Who is the team to beat in the World Baseball Classic?

Aside from all these weird new rules, there’s another twist in baseball this March: the return of the World Baseball Classic, the always-entertaining tournament that’s basically baseball’s equivalent of the World Cup. (The rules are also similar, with a 20-team group stage followed by an eight-team knockout round.)

Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been six years since baseball was crowned a true “world champion,” but this year’s edition promises to be worth the wait. MLB stars such as Mike Trout (USA), Shohei Ohtani (Japan), Manny Machado (Dominican Republic) and Francisco Lindor (Puerto Rico) suit up for their respective countries, and the tournament will also introduce American audiences to some of the best players from top foreign leagues such as Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and South Korea’s Korea Baseball Organization. (For example, it was the 2006 WBC where the world first met Daisuke Matsuzaka and his legendary gyroball.)

The WBC officially starts on Wednesday in Taiwan (although thanks to the time difference, it actually started on Tuesday night if you live in the US). But who will be the last team standing after the final game in Miami on March 21? Let’s handicap the field in a few different ways.

Elo ratings

To make our MLB predictions (and our NFL predictions, our NBA predictions, and… you get the idea), FiveThirtyEight uses the Elo rating system, so we thought we’d start by looking at the WBC through same lens.

The WBC is a bit different than the regular championship league, however. Home advantage (for the host nation) is stronger, the spread of talent between teams is greater and blowouts are more frequent. So we made a few changes to Elo for the WBC compared to our usual MLB version.

After accounting for these differences and averaging out the most recent tournament’s final scores, Elo recognizes Japan – and to a lesser extent, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico – as the strongest teams in the WBC.

Japan leads the World Baseball Classic field in Elo

World Baseball Classic 2023 teams ranked by pre-tournament Elo ratings

Rk Club W large Come on Rk Club W large Come on
1 Japan 23 8 1563 11 Mexico 7 11 1479
2 Dominican Republic 18 6 1549 12 Panama 0 5 1474
3 Puerto Rico 20 9 1545 13 Canada 3 8 1471
4 South Korea 15 7 1519 14 Chinese Taipei 3 10 1468
5 United States 16 12 1519 15 China 2 10 1456
6 Netherlands 11 13 1516 16 Israel 4 2 1448
7 Cuba 15 11 1505 17 Colombia 1 2 1435
8 Australia 2 10 1485 18 Great Britain 0 0 1420
9 Italy 5 10 1485 18 Nicaragua 0 0 1420
10 Venezuela 12 12 1482 18 The Czech Republic 0 0 1420

New teams receive an initial Elo rating of 1420. Records listed are for all-time WBC appearances.

Source: Wikipedia

That makes sense, as Japan has dominated the WBC over the years, winning more games (23) than any other country while amassing two titles and two more podium appearances in four tournaments. Others from this top group have seen their ratings slip and fall: The Dominican side has been very dominant recently (winning 12 times in 14 matches since the start of the 2013 WBC) after two up-and-down first performances. Likewise, the USA had a history of mediocrity in the WBC until winning it all in 2017, while their finals opponent – Puerto Rico – found another gear during the run to the title, reeling off seven straight wins to start the tournament . Meanwhile, Cuba and South Korea have been more dominant during previous iterations of the WBC – finishing second in 2006 and 2009, respectively – although they still have strong Elo ratings.

MLB talent

But Elo has some disadvantages in the context of an international tournament spanning nearly four years. Obviously, he doesn’t know the details of who is really on each team’s roster. it’s just based on who was good in the WBC in the past, and some teams look very different from their 2017 (and earlier) iterations.

So it’s also useful to look at the amount of talent each team puts on the field as approximated by the wins above replacement their MLB players produced last season:

USA has the most talent in the league

2023 World Baseball Classic teams ranked by 2022 MLB wins above replacement (WAR) on their roster

Rk Club MLB players WAR 2022 Rk Club MLB players WAR 2022
1 United States 29 99.5 11 Israel 8 5.4
2 Dominican Republic 34 65.4 12 Italy 6 4.1
3 Venezuela 26 49.8 13 Cuba 2 3.0
4 Mexico 20 26.9 14 Great Britain 2 2.6
5 Puerto Rico 19 21.1 15 Panama 6 2.5
6 Japan 4 16.7 16 Nicaragua 2 0.9
7 South Korea 2 10.4 17 Chinese Taipei 1 0.1
8 Canada 7 9.8 18 Australia 0
9 Netherlands 5 7.7 18 China 0
10 Colombia 7 7.5 18 The Czech Republic 0

To count toward a country’s total, players had to be currently on the active roster of an MLB team. Each player’s WAR accounted for 162 team games last season. WBC rosters as of March 5, 2023.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

By that standard, the Americans have the strongest WBC team by a comfortable margin. This goes against Elo, but there’s good reason to trust the WAR rankings in this case: America’s baseball stars have had a reputation for being apathetic about the WBC, but Team USA has really stepped up its recruiting efforts this year and added stars like Trout. Mookie Betts and Trea Turner.

