Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The New Double Elimination Format of the WBC - Good or Bad?

The 2009 World Baseball Classic has a somewhat different format than its 2006 predecessor. We're here to discuss those changes in detail.

Double Elimination vs. Round Robin

The first major change is that the first and second rounds of the tournament are no longer a 4-team round robin with the two teams with the best record advancing. Instead, it is a mini 6-game double elimination tournament. The round robin tournament is ideal for soccer and other sports that often have matches come to a draw - however there are no ties in baseball even in this wacky WBC, which makes the double elimination option much more appealing. The double-elimination tournament format is seen below (for the Japanese leg of the tournament).

The chief drawback of the 2006 Round Robin format is that sometimes no clear winners are produced, such as in 2006 when the US, Mexico, and Canada all finished with a record of 2-1, and South Africa finished with a record of 0-3. In this instance, by way of tie-breaker, Canada was given the short stick and Mexico and the US advanced. I think Canada had a right to be angry.

With the new format, by design the teams are funneled in a manner that doesn't allow for ties. Sounds great right? Well, almost. The weird quirk in this system is that a meaningless "final" between the top two teams is played at the end of the tournament. We already know that the two teams in the final will be advancing to the next round - all that's left to play for is relatively unimportant seeding. This quirk has the odd result making the most appealing game from a team standpoint, the least appealing game from a competitive standpoint (since it is the only "meaningless" game played). Venezuela vs. the US is a most appealing match-up, but will it attract eyeballs if it doesn't matter? Of course, another option is to not bother to play the game at all, but then of course, you're taking away a marquee matchup, and MLB wants that cash.

Another issue with the redesign is that oftentimes, teams can play each other twice, while not playing another team at all. This is alright, but does leave open the question of fairness, something I hope to explore in my next post.

Crossing the Brackets

The other major change that has occured is that the brackets that feed into the semifinals will be crossed. You can check out what I mean by this here. In other words, instead of the winner and runner-up from Pool 1 playing each other and likewise from Pool 2, the winner of Pool 1 will play the runner-up of Pool 2 and vice-versa. This is a positive change, because it prevents the repetitive play between the same two teams. In 2006, Japan and Korea played each other 3 times - once in the first round, once in the second round, and once in the semi-finals - the hope here is that that won't happen again.

This change was made absolutely necessary by the Double Elimination change discussed above. Otherwise, the top two teams from Pool 1 would being playing each other in a meaningless Pool 1 game, directly before they played again in the Semi-Finals.

I approve of this change, but I think it could be taken one step further. Currently, the set-up is that the top two teams from both Pool A and B come together to form the second round Pool 1. The top two from Pools C and D come together to form the second round Pool 2. In my mind, it would be preferable to mix up the teams further, so that each of Pool 1 and Pool 2 both include teams from all 4 first round pools.

In this scenario, Pool 1 would perhaps be composed of by the Winners of Pool A and Pool C and the Runner-ups of Pools B and D. Pool 2 would then take the Winners of Pool B and Pool D and the Runner-ups of Pools A and C. This would guarantee a variety of teams in each pool and spare us redundant matchups like Korea vs. Japan.

The need to eliminate redundancy is especially so, because of the double elimination style of the pools, which means that under the current rules, two teams could play each other 5 times over the course of a tournament (twice in the first round, twice in the second round, and once in the finals). Considering the team will be playing no more than 8 games total, this is too many. Added is the fact that much of the appeal of World Baseball Classic is the novelty of it, and that tends to wear off after so many matchups against the same team. Considering there is no real disadvantage to mixing up the teams in the above manner, the decision to do so should be a no-brainer, and it's curious to see why they chose not to.


Overall, both of these changes are definitely positive ones, and it shows that someone in Bud Selig's office is really trying to improve the tournament. But, with a little more thinking it could be even better!