Spring training is in full swing, or as full swing as spring training ever gets. But this year, and every third or fourth year (they haven’t quite made up their minds), the Canadian baseball-watching public has the privilege of choosing between two March products: Blue Jays spring training and the World Baseball Classic.
Spring training baseball isn’t ideal: pitchers throw nothing but curveballs for two-innings, split squads mean half the team’s regulars are two hours away playing a local junior college team, and Devon Travis doesn’t leave the batters box after he makes contact. Plus, it’s all captured with the single-camera production value of a local public access TV station.
This doesn’t mean Jays spring training is entirely unwatchable. One of the most prominent stories this spring has been the continued evolution of superstar third baseman, Josh Donaldson – both in his hitting approach and choice of jewelry.
This spring, Donaldson’s always-changing approach to hitting has seen him act as a vocal proponent of generating lift on the baseball to avoid hitting grounders. Elevate and celebrate. Similarly, as Joanna at Hum and Chuck pointed out, his always-evolving approach to fashion has him incorporating element’s of 90s style icon George Michael into his 2017 aesthetic, a departure from last year’s more Nordic warrior-at-Mardi-Gras look.
The now en vogue flyball approach to hitting has worked well for several other major league players – notably, J.D. Martinez and Jason Castro. This spring has also seen others, including Minnesota’s Max Kepler, argue for a line-drive centred approach to hitting that worked well for Barry Bonds. With the jury still out on which approach is ultimately more effective, it appears as though Blue Jays like Justin Smoak and Melvin Upton Jr. have opted to forgo making any contact until more definitive results are available.
In addition to debates over batted ball profiles, tuning in to Jays spring training can help answer other hotly debated questions. Questions like which is more important: to add muscle like Connor Green or stay lean like Russell Martin, and is Justin Smoak actually Freddie Freeman in disguise?
Even with important questions, the World Baseball Classic seems like the easy choice for most watchable March baseball – a best-on-best international tournament featuring all of the world’s greatest baseball powerhouses. And Australia. And Israel. And Italy.
After Canada’s showing in the round robin this week, some might even throw Canada in the latter group. I’d argue Joey Votto is in a different class than Chris Collabello. Then again, given the lax WBC roster regulations, Votto likely qualifies to play for Italy, too. But don’t judge the tournament too harshly – the Classic is more fun (and inclusive) when players aren’t required to be born in the country they represent. And remember, even Olympic hockey has Belarus.
Upsets have made the tournament entertaining. Italy walked off the far superior team Mexico (and Blue Jays’ closer Roberto Osuna). Team Israel upset South Korea and Cuba. If you remove the rigid WBC pitch count regulations, Jose Quintana and team Columbia may have upset the United States during Friday night’s round robin match-up as well.
Some of the competitive imbalance lies with Major League baseball – clubs fear their players will be injured if they take part and the players themselves are often hesitant to participate. While most of the Latin American stars are more than willing to leave camp to don their home nation’s colors (and corresponding corporate sponsor’s logo), many of North America’s best players are unwilling to participate.
Mike Trout has declined to participate as his departure from Angels camp would make the team entirely unwatchable. America’s best pitchers, like Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner, have also passed on playing. While Kershaw has likely deemed the chance of injury not worth the risk, the ultra-competitive Bumgarner simply would never play in a tournament with pitch limits or communists.
Canada’s Joey Votto, who was disappointed with his .326/.434/.550 season in 2016, decided to skip the tournament to try and put together a stronger 2017. And according to some in Cincinnati, he still doesn’t care enough to drive in runs? Team Canada was also missing several of their elite talents in Russ Martin (injury-related insurance claim), Michael Saunders (integrating with a new team), and James Paxton (doesn’t get paid enough to take the month off from his regular job…yet).
While the US is able to absorb these kinds of losses and still field a team that features Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Chris Archer, Canada has needed to get a little more creative in order to fill out their roster. And they aren’t the only team. Stars of yesteryear take center-ish stage at the World Baseball Classic. From Ryan Dempster and Eric Gagne for Canada, to Joel Pineiro and J.C Romero with Team Puerto Rico, the WBC features a healthy amount of 40-something former MLBers.
Dempster and Pineiro might not provide the same type of elite talent that Votto and Kershaw would, but watching Eric Gagne try to sneak his fastball by the best hitters in the Dominican Republic is far more entertaining than you think. It’s definitely more entertaining than seeing a pitcher of a similar ilk (Mat Latos, I’m looking at you) try and do the same thing down in Dunedin. And unlike a spring training game, that Dominican lineup isn’t getting pulled after the fourth inning so Manny Machado and Robison Cano can make their 5 pm tee-time.
There’s still a lot to like with the Classic, even in its current form. The pitch counts tie managers’ hands, but that doesn’t stop them from mismanaging their bullpens (just use Andrew Miller already) and even in a worse case scenario – if players do hurt themselves – it won’t be during pitcher fielding practice. The new-age, extra-innings rules might not be endorsed by baseball purists, but the tournament features a lot more of baseball’s best players doing best player things than an average spring training game.
Whether its MLB all-stars like Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez suiting up for Venezuela or lesser-known Canadians like Scott Diamond, the players that participate in the tournament care deeply about it. So much so that baseball’s bat-flip policeman and walking contradiction, Rougned Odor, pimped a single of his own during a “big” at bat against team Italy on Monday night.
The rowdiness of the teams on the field and the crowds in the bleachers make for a fun and entertaining viewing experience. Even when that viewing experience involves the pastel nightmare that is Marlins Park.
If we are going to watch Jose Bautista hit 400-foot home runs and Roberto Osuna meltdown in early March, I’d rather the backdrop of baseball’s marquee international tournament instead of the single-A stadiums of the Grapefruit League.
Flawed as it may be, the WBC does provide a more entertaining brand of March baseball than its spring training counterpart – one that should be embraced and hopefully grown, or at the very least, available to watch on MLB.tv. So enjoy the World Baseball Classic in all its glory. Jays spring training in all its kinda, sorta glory will be waiting for you when its finished.
Lead Photo: © Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports