Saturday, February 24, 2024

2023 World Baseball Classic: How – and if – injuries can affect the tournament, before, during and after

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The World Baseball Classic will make its return next week following a lengthy absence, as the tournament’s first game is scheduled to take place on Tuesday. The 2021 edition of the WBC was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning this will be the first action the tournament has seen since Team USA won the championship game over Puerto Rico on March 22, 2017. 

That’s a long time in real-world and baseball terms, so it’s only natural to have forgotten about the WBC’s innermost workings. Consider, for the purposes of this article, the role that past, present, and future injuries play in the shaping of the tournament. Really consider them now, because it’s time to transition to three handy-dandy subheadings that help explain the finer details.

1. Pre-existing and old injuries can thwart plans

That may read like a self-evident statement, but we’re not just talking about the obvious cases, like, say, New York Yankees lefty Nestor Cortes. Cortes was supposed to pitch for Team USA until he tweaked his hamstring during camp and was forced to withdraw from the tournament

There are also cases like those of Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw. Although Kershaw is hearty and hale, he too had to withdraw from Team USA this spring. The reason? Kershaw’s past injury issues reportedly made it difficult for him to secure an insurance policy — a requirement for every player who wants to suit up during the tournament.

“I really wanted to be a part of that group, probably my last chance to do it, so I really wanted to do it,” Kershaw told reporters. “But just didn’t work out for a number of reasons. Disappointing, but that’s OK, I’ll be ready for the season and ready to go.”

Elsewhere, the Atlanta Braves eventually gave the go-ahead to star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. to suit up for Venezuela, but his situation served as a pertinent reminder that teams have the right to say no if players meet the following injury-related parameters:

  • Spent 60 total days on the injured list during the most recent MLB season, including at least 15 of the final 60 days of the season.
  • Were physically unable to play in two of his team’s last three games in the most recent season (regular season or postseason games).
  • Had surgery since last Opening Day or is scheduled to have surgery in the future.
  • Were on the injured list on the last day of August of the most recent MLB season.

While those restrictions dictate who gets to partake in the tournament, there are also a set of rules governing who gets to pitch in any given game.

2. WBC teams take cautious approach

Indeed, WBC managers have to abide by the following usage rules when it comes to how they deploy individual pitchers throughout the tournament:

  • Maximum 65 pitches per game during Pool Play.
  • Maximum 80 pitches per game during the Quarterfinal Round.
  • Maximum 95 pitches per game during the Championship Round.
  • Minimum four days of rest after a 50-pitch outing.
  • Minimum one day of rest after a 30-pitch outing.
  • No pitching back-to-back-to-back days at any point.

It should be noted that the above rules haven’t stopped players from getting hurt in past WBC. Most recently, veteran lefty Drew Smyly suffered a flexor strain as part of the 2017 tournament. He later had to undergo Tommy John surgery, costing him the entire ensuing campaign. 

Of course, as Smyly’s general manager at the time, Jerry Dipoto, said, “injury is injury and it can happen at any time in any place.” Besides, there’s little evidence suggesting the WBC enhances injury likelihood in a meaningful way.

3. Does the WBC actually lead to more injuries?

We don’t mean that last statement in the vein of “the absence of evidence is evidence itself,” either — and you don’t have to take our word for it.

The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh delved into the data back in April 2017 and concluded that “the evidence of an injury effect isn’t strong enough to justify preventing players from participating, especially since a well-populated tournament is so much fun for fans  — and, in the long term, potentially beneficial for baseball, which in turn enriches teams.”

Whether it’s because of the guidelines that limit participation (both in the tournament and in games), or because of luck, or because of some combination thereof, the data suggests everyone should be able to take a deep breath and enjoy the WBC without feeling anxious or guilty about someone’s MLB season getting derailed over the coming weeks.

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