We continue our WBC Pool previews with Pool B: Tokyo.
About the Venue: The Tokyo Dome is the largest baseball stadium in the largest metropolitan area in the world and the go-to place for MLB events in Japan. Holding over 45 thousand fans for baseball, the air-supported dome is normally home to the Yomiuri Giants, the most successful team in Japanese baseball. The “Big Egg” has symmetrical dimensions (329 to the corners, 375 to the alleys, 400 to center) and has over the years also played host to concerts, boxing (including Mike Tyson‘s infamous defeat at the hands of Buster Douglas), professional wrestling, NFL exhibition games, and mixed martial arts. It is also the location of Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame.
About The Pool: It’s not quite accurate to call this the “Pacific pool”, since the Czech Republic is there, but it’s pretty close: four of the five teams are on the Pacific Ocean. Japan and Korea are definitely the big names here, but Australia is always scrappy and could pull an upset. China and the Czech Republic will likely prove canon fodder to the larger teams but should still be interesting to watch given how rarely we see their players against top competition.
Go below the jump for the full preview.
About The Country: Japan is an ancient nation, traditionally said to have been founded in 660 BC. For most of that time, it existed with relatively little interaction with the outside world outside of the occasional war with Korea.
That all changed in 1853, when a small force of the United States Navy, led by Admiral Matthew Perry, arrived in Japan to demand that it be opened to traffic and commerce. The arrival of Western influence shocked the Japanese, leading to reforms and programs that led the nation to grow from hermit kingdom to one of the world’s leading empires within a century, a period that ended only with Japan’s defeat in WWII. Scarred by the war and with a new constitution that prevented it from actually having a military (something it has only recently moved away from), Japan became an economic power, a hub of global trade and technological innovation. It remains the world’s third-largest economy despite slow growth since the late 1980s.
Fun fact: It would have been entirely possible for a Japanese person to have been born under the rule of feudal leaders and later die in an atomic bombing. This would be roughly the equivalent of somebody in the West being born in the Middle Ages and dying in the 20th century.
Baseball History: Japan was introduced to baseball by a teacher named Horace Wilson, who introduced it to some of his students there. And in the decades after that, its popularity skyrocketed as Japan became more industrialized, although it remained strictly amateur until the 1930s. The beginnings of Japan’s professional baseball came about because of Major League Baseball in general and Babe Ruth in particular, as a barnstorming tour by the Great Bambino caused baseball to become even more popular than before. In 1936, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper conglomerate founded the first professional team in Japan, the Yomiuri Giants, primarily out of players who had distinguished themselves against the Americans. After WWII, the Japanese again turned to baseball, founding Nippon Pro Baseball in 1950.
Although other foreign sports like soccer have made inroads, baseball remains the most popular sport in Japan. The National High School Baseball Championship, or Koshien, is a cultural phenomenon in the country perhaps even greater than America’s “March Madness” for college basketball.
International Baseball History: The Japanese have perhaps embraced international baseball more than any country since the start of the WBC, with “Samurai Japan” (the name for the national team) playing occasional friendly games even when there isn’t a big tournament coming up. This attention to the national team has helped lead Japan to the top spot in WBSC world rankings.
Japan has won two WBCs (the first two installments in 2006 and 2009), the 2020/21 Olympics (as well as the demonstration sport 1984 Olympics), the 2019 Premier12, and 17 Asian Championships.
Road to the WBC: Automatically qualified.
Japan’s Baseball League: Nippon Pro Baseball, or the NPB, is generally regarded as the second-best baseball league in the world, behind only MLB. Generally regarded as being somewhere between AAA and MLB in talent, the organization has 12 teams in two league playing 143 games (yes, they play an odd number of games).
The NPB also has farm leagues, and there are also some independent leagues that play in areas of Japan that lack NPB franchises.
Japanese MLB Players: A total of 73 people born in Japan have played in MLB, although some of them have been Americans born on US military bases there. Notable former players include future Hall of Famer and candidate for most-interesting-man-in-the-world Ichiro Suzuki, Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui, and pioneering pitcher Hideo Nomo. Notable current players include Padres ace Yu Darvish, Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki, new Red Sox acquisition Masataka Yoshida, and Angels pitcher/hitter/freak-of-nature Shohei Ohtani. And… all four of those guys are playing! This is a departure from some previous years, where they at times struggled to get MLB players to take part (Matsui, for example, once infamously turned down an invite from Sadaharu Oh himself).
