MARYVILLE, Tenn. – After winning one of four qualifiers, Chinese Taipei will host one of the four opening pools in the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC). No doubt gunning for their first-ever second round appearance at the WBC, Taiwan has added three MLB reinforcements to a roster that romped through the Classic Qualifiers and put in a strong showing at the Asian Baseball Championships.
The Taiwanese are, without question, fuelled by their disappointing showings in the 2006 and 2009 editions of the WBC. In the first Classic, they held their arch-rival Korea close, but were defeated 2-0. Japan’s top-level roster and home field advantage in the Tokyo Dome resulted in a 14-3 defeat, and Chinese Taipei exited after thumping lowly China 12-3.
Three years later, Korea started them off with a 9-0 loss and Taiwan had to face their closest neighbour, China. Despite an inexperienced roster and lack of depth, the red-and-yellow struck for the first three runs of the game and held on for a 4-1 win over Chinese Taipei. It was the first Chinese victory over Taiwan in history. It also eliminated their political rivals from the 2009 WBC.
In its bid for the Classic title, Chinese Taipei will host its third major international tournament in the last four months, having staged a Classic qualifying bracket in mid-November and the Asian Baseball Championships (ABCs) a fortnight later. Korea will once more travel to the island nation, and will be joined by Australia and the Netherlands. Unlike the three other countries, Taiwan will have seen plenty of recent game action.
In the Classic qualifying round (WBCQ), Chinese Taipei posted three consecutive shutouts in retiring New Zealand in the opener, 10-0, and thrashing the Philippines 16-0. The hosts then sent the Diamondblacks of New Zealand packing in the championship game, 9-0. The 35-0 outburst over three games was easily the most complete performance of any of the 16 teams attempting to qualify for the main WBC draw.
After breezing through the WBCQ, Taiwan claimed a silver medal at the Asian Championships with a 4-1 record, which included a 7-0 victory over Korea. They thrashed the Philippines once more, 12-1, while also notching a 3-1 win against China. Their only loss was a 2-1 decision to a Japanese side made up of amateur players.
During their eight tournament games, Taiwanese pitching yielded a 0.42 ERA, allowing only 28 hits in 65 innings and striking out 69. Its batters also put up strong performances, hitting .316 while demonstrating impressive plate discipline. The team collected 43 walks in eight games. The white-and-blue failed to homer in either tourney, though they did collect 20 doubles and five triples. Taiwanese runners also stole 10 bases.
Those performances saw them rise three places to the No. 5 ranking by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). In the process, they jumped over the Netherlands, who dropped from fifth to seventh. Korea slipped one place to fourth, while the final member of the pool, Australia, went from No. 11 to tenth.
Despite fielding what is arguably one of, if not the best teams in its long baseball-playing history, Chinese Taipei has had mostly poor results in the last few years against the teams it will be hosting.
Korea and Taiwan have played 13 times in the last decade, with Chinese Taipei winning only five games. Surprisingly, the two countries never played in the Baseball World Cup, despite appearing in all of the biennial Cups between 2003-2011, as they were always placed in different brackets. They have regularly squared off, however, in the Asian Baseball Championships and the Asian Games.
Their most recent meeting was in December, as Chinese Taipei earned a shutout victory en route to second place in the ABCs. In the 2010 Asian Games, Korea won both contests against the white-and-blue handily. The two sides split a pair of games in 2009, with Chinese Taipei avenging an earlier loss in the WBC by winning at the Asian Championships. In fact, Taiwan has seen almost all of its success against Korea in the ABCs, winning 4-of-5 games since 2003, while the Koreans have stifled them in the Asian Games (1-2), the Olympics (0-3, including the qualifying tournament) and the Classic (0-2).
Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands have, perhaps unexpectedly, developed quite a rivalry, if a lopsided one. The two countries have faced each other regularly in the World Cup and at Dutch tournaments. The Netherlands hosts two biennial events that alternate years, one being the Haarlem Baseball Week (HBW) and the other the World Port Tournament (WPT).
In the past 10 years, the Netherlands have defeated Taiwan 11 times, while only losing four times. Chinese Taipei last defeated the Dutch in the 2009 WPT, and has lost four-in-a-row since then, including their most recent matchup at the 2012 HBW. They have never played each other in the World Baseball Classic.
In the last six years, Taiwan has only contested Australia four times, winning three. In their last meeting in 2009, the Aussies were 7-5 winners, avenging Chinese Taipei’s 5-0 victory in the 2008 Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The decision eliminated Australia. Between 1971-1993, however, the two nations met biennially at the ABCs, and the all-time series is in Taiwan’s favour, 16-8 (with one tie).
Opposing teams will need to take into account the rabid passion that Taiwanese fans have for their national team. This fervour was in full display during the qualifying round, as Xinzhuang Stadium was packed for the home team’s games and the atmosphere quite raucous. Neither Australia nor the Netherlands has such a large ballpark as Taichung’s Intercontinental Stadium, which seats 19,000.
Taiwan is 39-21-2 all-time in 10 tournaments in which they serve as host, only twice failing to record in a medal. Incidentally, Korea has mixed success on Taiwanese soil, with a 35-33-1 mark in all tourneys, though they are 17-21 in global baseball events.
Manager Chang-Heng Hsieh is doubtless aware of his club’s struggles against the Netherlands and the long-standing rivalry with Korea. Hsieh has added three MLB players to an already experienced roster as Taiwan aims to advance to the second round of the Classic for the first time.
Chief among the roster additions is Chien-Ming Wang. Wang is 61-32 with a 4.26 ERA in a seven-year major league career, mostly with the New York Yankees. He has also won another 37 games in the minor leagues. In 2006 and 2007, he won 19 games, finishing second in the voting for the Cy Young Award in 2006.
Since mid-2008, Wang has struggled with injuries, first to his right foot, and later to both his hips and right shoulder. These led to his release by the Yankees after the 2009 season, after which he signed with the Washington Nationals. After missing the 2010 campaign, the right-hander has made only 21 appearances with a 4.94 ERA in the last two seasons.
When healthy, Wang can be dominant, as his sinker has helped him produce a career groundball percentage of 59.1 per cent, among the best in the major leagues during that span. He has also allowed a very strong rate of 0.6 home runs per nine innings.
Currently a free agent, Wang will be motivated to impress scouts in attendance, and Hsieh says he will be fully healthy for the first round. Wang has already been tabbed as the team’s ‘big game starter’, likely against Korea.
“There will be no problem for him pitching at full strength,” noted Hsieh. “[We have] given him time to prepare.”
Hong-Chih Kuo, another free agent who has spent significant time on the disabled list in recent years, has also been named to the squad. The southpaw has a 3.73 ERA in almost 300 innings with the Los Angeles Dodgers, striking out 10.6 batters per nine innings. He last pitched for his homeland in the 2006 WBC and Asian Games.
Between 2008-10, Kuo was one of the most dominant left-handed relievers in the game, recording a 1.96 ERA and gaudy strikeout totals while filling every role on the Dodgers’ pitching staff. Unfortunately, the southpaw had a fifth operation on his left elbow in 2011, also struggling with an anxiety disorder, and did not pitch last year.
The inclusion of Wang and Kuo is a coup for Hsieh. “I have been very eager for them to join our national team, because Taiwan needs their support,” he told the China Post. “Especially Kuo. We could use a good lefty reliever.”
Despite recruitment by Hsieh, Wei-Yin Chen, who had a standout rookie year for the Baltimore Orioles, will not appear in this year’s WBC. Chen’s wife gave birth recently and the lefty has stated he intends to spend the full offseason with his family. Chen is the only active major leaguer not donning the white-and-blue.
Chinese Taipei will still boast a strong pitching staff, with three other pitchers in consideration for starting nods. Yao-Ling Wang and Yu-Ching Lin saw action in the WBCQ and the ABCs, while Yao-Hsun Yang appeared twice in the former.
Wang appeared in three games, combining for a 2-1 record with a 0.77 ERA, striking out 12 in 11 2/3 innings. Only 22 years old, he mixes a curveball and changeup with a 92-94 mph fastball. The right-hander toed the rubber for the Chicago Cubs’ Daytona affiliate this year, recording a 3.94 ERA, striking out 9.5 per nine innings, in line with his career average.
Lin saw time in three contests in Taiwan’s winter tournaments, posting 14 strikeouts in only 9 1/3 frames, giving up only four baserunners. Yang features a 96 mph fastball and good slider. He has a career 3.47 ERA for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, with even better numbers in the minors.
The bullpen will count on Kuo for high-leverage outs, likely as a setup man for Hung-Wen Cheng. Cheng pitched only 3 1/3 frames at the two tournaments, but struck out six, surrendering only one hit. The right-hander, still only 26, has thrown almost 500 minor league innings, mostly with Cubs’ affiliates, registering a 3.84 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. Like many of the other pitchers for Chinese Taipei, his fastball sits around 94 to 95 mph (152 kmh).
