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!



Klattsy said...

Nice article Nathan, and I hate to be a grumpy grouch but when assessing the pitching performance, I think you have to factor the base runners in total, not just hits. We gave up a lot of walks. Control was over the shop at times. But yes, on the whole I think they where good. Having a Blackley for a start, having Moylan and Spence for an innings here and there would be great as well.

The offence was obviously a problem. In hindsight, an injured Snelling and out of form guys may not have been the best idea, but we all picked said players in "our" teams so i'm not to fussed. I am disturbed that when we clearly weren't scoring runs, we made no changes. I was shocked to see no Kandilas/Adamson in the last game. Corey has shown he can match it at the big stage and i'm looking forward to his MiLB season. I'm glad Walker proved me wrong but he was touted as having the hit for power tool to help at this level but I didn't see it. I don't think he did anything Adamson/Kandilas couldn't have done with the bat.

The biggest positive i'd take out of the tournament is the defence. We where superb. A couple of throwing errors but Beresford looked great, Welch could hit the target from 3rd most times. Harman has always been good. No mistakes in the OF, but when Adamson and Kandilas where there with such powerful arms & range it was fun to watch.

I sincerely believe the future is bright with lots of young, talented guys coming through. I just hope they are given a chance to flourish.

You are right though, we follow the players all US season, we watch them succeed in the ABL and we just assume that they will do well on the international stage. The reality is that we are getting there, but not quite world beaters.

Anonymous said...

Nice work breaking down the WBC. I enjoyed your perspective throughout. I didn't realise it to begin, but this did seem like a transitional squad. There are quite a few promising youngsters, and I agree on Welch and Walker. Beresford's defence was outstanding and I was very impressed by it, though I am not sure why as a whole the team was billed as such an incredible defensive unit (not that they were awful).

I am glad that you took some positives away, because it's not as if Australia was totally outclassed. Do you when the team's next tournament is?

Gabriel Fidler
Extra Innings: Baseball Around the World

Nicholas R.W. Henning said...

I found myself questioning the choice of starting pitchers for the game against South Korea and the Netherlands. I felt Searle would have been better used in relief as he seemed underdone in the warm up games. Ruzic had some decent form but I would have started a left hander against the Dutch. I don't see the harm in considering a new Field Manager and some changes to the coaches because it has been the same group (give or take) since the year 2000 and change could be helpful.

Marcus Duquesne said...

Until we get all our top pitches playing it will always be difficult to be competitive at this level. On the hitting side as I stated on Jan 29 we are very thin offensively.Most of our "better" hitters were not in great form in the ABL.Deeble made a comment that most of our signees are pitchers.Well he is a scout as are others on Australian Coaching staff and they just don't sign guys to hit.How do we develop as a baseball nation if we cannot get natural hitters to sign. Do we have natural hitters? It is great that guys get to play MLB a credit to them etc etc.but the truth is Australia has not had a hitter get to this level and be GOOD. Not Hughes not Huber nor Snelling and not the .205 AA hitter Harman.Injuries bad luck etc all play a part but the fact remains. Forget the we were great defensively BS u HAVE to HIT. A lot of people have pumped up Adamson this year. This guy was demoted from adv A to Rookie A last season and still didn't set the world on fire. He needs a much improved year in the states before you get carried away with his potential.The Coaching staff is due for replacement on a number of levels. Not all but certainly Deeble. His strategy of picking injured players because of their names did not pay off eg Snelling, Huber. Plus I think Australia needs some younger blood at the top Deeble has had his turn and done a pretty decent job. His excuses however start to wear a bit thin it usually revolves around our players are beaten up if only I had that player or this player. This year proved that to play for Australia you don't need to be a good ABL performer. So what is the relevance of the ABL to Australian baseball. According to the Australian Manager it has no relevance. So where are the hitters going to come from? The young crop of Aussies signed as position Players....Well the jury is still out on that one!