Notable names: In a rare twist, Team Japan also will have a “passport player”- Lars Nootbaar of the Cardinals. The son of a Japanese mother, Nootbaar is best known for his defense and led the NL in double-plays as an outfielder last season.
If you are really tuned in to baseball, you may recognize some of the NPB players due to reports they may one day make the jump to MLB. I’ll cover them below.
Highest Achievers: The cream of the NPB crop is here. Remember Roki Sasaki, the guy who struck out 19 people in the first perfect game in Japan in decades? He’s here. Munetaka Murakami, who broke Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record for most HR by a Japanese player in NPB history last year while also winning the Triple Crown? He’s here- and he’ll be coming to MLB after the 2025 season. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who has won two straight Sawamura Awards (the equivalent of the Cy Young) and the 2022 Pacific League MVP? He’s here.
Outside of the USA and the Dominican, there is no roster as deep and with so high a number of high achievers.
Ones to Watch: The youngest player on Samurai Japan is 20-year-old pitcher Hiroto Takahashi, who had a 2.47 ERA in 19 games last season. Murakami is the youngest position player, but infielder Shugo Maki, 24, was third in OPS in the Central League last season, behind only Murakami and former big-leaguer Domingo Santana.
Manager/Coaching Staff: Managing Samurai Japan this year is Hideki Kuriyama, who skippered the Nippon Ham Fighters from 2012 to 2021, including a 2016 Japan Series title. He’s notable as being one of the men who helped mold Ohtani into the professional he is now. The pitching coach for Japan is former big-leaguer Masato Yoshii, who now manages the Chiba Lotte Marines in the NPB.
Outlook: For years, Japan has had the problem that some of their players in MLB haven’t been able to take part. This year, that isn’t a problem. They would have been a favorite regardless, but the team this year puts them in the same realm as the USA and Dominican as the top threats to win the tournament.
About The Country: Like Japan and China, the history of the Korean Peninsula is long, complicated and often violent.
Its current divided state, however, can be traced back to the end of World War II. Korea had been under occupation by Japan for most of the first half of the twentieth century, and when the dust settled from the war the United States and USSR agreed to administer one half of the peninsula until elections could be done in order for the Korean people to choose their own government. Cold War tensions led to this never happening, and soon two rival governments were formed: the Soviet-supported Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the US-supported Republic of Korea in the south. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, leading to a US-led “police action” to save the peninsula from Communist rule. After the arrival of Chinese “volunteers” in late 1950, the two sides entered a stalemate until a truce was made in 1953. There is still no peace treaty, so the two Koreas remain technically at war.
Since then, South Korea has grown into an economic powerhouse with a democratic government, while North Korea has become a dystopian dictatorship that spends more money on nuclear weapons than it does feeding its own people. Needless to say, the “Korea” that takes part in the the WBCt is South Korea.
Baseball History: Baseball came to Korea by way of an American missionary named Philip Loring Gillett, who also introduced basketball to the peninsula. However, baseball didn’t truly become popular until the Japanese annexed the Peninsula in 1910. During the Japanese rule of Korea, baseball became both a rare opportunity for conciliation between the two cultures but also a way for Koreans to challenge the Japanese.
After WWII and the Korean War, baseball continued to be popular on an amateur level in South Korea, but it was not until the 1980s that a professional league was formed. The foundation of the Korean Baseball Organization was partially politically motivated, a way to give young men an outlet other than rebellious politics. Although Korean baseball has never truly lost its popularity, it was in a down period before Korea’s showings in international competitions in the late 2000s led to skyrocketing attendance.
Korean baseball saw a sharp increase in American attention in 2020 when ESPN broadcast games from the KBO to help fill time during the COVID-depleted sports schedule.
International Baseball History: Korea is usually one of the best-ranked teams in the WBSC rankings, and is currently fourth in the most recent ranks. They’ve won the 2008 Olympics, the 2015 Premier12, the 1982 World Cup, and eight Asian Championships. They finished second in the WBC in 2009.
Japan-Korea is the biggest rivalry in international baseball, and Korea’s national team can largely be defined by how well they do against their Asian rivals. Every showdown between the two is going to be must-watch television.
Road to the WBC: Automatically qualified.
Korea’s Baseball League: The Korean Baseball Organization League, or KBO, is generally regarded as the second-best league in Asia (behind NPB) and one of the top outside of MLB. Most say that the KBO is probably between AA and AAA in level, although it can vary from team-to-team and player-to-player. There are ten teams in KBO and they play a 144-game schedule.
