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'Beyond expectations': Experts praise Taiwan's WBC swing

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CNA photo March 11, 2023
CNA photo March 12, 2023

When Taiwan lost to Cuba 7-1 on March 12 at the World Baseball Classic (WBC), it was an opportunity missed.

A win would have sent the team to the WBC quarterfinals in Tokyo. Instead, the loss gave Taiwan a 2-2 record, the same as the other four teams in Pool A, but it finished last because of tiebreakers.

So, was the team's performance a success or a failure?

The 2-2 record would suggest somewhere in between, but two baseball experts, National Taiwan Sport University (NTSU) associate professor Kung Jung-tang (龔榮堂) and veteran baseball commentator Tseng Wen-cheng (曾文誠), gave Taiwan's WBC performance a resounding thumbs-up.

Historically prolific at the plate

"The team's offensive showing was likely the strongest in the history of Chinese Taipei at the WBC," said Kung, who teaches in NTSU's Department of Sports Training Science -- Balls, referring to the name Taiwan plays under in international competitions.

Tseng agreed.

"Though the pitching wasn't as good as expected, the hitting was really good this year. And putting them together, I think we can say the team's overall performance exceeded expectations," he said.

Taiwan had been ranked relatively low by Baseball America and the Score entering the WBC, but it scored 26 runs in its four Pool A games, more than any of the other Pool A teams -- Panama, Italy, the Netherlands and Cuba.

Its on-base percentage (0.317), slugging percentage (0.504) and on-base plus slugging (0.925) also topped the group, and Taiwan had nine players who finished the tournament hitting .300 or better, led by Lin Li (林立) who hit .467.

The 27-year-old Lin was the MVP of Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) in 2022, leading the league in batting average, RBIs and hits.

"Fans have often questioned the team's ability to hit in international competitions, but it proved at the WBC what it can do, even against strong pitchers from other countries," Kung said.

Mound struggles

As well as the team performed at the plate, the struggles of Taiwan's pitchers were impossible to ignore. They surrendered 31 runs and 21 walks in 35 innings pitched in the four games, the most in both categories in Pool A.

The starters were even worse, combining to give up 10 runs in only nine innings pitched, the most and fewest in the group, respectively.

But both Kung and Tseng felt it was somewhat unfair to judge the Taiwanese pitchers on such a small sample size of only four games.

"If we had made it to the quarterfinals and the problems continued, then it would have been more realistic to talk about them," Tseng said.

Kung also argued that there were plenty of WBC games this year with teams scoring in the double digits, and that high scoring was the norm in the tournament.

But those caveats ignored the weakness of the Taiwanese pitchers' arsenals. Their four-seam fastballs barely averaged 90 mph, the lowest of any WBC team other than China as of March 13, according to a tweet by Japanese baseball net celebrity aozora, citing baseballsavant.

The weakness was particularly noticeable against Cuba, which sent out pitchers who regularly hit the mid-90s.

Tseng said expecting pitchers to suddenly turn up their velocity was unrealistic, but he felt the team did make adjustments to their pitch patterns and locations after getting blown out by Panama 12-5 in the WBC opener, calling it one of the team's "biggest achievements" in the tournament.

The biggest turnaround was made by Wu Che-yuan (吳哲源). After allowing a run and three hits in two innings in the loss to Panama, Wu fanned four and did not give up a run in 4 1/3 innings in Taiwan's 9-5 win over the Netherlands on March 10.

It was unquestionably the best outing of any Taiwanese pitcher in the 2023 WBC as Wu kept his opponents off balance by mixing up his location and types of pitches thrown.

Recruiting obstacles

Recruiting players was also an issue, especially after Major League Baseball (MLB), which organizes the WBC, relaxed standards for participation on national teams to spice up the tournament and interest in the game.

Some teams benefited, fielding MLB players with only tangential relationships to the countries they were representing, but Taiwan did not. It was one of just three WBC teams with only native-born players on its roster.

"It's not that we didn't want to recruit this kind of player, but the fact is there are only a few MLB players with family members from Taiwan," Kung said.

And even if there were many high-caliber players eligible to play for Taiwan, Tseng said recruiting them would still have been challenging given that Taiwan was not a highly rated team.

"The bottom line is we are not strong enough to attract these players. If we can't convince them that playing for Taiwan would give them a shot at the title, they're a lot less likely to come."

One example is Corbin Carroll of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In an interview with CNA last September, the 21-year-old Taiwanese-American MLB rookie sidestepped questions on his interest in representing Taiwan, the homeland of his mother, saying only "I haven't really thought about that."

What might help, Tseng said, is if Yu Chang (張育成), Taiwan's MVP at the WBC, plays well this season for the Boston Red Sox.

"If Chang can do well there, his playing for Chinese Taipei would be significant, and that might increase foreign players' interest in joining Taiwan's team."

Enjoy the game

Results aside, Kung believed the WBC was a feast for baseball fans from around the world.

"People should start changing the way they approach the game and look beyond wins and losses because the essence of the game are the skills these players exhibit on the field," Kung said.

Undoubtedly, accepting the WBC result will be tough for fans in Taiwan, where baseball is the national pastime. But now that their team has been eliminated, it's time for Taiwanese fans to just take a seat and enjoy the show.

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