WBC Extra-Inning Rules Mean Well but Fall Short

Last night, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico played a thrilling baseball game that had a little bit of everything: monstrous home runs, defensive gems, a player getting picked off first base by the catcher while celebrating a single, a Javier Baez slide, cleared benches when a fireballing youngster nearly beaned the Japanese home run king, Kenley Jansen wearing orange and black at Dodger Stadium and inducing a groundout from a blue-clad Angel Pagan, and the winning run being scored by a guy who was on base because he grounded into a double play the inning before.

The 2017 version of the World Baseball Classic has been outstanding, but it has not been perfect, and two of the imperfections stand out and threaten to overshadow at least some of the greatness.

The first major hiccup was the miscommunication about the tiebreaker rules in the first round. In Pool D, Puerto Rico was a perfect 3-0, while the other three teams — Mexico, Venezuela, and Italy — all finished 1-2. Somewhere along the way, the tiebreaker rules got interpreted in different ways by (hopefully) different people, such that when the final game ended in an 11-9 Mexico victory over Venezuela, everyone thought Venezuela had been eliminated and Mexico would face Italy in a tiebreaker game to see who would move to Round 2.

(A rough translation of the above tweet from Team Mexico: “Three official MLB media outlets announced the playoff game between Mexico and Italy.” It contains screenshots of MLB.com and tweets from the official WBC account stating that Mexico would play Italy.)

Eventually, the rule was clarified, and it was determined that Venezuela, not Mexico, would play Italy in the tiebreaker game. Venezuela won that game and moved on to San Diego, where it went 0-3 in a stacked Pool F. Several players for Mexico were outspokenly frustrated with the poor communication, and it will be interesting to see if there are lingering issues in four years that will hamper participation.

The second imperfection is ongoing, and the big problem is that it is by design. Going back to the first paragraph, the winning run in last night’s game was scored by Carlos Correa, who followed up Francisco Lindor‘s leadoff single in the bottom of the 10th inning with a double-play grounder. Because of the unique extra-inning rules in place for the WBC, beginning in the 11th inning, teams start every inning with runners on first and second. So after the Netherlands failed to score in the top of the 11th when Edwin Diaz induced a double play from Curt Smith, Puerto Rico started their half of the inning with Correa on second and Kiké Hernandez (who had flied out to end the 10th) on first.

The Puerto Rico half of the inning mirrored the Dutch half, with Yadier Molina laying down a leadoff sacrifice bunt just as Stijn van der Meer had in the top of the inning and Baez being intentionally walked to load the bases just as Yurendell Decaster had been. The mirror image fell apart when Eddie Rosario, instead of hitting into a double play like Smith had, hit a fly ball to Jurickson Profar that was just deep enough to score Correa from third.

Your losing pitcher: Loek Van Mil, who allowed one hit that was immediately erased by a double play.

The logic behind the extra-inning rule is clear: this tournament is essentially an exhibition, and no one wants a situation where a pitcher gets hurt because he was the last arm in the bullpen and had to throw 80 pitches in a 19-inning exhibition game. So they made a rule that would make it easier to score in extra innings and thereby shorten the games. Last night was the third time the new rules have been implemented in the tournament, and it was the third time the 11th inning produced a winner. Hey, the rule works!

Unfortunately, it’s also the third time the top of the 11th inning started with a leadoff sacrifice bunt and the second time that bunt was followed immediately by an intentional walk. Now, I am a fan of baseball history, so I should thrill in seeing something we have literally never seen in a major-league game: a leadoff sacrifice bunt. But I’m able to avoid that temptation by remembering that it would be stupid to thrill in something like that.

I won’t rail against the sacrifice bunt in general. When you’re in a position where one run will win a game for you, it makes sense sometimes. I think the sac bunt is generally overused, but it definitely has its time and place.

My big issue with this rule is simple: it makes the end of the game a totally different contest than the rest. It’s like a soccer game being decided by penalty kicks — forget all that running and passing and ball-handling and strategy; all that matters now is how good you are at penalty kicks. In last night’s game, van Mil got a great hitter to hit into a double play in a key situation, and his reward was seeing that great hitter standing on second base the next inning. A pitcher has two jobs: keep the ball in the ballpark, and keep the other team off the bases. If he does those two things, he will not allow any runs. Unless … well, you know.

Like I said, I understand why they have this rule. And like I also said, it is having the desired effect. But the three plays in the game-winning “rally” were a sac bunt, and intentional walk, and a shallow fly out to center field.

We’ve seen so much passion from the participants in the World Baseball Classic this year. Players are proud to represent their countries in playing the game they love, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. But that beauty is sullied, at least a little bit, when one passionate team gets eliminated because they were worse at something significantly different from the game at hand. Puerto Rico was probably the better team and might have won if the game were played like a regular baseball game; it would have been nice to see that play out.

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