The KBO also has a minor league, the Futures League.
Korean MLB Players: A total of 28 Korean players have appeared in MLB games, although some of them are Americans who were adopted from Korea or were born on military bases there. Ha-Seong Kim of the San Diego Padres is the lone “true” Korean active in MLB who is taking part in the WBC, but….
Notable names: …like Japan the Koreans have a rare “passport player”, the half-Korean Tommy Edman. The 2021 Gold Glover’s mother is from Korea.
You may also know some other names from the roster who have had stints in MLB. Pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim spent part of two years with the Cardinals, while Hyeon-Jong Yang pitched in 12 games with the Rangers in 2021.
Among position players, 1B ByungHo Park had a brief disastrous stint with the Twins but has since returned to raking in Korea, and Hyun-Soo Kim hit .273 in parts of two seasons with the Orioles and Phillies.
Highest Achievers: Like their counterparts in Japan, the Koreans are bringing most of their best KBO players to the tournament. The soon-to-be-36-year-old corner infielder Jeong Choi, for example, is second all-time in HRs in KBO history. Another veteran, Ui-Ji Lang, has been catcher for Korea at several previous tournaments and is a two-time Korean Series MVP. The 34-year-old Yong Chan Lee will be one of several capable relievers and is the oldest of the pitchers on the roster.
Ones to Watch: The Koreans have a strong young core of players that may one day jump to America. Chief among them is Jung Hoo Lee, a 24-year-old outfielder who was the KBO MVP last season after slashing an absurd .349/.421/.575. He’s expected to be posted to MLB after this season and doubtless plenty of scouts will have their eye on his this spring.
And definitely keep an eye on the Koreans’ young pitching staff: eight of their pitchers are 25 or under, including 20-year-old lefty Eui Lee Lee, who finished fourth in strikeouts last year in the KBO.
Manager/Coaching Staff: Kang Chul Lee, a former pitcher in KBO, will skipper the Koreans this year. He normally manages the KBO team the KT Wiz.
Outlook: The Korean team is a good mix of age and youth, and a well-rounded team overall. Barring an upset by Australia, they should have no problem getting through the pool and may even stand a chance of upsetting Japan. While perhaps not among the top favorites, they have a chance to become a dark horse contender to win the tournament.
About The Country: Long inhabited by an Aboriginal population, Western colonization of Australia began in the 1780s when Great Britain began to ship prisoners there, forming a penal colony in what is now Sydney.
The nation became de-facto independent from the UK in 1901 with the adoption of a constitution, and slowly became more and more officially independent as the 20th century went on (finally becoming absolutely and completely independent in 1986 when some remaining technicalities were closed).
Australia is best known to outsiders for its unique wildlife, such as the kangaroo, koala bear and platypus. Its capital is Canberra.
Fun fact: Australia is the only country to have had troops fight alongside the United States in every major conflict since 1914.
Baseball History: The first baseball in Australia was played by American expats and their friends in the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that the first organized teams were formed. The sport received more attention during the World Tours of barnstorming MLB players in the 19th and early 20th century. By the time American servicemen arrived in Australia during WWII, there was a small but devoted amateur culture of baseball, one that has survived to this day.
However, baseball has not yet been able to get permanently get past that amateur status, with two professional leagues (the Australian Baseball league of 1989-99 and the International Baseball League of Australia of 1999-2002) failing and a complete lack of professional baseball until the new Australian Baseball League was formed with MLB help in 2009.
International Baseball History: Australia currently sits tenth in the WBSC rankings. While never a true power, they have had a history of playing up to their opponents and pulling off stunning upsets, most notably their run in the 2004 Olympics, where they beat Japan en route to a silver medal. Australia hasn’t had much success in the WBC, though, with only two wins in four tournaments.
Road to the WBC: Automatically qualified.
Australia’s Baseball League: The Australian Baseball League, initially founded with help from MLB, has been around as a winter league (Australian Summer) since 2009. The league has eight teams, with one in New Zealand and another (Geelong Korea) made up entirely of Korean players. Teams play around 40 games, usually on weekends.
The level of play is generally regarded as being perhaps that of high A-ball, although it varies by season and team. MLB teams can assign minor leaguers to Australia for additional seasoning, and as a result the ABL counts Didi Gregorius, Kevin Kiermaier, Rhys Hoskins, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Mychal Givens as alumni.
