Every four years, baseball players from around the world come together to compete in an international event that nobody really cares all that much about: the World Baseball Classic.
Oh, sure, it's baseball, and in a time where the only televised baseball tends to be awful spring training games that start to grate after the novelty of the first couple is out of the way. Maybe you'll have it on during dinner, and maybe you'll sort of half-cheer for America in the same way you cheer for the U.S. Rowing squad when you forget to change the channel during the Olympics. But I have yet to meet someone who gets seriously invested in the World Baseball Classic in the way so many of us get invested in our favorite MLB team.
Even so, that doesn't make the WBC a bad thing. At least not on its own. It's where the WBC and MLB overlap that things start to get hairy. Rob Bradford wrote today about the concern for players--especially pitchers--who participate heavily in the tournament and wind up "broken" for the start of the ensuing season.
Exhibit #1 in Bradford's case: Daisuke Matsuzaka, who in 2009 threw 14.2 innings in the World Baseball Classic and then made 12 awful starts for the Red Sox during the regular season.
Exhibits #2 and #3: Joel Hanrahan and Carlos Silva, who were also heavily-used and also struggled during the regular season.
That's some pretty heavy correlation there. Pitch a lot during the WBC, pitch poorly during the regular season. I'm just not convinced that there's causation. Instead, it seems more likely their poor seasons were caused primarily by being poor pitchers.
Silva is the easiest one to pick out here, because he was never really very good. Oh, sure, he had that one year in Minnesota, but by-and-large he's easy to identify as just being a bad pitcher. Just the year before the WBC he had put up an ERA of 6.46.
As for Daisuke, the only reason 2009 looked like such an outlier was because of how ridiculously lucky he had been in 2008. Really, while 2009 was not Daisuke's best year, it also doesn't really look out-of-the-ordinary for him now that we've got some separation from the Houdini act of 2008.
And Hanrahan, for all that he emerged as a dominant closer while with Pittsburgh, had certainly not found himself by that point in Washington. He was much worse to start 2009 than he had been in 2008, but by-and-large he was the same flawed pitcher as before. The dramatic spike in numbers can probably just be chalked up to the volatility of ERA for a reliever, especially given that his peripherals actually improved in his time with Washington that year.
To be fair to Bradford, though, he's not trying to make a case here that the World Baseball Classic is death to pitchers. Not at all. All he's saying is that the Red Sox are concerned about having their players participate, and have reason to be.
And, frankly, he's completely right about that. There's no good that can possibly come from playing in the WBC. If a player treats it like spring training then it might not do them too much harm, but if they take it seriously there's an added risk of injuries and the potential to mess up one's approach to getting ready for the season. If the actual evidence of it doing harm is anecdotal and somewhat flawed, it doesn't need to be any better.
But if Jon Lester ends up throwing 14 innings for the U.S. team and leaves the tournament without having incurred any tangible injury, I'm not going to be any more worried about him than I would be if he went through a typical spring training regimen. There are reasons to be concerned about the WBC, but it's not some sort of death sentence for pitchers.