Mar 5, 2013

The WBC Post Mortem (or 4 Positives and 2 Negatives to take away from a trip to Taiwan)

Success breeds increased expectations. The history books are filled to the brim with examples of performances not living up to the - often unrealistic - expectations of a public with an insatiable appetite for winning. Nowhere is this truer than in Australia, and we don't have to look far to find examples of sports stars who rapidly transform from our number one champion to a second class citizen after failing to live up to expectations. Think of the (admittedly media driven) disappointment we felt about the 2012 Olympic team, and about guys like James Magnusson. Hero one day, pariah the next.

It's against this sort of context that I want to examine the Team Australia performance at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

In relative terms, Aussie baseball fans have been spoilt in recent years. We have seen huge numbers of Aussies playing minor league ball, a steady flow (or drip) of Major League players, and we have had the reinstatement of the Australian Baseball League. Rekindling the ABL gave us the chance to watch some of the premier talent in Aussie baseball up close and personal. It let us get on board the bandwagons of up and comers like Adamson, Kandilas, the Kennellys, Searle and Kent. And it drew us in to some great stories - Hughes trying to work his way back to the bigs; guys like Josh Roberts bursting on to the scene, and veteran players like Ox, Thomas, Snelling and Huber looking to keep the dream alive. While it has not yet had the surge of fan engagement that the A-League (or even the NBL!) has had, people have started to buy in to the League, which is great

So of course, when the 2013 Classic rolled around, it was easy to have high hopes. We picked a team that had a mix of seasoned veterans, stars of the ABL, and some young prospects. We landed in a group that on paper, in theory, posed a challenge that could reasonably be surmounted. We saw some positive signs in the warm up games. So we bought in, we built up our hopes.

In the wash up of the tournament, we are left wondering what could have been. We are stuck looking at with pretty stark numbers on the scoreboard:

  • In three games, Australian pitchers gave up 14 runs
  • At the same time, we were able to score just two
  • Aussie hitters struck out 23 times in 27 innings
  • At the same time, we could manage to strike out only ten opposition hitters
  • We went 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position, and
  • We hit into more double plays than I care to count.

It wasn't fun (well it kind of was, but the outcome hurt). It was disappointing. It was often slow, and it hurt. You only need to take a look through a few tweet streams (or follow #AusWBC) to get a sense of the slowly unveiling dissatisfaction at the results.

As a fan, it is really, really easy to play the role of manager, GM, coach and player. And in the aftermath of a painful, dissatisfying campaign, it is all too tempting to call for change, or to criticize. The reality is that most of us are far too remote from the realities of the team, and are in no way qualified to make these calls - although it can feel good!

As a way of coming to terms with my disappointment, I thought i'd try and look at some facts. Without overstating things, and without hyperbole. And if at all possible, to highlight some positives.

Fact One: our pitching was better than the 2009 campaign.

There can't really be any disputing this. We allowed 14 runs this time round. Last time we allowed 28. In my book, that's a bloody great improvement. It was no fluke either. We saw high quality pitching performances from a wide range of pitchers.

Fact Two: our offense just couldn't match it on the international stage.

On the whole, to call our offense anaemic woud be understating it. We. Had. Nothing. We couldn't string together rallies, we couldn't get on base, and at times we looked comprehensively outclassed. This is the biggest challenge for the future Team Australia: where is the offense coming from?

Fact Three: We do have a few hitters who showed genuine promise at a young age.

Stefan Welch was in my opinion the best hitter in the lineup. He showed patience, discipline and mental toughness. He ground out his at bats and took what was offered to him. Likewise US-born Mike Walker showed promise. He took a number of mature at bats, and showed he could hit top class pitching. Tim Kennelly was also impressive, although it looks like his immediate future will see him on the mound, and Corey Adamson showed potential to develop further.

Fact Four: The ABL still has a way to go to reach a premier level of competition...

Mitch Dening was one of the league leaders in hitting in 2012-2013. In 42 games (173 ABs) he hit .347 with five home runs.

In 44 games, Brad Harman hit .259 with six home runs.

In 28 games, Justin Huner hit .220 with two home runs.

Between them, these guys went THREE FOR THIRTY ONE. That is .096 average. Yes, the conditions weren't ideal. Yes they faced a hostile crowd in one game. But ultimately the reason for the low average was the calibre of the pitching they faced. This really highlights the gap in pitching quality between the ABL and other international leagues.

Fact five: ...But there were glimpses of brilliance from ABL pitchers (and the bullpen generally)

While each of the games got away from Team Australia's pitchers, a couple of ABL pitchers really stood up.

Chris Oxspring threw 7.2 innings (including five innings of 1 hit ball today), allowing a respectable three earned runs.

Andrew Russell threw two solid innings, allowing just one hit and one walk.

Steve Kent threw two innings, allowing just one hit.

Brendan Wise threw 1.1 innings allowing just one hit.

In addition to the performances from the ABL representatives, we also saw respectable performances from Rowland-Smith and Tanner.

Fact six: we got to give some youngsters exposure to the world stage.

Some of our young talent got the chance to play in a high level, competitive tournament. Kandilas, Adamson, Roberts, Saupold, Tanner, Russell among others all got to play. They will be better for it next time round.

All in all, we can take away some positives from the tournament. I will be interested to see if anyone ends up with a contract as a result of the trip, and also to see what happens with qualifying for the next WBC. On a plus note, I think the tournament demonstrated that there is a growing community of supporters in Australia, and the banter and support shown over social media was a personal highlight for me. I hope it can continue.

So, all in all, I'd like to congratulate the team and support staff and the ABF. Thanks for your efforts, I look forward to cheering you on next time!