Competition or exhibition? WBC's pitching rules loom large
PHOENIX — Mark DeRosa said last week that one of his most important jobs as United States manager during the World Baseball Classic is making sure his players understand the tournament is a competition, not an exhibition.
Just two games in, he sort of undercut his own message.
“Obviously, I want nothing more (than) for these guys to repeat as champions and hold up the trophy,” DeRosa said following Sunday's 11-5 loss to Mexico. “But I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize these guys’ big league careers.”
Those two sentences are a good encapsulation of what makes the WBC such an intriguing, but frustrating endeavor.
Sure, it's cool to have an Olympics-style tournament in baseball. But no matter how much players and coaches say they want to win, there are limits to that competitiveness.
Lots of limits, actually. Particularly when it comes to pitching.
DeRosa's comments came in the aftermath of a U.S. pitching meltdown against Mexico. Brady Singer and Daniel Bard both got hit hard and struggled with their command. In a normal, competitive setting, DeRosa probably would have pulled each pitcher before the damage could get worse.
But the U.S. manager's hands were tied. The tournament's rules — along with directives from MLB clubs — make pitching decisions the toughest part of the job for all skippers in the WBC.
Pitchers for all countries are limited to 65 pitches per outing in the first round. If a player throws more than 50 pitches in an outing, he can't pitch for the next four days. If he throws more than 30, he can't pitch the next day. Finally, if he throws on back-to-back days, he must sit out the next day.
And that's just the official rules of the WBC.
Major League Baseball teams — who are allowing their high-priced pitchers to play in the tournament while risking injury — often have even tighter requests of managers.
Some MLB teams don't want their pitchers throwing on back-to-back days. Others don't want them to come into the game in the middle of an inning. Still others don't want them to pitch multiple innings.
It's a big jigsaw puzzle for DeRosa and all the WBC managers. In some games, it goes smoothly. But in others — like against Mexico — it doesn't go well.
“There’s a lot of guys that mean a lot to these big league ballclubs and their seasons,” DeRosa said. “I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize them. I would have loved to have put Kendall (Graveman) back out there after five pitches. I would have loved to put Devin (Williams) back out there after one. But that’s not what we’re doing.”
The trepidation for big league teams is understandable. During a normal year, most MLB pitchers are just starting to ramp up their workload during mid-March spring training games instead of enduring high-stress moments in competitive games.
The worry about potential pitching injuries has also affected the makeup of team rosters. Using the U.S. as an example, the lineup is full of stars like Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, Mookie Betts and Paul Goldschmidt. The pitching staff has a lot of guys casual baseball fans probably haven't even heard of, like Jason Adam or Aaron Loup.
The pinch on pitching staffs isn't just a U.S. problem. Venezuela manager Omar López mentioned some of the same issues.
“The limit in the Classic is 65 pitches but for me it’s 60," López said. "If the limit were 25, mine would be 20 because in any at-bat there is the risk of surpassing the limit. Then I’d be getting phone calls the next day.”
Later he added: "I am a person who always abides by the rules set by any organization. I know the country is extremely important, but so are the organizations.”
Minnesota Twins pitcher Pablo López, who threw for Venezuela on Sunday, echoed his manager's comments.
“The tournament is extremely important, but it is also an extension to the preparation of a long and intense season," Lopez said. "The decision is understandable. Obviously, in the heat of the moment, you feel you’re in midseason with 120 pitches in the tank, but that is not the case.
"It is a decision based on the parameters of the tournament of which I agree with 100%.”
The WBC rules — and MLB requests — might make for strange baseball moments, but it's not clear if fans care much about the restrictions. More than 47,000 packed Chase Field in Phoenix on Sunday, mostly rooting for Mexico, in a raucous atmosphere that only got louder as Mexico's lead increased.
Even an hour after Mexico's win, thousands of fans could be heard in downtown Phoenix celebrating.
“It’s a very beautiful day for all of Mexico, for the tournament, I believe,” Mexico manager Benji Gil said.
AP freelance writer Santos Perez in Miami contributed to this report.