The Dominican Republic ranks second (just like in Elo), followed by Venezuela and Mexico, which may be underrated by Elo. Despite a 2-5 record in 2017, Venezuela has a sneaky good roster that includes underrated players like Andrés Giménez, Eugenio Suárez and Luis Arráez. And Mexico has never made it past the second round of the WBC, but don’t sleep on its starting rotation of Julio Urías, Patrick Sandoval and Taijuan Walker.

Elo, meanwhile, might be a bit too high for Puerto Rico, which ranks just fifth in the tournament by WAR. Carlos Beltrán and Yadier Molina were two of his best players when he made his remarkable WBC run in 2017, but both are now retired, and Carlos Correa had to retire from the roster after the birth of his child (and his busy offseason ).

Of course, a WAR-based approach to predicting WBC has its flaws. Clearly, it’s very low in Japan (Elo’s favorite team), South Korea, and probably Cuba too. What do these countries have in common? They each have an established domestic league from which to draw their rosters. And those players would probably produce a lot more than zero WAR if they played in the US

Nippon Professional Baseball is often considered to be somewhere between Triple A and MLB in terms of talent, and you can bet that the players on Samurai Japan’s WBC roster – like Munetaka Murakami, who just broke the single-season record for most games home. Japanese-born shortstop and Roki Sasaki, who followed a perfect game with 19 strikeouts last year by nearly pitching another perfect game in his next start — is closer to the MLB side of the ledger. At the same time, the Korea Baseball Organization has stars like Jung-Hoo Lee, who could be MLB’s next big young player. And while geopolitical decisions and layoffs have made Cuba’s Serie Nacional de Béisbol a shell of its former self, the Cuban WBC team is certainly more talented than its two current major leaguers. Many Cuban players now play in Japan or other foreign leagues.

Betting odds

Clearly, neither Elo nor WAR is a perfect tool on its own for predicting the WBC, so let’s turn to a third: betting odds. While they can be as wrong as the people who set them, probabilities have the advantage of taking into account all of the above factors. And having done that, FanDuel, at least, sees the Dominican Republic as the heavy favorite, just ahead of the USA and Japan:

The Dominican Republic is the betting favorite in the WBC

World Baseball Classic 2023 teams ranked by pre-tournament betting odds

Rk Club Chance Possible Rk Club Chance Possible
1 Dominican Republic +210 26.9%

10 Canada +11000 0.8%
2 United States 260 23.1

10 Chinese Taipei 11000 0.8
3 Japan 280 21.9

13 Australia 12000 0.7
4 South Korea 1300 5.9

13 Colombia 12000 0.7
4 Venezuela 1300 5.9

15 Panama 19000 0.4
6 Mexico 1800 4.4

16 Israel 25000 0.3
7 Puerto Rico 2400 3.3

17 China 32000 0.3
8 Cuba 4200 1.9

17 Great Britain 32000 0.3
9 Netherlands 7500 1.1

17 The Czech Republic 32000 0.3
10 Italy 11000 0.8

17 Nicaragua 32000 0.3

Implied probabilities have the ‘vig’ removed so that the sum of the probabilities of all groups is 100 percent. During screening, ties are broken by Elo rating. Probabilities from March 6, 2023.

Source: FanDuel Sportsbook

It’s hard to go against this Dominican team given the world-beating power they’ll have in every game: Julio Rodríguez, Juan Soto, Machado, Rafael Devers, Wander Franco… plus a pitching staff with Sandy Alcántara and Cristian Javier. But it’s worth noting that even the famous DR only has a 27 percent chance of winning. The format of the WBC — specifically, the one-elimination games that begin March 15 — and baseball’s penchant for single-game randomness make it incredibly easy for a shocking upset to crush the dreams of an entire nation. And the fact that no one has yet seen these teams in action makes them even harder to create a handicap (some people even have to resort to using three different approaches!). So only one thing is certain: The 2023 World Baseball Classic is going to be one hell of a fight.

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