Two other important pitchers are Kai-Wen Cheng and Jen-Ho Tseng. In four contests, two each in the WBCQ and the ABCs, Cheng whiffed 10 in 8 2/3 innings, allowing only five baserunners. Tseng, their youngest player at 18, tossed a combined seven shutout frames in the two tourneys. He whiffed six and gave up only four baserunners.
Hsieh has added one experienced member to the lineup in Che-Hsuan Lin. Lin played for Taiwan at the Junior World Championships in 2007 and at the 2008 Olympics. The centerfielder was also named to the Futures Games in 2008, hitting a two-run homer and a single to earn MVP honours. Lin was 3-for-7 with two walks in the 2009 Classic.
Lin made his major league debut in 2012 for the Boston Red Sox, who signed him in 2007. In nine games, he was 3-for-12, mostly showing off his defensive skills late in games. In December 2012, Lin was claimed off waivers by the Houston Astros after a minor league career in which he hit .256 in 627 games. He is best known for his speed (145 career stolen bases), plate discipline (.347 OBP) and defence (67 assists and good range).
Lin tuned up for the WBC with a 3-for-12 showing at the Asian Championships and is one of four starters from the ABCs who will likely remain in the lineup. The other three all saw action in the qualifiers, with Szu-Chi Chou the most consistent. Chou, the leftfielder, hit a combined .280 in the two tourneys, but slugged .520, drove in seven, and drew nine walks in eight games.
Chou will form the heart of the order with Chien-Ming Chang, Chih-Sheh Lin, and Yung-Chi Chen. Chang was 6-for-11 with two doubles and six RBI in the WBCQ and is a career .455 hitter in the Classic.
Chih-Sheh Lin was 5-for-11 and also collected a pair of two-baggers, driving in four and stealing two bases, raising his WBC career average to .316. He is a career .314/.383/.535 hitter in the CPBL.
Chen is a career .391 hitter with 11 RBI in WBC play, slugging .723 in the process. The right-handed hitter had a solid minor league career for the Seattle Mariners, hitting .287 with an OPS of .744 and 84 stolen bases while collecting time at second, short, and third.
The most experienced batter is Cheng-Ming Peng. In almost 1100 career China Professional Baseball League (CPBL, the national professional circuit) games, he is a .348/.452/.535 hitter with 151 homers and 179 stolen bases. He has led the league in hitting five times, including a national record .391 in 2008.
Peng has failed to produce at a top level in WBC play, though, with an average of .286 with no extra-base hits. The Gold Glove first baseman has reached base at a .524 clip, though. Like most of the qualifier-winning lineup, Peng did not participate in the Asian Championships.
Taiwan will carry three superb catchers on the roster. The likely starter is Chih-Kang Kao, a 12-year international veteran. Kao is known as a strong defensive catcher in the CPBL, throwing out a whopping 38 per cent of runners. He is a career .282 hitter in the CPBL and 3-for-10 in four WBC games. He had a noticeable effect in slowing down New Zealand’s powerful running game.
Ta-Hong Cheng will likely see some playing time as well. He is a career .300 hitter in Taiwan’s league, but also one with surprising speed. In November and December, he was only 3-for-16, though he did drive in four and steal a base. In 2010, Cheng set an international record when he became the first catcher among Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, or American leagues to lead the circuit in steals.
Also donning the mask is Hong-Yu Lin, a .309/.359/.483 hitter in the CPBL. He has caught 27 per cent of runners stealing in his career. Lin was hitless in eight at bats in the WBCQ.
With only major addition to the hitting corps, Chinese Taipei’s lineup should remain almost identical to the Classic’s qualifying stage. Manager Hsieh will likely continue to use his bench liberally, with the three backstops likely to split time. His projected batting order follows:
Che-Hsuan Lin – CF
Chien-Ming Chang – RF
Cheng-Min Peng – 1B
Chih-Sheng Lin – SS
Szu-Chi Chou – LF
Yung-Chi Chen – 3B
Yi-Chuan Lin – DH
Yen-Wen Kuo – 2B
Chih-Kang Kao – C
Chinese Taipei will have the honour of playing the first game of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The white-and-blue will host Australia at Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taichung on Mar. 2 at 4:30 a.m. GMT.
Taiwan will match up with the Netherlands on Mar. 3 at 6:30 a.m. GMT before finishing pool play in a showdown with Korea on Mar. 5 at 11:30 a.m. GMT. The two teams with the best records will advance to the second round. This round is a modified double elimination bracket and will be hosted at the Tokyo Dome.