Australian MLB Players: A total of 33 Aussies have played in MLB, but sadly for the Baseballroos they’ll be without the best active Australian player, Liam Hendriks, as he takes time off to fight Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. As a result, the lone player on the roster who had MLB service time last year is OF Aaron Whitefield, who had had two cups of coffee in the big leagues (most recently with the Angels) but still hasn’t gotten a big league hit.
Notable names: There are two other notable Australians who have names you might recognize. Warwick Saupold played parts of three years as a reliever for the Tigers, for example, and 45-year-old Chris Oxspring played five games for the Padres way back in 2008.
Highest Achievers: Other members of the Australian team have played in other respected leagues. Right-handed reliever Todd Van Steensel got as high as AA and had stints in some of the leagues in Latin America, most notably a season in the Mexican League. Infielder Darryl George was at one point in the Japanese minor leagues, while several players have made it as high as AAA in America. One of them, utilityman Tim Kennelly, holds the ABL’s career record in RBIs and hits.
Ones to Watch: The top prospect on the Australian team is Robbie Glendinning. The infielder hit 19 home runs last year in AA for the Royals affiliate.
Manager/Coaching Staff: The manager of Team Australia this year is Dave Nilsson, perhaps the greatest Australian position player of all time and the first Australian to make an All-Star Game, when he represented the Brewers in 1999. His coaching staff includes Astros catching coach Michael Collins and former big league pitcher Graeme Lloyd.
Outlook: This is not one of Australia’s better WBC teams, but they remain the third-best team in this pool and could conceivably pull an upset if they catch one of the top teams unaware.
About The Country: A proud and ancient nation that is famously the birthplace of fireworks, paper, and gunpowder, “China” is almost always meant to designate the People’s Republic of China. The PRC has ruled the mainland since emerging victorious in the Chinese Civil War of the 30s and 40s (with an interruption during WWII). Reforms in the 80s and 90s have essentially led to the abandonment of Communism as economic policy and allowed its growth into a superpower, but politically the Chinese Communist Party remains the only force with any actual power.
Fun fact: Many dialects of Chinese are unintelligible when spoken but are functionally the same language when written.
Baseball actually has a long history in China, being brought there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by students who had studied abroad. By the 20s and 30s, it had become pretty popular, particularly around Shanghai, and it was played by both sides of China’s Civil War, to the extent that one alternate name for the game in China translated to “army ball”. Even after Communists took over the country, it was still being fostered in some corners of Chinese society, especially the military, where it had a champion in Marshal He Long, an early force in the People’s Republic. He (no pun intended) believed that baseball made an excellent training regimen, and encouraged its play in military units.
Then, in the 1960s, it all came to a halt. There are three possible reasons for this, all of which likely have some credibility. For one, Long was purged by the Chinese Communist Party. For another, the Cultural Revolution all-but-banned baseball as an American decadence. And lastly, the economics downturn that came from the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” would have made it difficult for those remaining baseballers to have done much.
Baseball did not truly return to the mainland until the 1980s and 1990s, when it became an Olympic sport and China began to move away from Communism as a economic model. Chinese interest in baseball hit its most recent peak in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, but since then it remains, at best, a niche sport. It is kept alive only due to outside funding (usually from the USA and Japan) and small amounts of government funding that have apparently decreased greatly since baseball lost its permanent Olympics status.
International Baseball History: China is currently rated 30th in the world by the WBSC. They haven’t found the podium in a major competition since a surprise bronze in the 2005 Asian Baseball Championship, and they have had only two wins in the WBC: an upset of Taipei in 2009 and a victory over Brazil in 2013.
Road to the WBC: Automatically qualified, largely because of the expansion of the tournament to 20.
China’s Baseball League: The China National Baseball League is the successor to the China Baseball League, which ceased in 2018. It consists of four teams but has been on hiatus since the beginning of COVID, although teams continue to work out together.
Chinese MLB Players: With the exception of Harry Kingman– a westerner born to missionaries in China- nobody from China has ever played in MLB.
Notable names: The closest thing to a notable name that China has is Ray Chang. Born in America to Chinese immigrants, he played years in the minors, reaching as high as AAA. Upon his retirement, he joined MLB’s efforts to grow the game in China. Now 39, it’s likely this will be his last competitive baseball.
Highest Achievers: There are a few players with experience outside of China who will be playing for the national team. The best of them is likely Yusuke Masago, a Japanese outfielder of Chinese descent who spent six years in the NPB. On the mound, there is Kwon Ju, a Chinese-born Korean who has spent eight seasons in the KBO. Hai-Cheng Gong spent some time in the Pirates system, and the Singapore-born Chinese-American Alan Zhang Carter is a pitcher under contract to the Angels, as well.
