterfinals which will then be held in Tokyo and Miami, with the winning teams from the Asian side of the bracket then flying to Florida for the semifinals and championship.
The Netherlands, Cuba, Italy and Panama join Chinese Taipei at Taichung Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taichung in Pool A.
Cuba is the most successful team in the pool, having finished as runner-up at the inaugural 2006 WBC.
In recent years the Netherlands have also emerged as a surprisingly competitive contender, finishing in fourth place at both the 2013 and 2017 tournaments, the last two editions of the WBC.
Korea jets off to Tokyo to join Japan, Australia, China and the Czech Republic in Pool B.
Japan are the team to beat in Pool B, having won the first two editions of the WBC in 2006 and 2009 and then finished third in both 2013 and 2017, meaning they have never ended outside the top four at the tournament.
Korea’s best finish to date was second place in 2009, with a third place finish preceding that in 2006. Korea failed to make it out of the group stage in both 2013 and 2017, finishing third each time.
Pool C contains the United States, the current reigning champions, alongside Mexico, Colombia, Canada and Great Britain. While the United States has the one win under their belt, no other team in Pool C has ever made it into the final four.
Pool D, the final group, consists of Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Israel and Nicaragua.
It’s likely to be a highly competitive group, with Puerto Rico entering the competition having finished as runner-up in the last two WBCs. The Dominican Republic won the 2013 edition of the tournament, while Venezuela finished third in 2009. Every team in the group apart from Nicaragua reached the second round in the 2017 tournament.
Japan enters the tournament as the current world No. 1 according to the World Baseball Softball Confederation rankings, although the ranking system tends to offer far less accuracy than in other sports because international baseball events are exceedingly uncommon and different leagues have different rules for different tournaments when it comes to allowing players to participate.
According to the rankings, Chinese Taipei is second, with the United States third, Korea fourth, Mexico fifth and Venezuela, the Netherlands, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Australia completing the top 10.
On paper, the United States looks like it should be the runaway winner as it enters this year’s tournament with a phenomenal squad that includes Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Trea Turner, Time Anderson and Cedric Mullings. But baseball is a hugely unpredictable sport and the WBC even more so — in 2006 the U.S. team included Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones and they failed to reach the quarterfinals.
Japan also remains as serious a contender as ever. Starting with the home advantage and with 2021 American League MVP Shohei Ohtani, who missed the 2017 tournament, Japan are a serious contender and arrive at the tournament having won the Olympic gold medal in 2021.
The Dominican Republic has fielded an exceptionally strong team, with Manny Machado, Jeremy Pena, Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Willy Adames all on the roster. While Mexico, Venezuela and even Cuba all have some significant MLB talent on the books.
Korea, meanwhile, arrives in Tokyo looking for some much needed redemption.
Despite having one of the strongest baseball traditions in the world and a highly competitive league, Korea’s performance at recent international tournaments has been hanging over the country’s legions of baseball fans for six years.
Korea failed to advance at the 2017 WBC, losing to Israel in the opening game and never regaining their footing. Korea struggled again at the 2020 Olympics, limping through into the knockout stage and making it all the way to the semifinals, but losing to the United States and then to the Dominican Republic in the bronze medal game to leave Tokyo empty-handed.
Korea arrives back in Tokyo this time around with what ought to be a fairly robust squad. Kim Ha-seong and Tommy Edman provide Team Korea with a small but powerful major league contingent, with Kim Kwang-hyun, Yang Hyeon-jong, Park Byung-ho and Kim Hyun-soo all also experienced in the big leagues.
Outfielder Lee Jung-hoo, expected to head to the majors next year, has already been singled out as one of the key players to watch at the tournament.
Lee, the 2017 KBO Rookie of the Year and reigning MVP, is a prolific hitter with a KBO-leading career .342 batting average. No player has recorded more hits than Lee over the six seasons since he entered the league, at 1,076, and he is also first in doubles over the same period, at 221, third in total bases, at 1,556, and in runs, at 531.
But despite the fire power, Korea’s performance in the lead up to the tournament has been concerning.
Korea lost 4-2 to Nippon Professional Baseball reigning champions the Orix Buffaloes in a tune-up game on Monday, with three fielding errors underlining some significant concerns, two at the hands of shortstop Oh Ji-hwan and one from replacement shortstop Kim Ha-seong.
Korea played far better in their final tune-up game on Tuesday, beating the Hanshin Tigers 7-4, capitalizing on some solid knocks despite still looking a little sloppy on the mound and on defense.
Injury concerns are also an issue already, with veteran third basement Choi Jeong struggling with some minor injuries and closer Go Woo-suk leaving Monday’s game with neck pain. The Korean team announced Tuesday that Go would undergo some testing at a WBC-designated hospital, but his condition is said to be improving.
The 2023 WBC kicks off on Wednesday as Cuba face the Netherlands at Taichung Stadium in the opening game, followed onto the same field by Panama and Chinese Taipei.
Korea’s tournament starts at midday on Thursday as they take on Australia at Tokyo Dome, with Japan facing China later in the day.
Korea will face Japan in their second game on Friday, breaking for a day before taking on the Czech Republic on Sunday and China on Monday.
Pool C and Pool D games will begin on Friday.
The quarterfinals start on March 15, with the semifinals beginning on March 19 and the final on March 21.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]