Ones to Watch: The Chinese are enigmas and haven’t played outside of the country much since the beginning of COVID. As a result, I’ll be the first to admit I have no idea about almost any of these players- there just isn’t information on most of them.
Manager/Coaching Staff: Dean Treanor, a longtime minor league manager and coach who spent a few years as bullpen coach with the Marlins, is China’s manager. Wang Wei, who holds the trivia-answer status of being the first person to hit a home run in the WBC, is also on the staff.
Outlook: As I’ve said under “Ones to Watch,” China is an enigma. There is no team in the tournament that I know less about. However, from what we do know and based on what we have seen in the past from China, it’s unlikely that they will make much noise.
About The Country: Once half of the nation of Czechoslovakia, the modern Czech Republic came into existence when it and Slovakia peacefully split in the early 90s, not long after the end of decades of Communist rule. It has since grown into a nation with an advanced economy that is part of the European Union and NATO.
The Czech Republic is also known as Czechia (the official “short” name for the country) and, historically, Bohemia. The capital is Prague.
Baseball History: For decades, then-Czechoslovakia had baseball banned, probably due to it’s western connotations (baseball was banned in the People’s Republic of China in the decades following the Cultural Revolution for similar reasons). By the eighties, however, baseball was again being placed, and picked up further interest and government funding when it was added to the Olympics in the late-80s (sadly, because of the sport being dropped from the regular Olympic program, this funding is probably now greatly decreased).
In the 1990s, some baseball-specific facilities began to be built, and, as “Mop-Up Duty” notes, the “Prague Baseball Week” began, an event that Jim Caple of ESPN once named as one of the “Ultimate Baseball Experiences”. In 2005, the Czech Republic hosted the European Baseball Championship, some of which was televised on Czech television.
International Baseball History: This is the Czech Republic National Team’s big break into international competition, having failed in past WBC qualification tournaments and never finishing better than fourth in European Championships.
Road to the WBC: The Czechs shocked the world during the Regensburg Qualifier, beating France and then later top European powers Germany and Spain to win their place in this year’s tournament. The scrappy country’s qualification even led to a documentary being produced.
Czechia’s Baseball League: The Extraliga is the name of the top Czech league. It has ten teams and was founded in 1993. While not as well-regarded as the leagues in the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, it is still one of the better ones in Europe.
Czech MLB Players: Four Czech-born players have made MLB, although none of them in quite awhile.
Notable names: To their credit, the Czech Republic is far less reliant on “passport players” than, say, Italy or Israel. That said, now that they are in the tournament, they have taken on some players of Czech descent. The most notable, by far, is infielder Eric Sogard, who played parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues.
Highest Achievers: Aside from Sogard, the best player on this team is likely Martin Cervenka. A Czech born-and-raised catcher, he made it as high as AAA with the Orioles and Mets organizations and has also seen action in the Dominican League. Other guys with affiliated experience include pitcher Marek Minarik (who had some time in the low minors for the Phillies and Pirates), infielder Vojtech Mensik (who spent time in A-Ball last season for the Angels), and pitcher Jan Novak (who was briefly in the Orioles System).
Ones to Watch: All of them. I’m not joking, this is the most interesting team in the tournament. Why? Because of all the teams this is the one that is most like you and me. Outside of the few professionals and student players, these are people who play as a hobby. Martin Schneider, the star pitcher of the Czech victory over Spain in qualifying, is normally a firefighter. Others work as teachers, accountants, doctors, and other perfectly ordinary jobs that Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish most certainly are not doing.
Manager/Coaching Staff: The team’s manager, Pavel Chedim, is usually a neurologist. See what I mean when I say this team is fascinating? Putting that aside, he has a long history of coaching Czech teams in international competition. He even once coached a Little League World Series team!
Outlook: They won’t be winning the tournament. Heck, if they don’t win their opening game with China it is more likely than not that they won’t even win a game. But the idea that a team made up largely of semi-pros who probably had to ask for time off from work is going to be facing Samurai Japan in front of tens of thousands of people is an amazing story in itself. One could argue, in some way, that the Czech Republic has already won the tournament simply by being there.
Pool Outlook: This is probably the easiest pool to predict. Barring major upset, Japan and Korea will be going through… the only question is the order. I personally think Samurai will hold serve at home. After that, it’s likely Australia. Czechia and China will be fighting for fourth.
- Czech Republic
Up next: Pool C.
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