Qualification for the World Baseball Classic has changed to a new format that seems to indicate an expansion of the main tournament by four more countries. Multiple sources, including one from a European federation, as well as newspapers in Central America and the Philippines, confirm significant changes for the qualifiers, set to take place this March.
WBC 2021 Information Already Available
Although rumours have been floating around for much of the winter, the only substantive information available until now was a tantalisingly short tweet from Joel Sherman in which he noted three details. First, that the qualifiers will be from March 12-26 and, second, the location, Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Arizona.
It was the final detail, though, that had fans and journalists—and even several federations—buzzing. Sherman reported that 12 teams would compete in Arizona. This conflicted with reports from multiple national federations, which told us that this had changed since the initial plan in September, when one qualifier of six was set for a location in Florida.
Sherman’s tweet meant, in all likelihood, one of two things. One was that the qualifiers were contracting from 16 to 12 teams, while the other possibility was that there would be another qualifier somewhere else, which promised expansion of the qualifiers.
New Information on WBCQ Participants
Although several crucial details are missing, we can now add significant further information thanks to an anonymous source. Reports in La Prensa (Nicaragua) [link], La Estrella (Panama) [link], and the PhilStar (Philippines) [link] confirm our source, which notes changes in qualification process as well as verifying the countries involved.
First, the qualifier mentioned by Sherman is actually two six-team tournaments back-to-back. That in itself is a change from the four qualifiers of four teams for the 2013 and 2017 editions. It would appear that, instead, the only qualifiers will both take place at the Kino Sports Complex, former spring training home of the White Sox (1998-2008) and Diamondbacks (1998-2010), plus two Triple-A teams between 1998-2013.
The first qualifier will run from March 12-17 while the second group appears to have been moved from March 14-19 to March 20-25. The nations invited are as follows: Brazil, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Philippines, South Africa, and Spain. Each of the countries above also featured in the 2017 qualifiers. This means that, for the first time, there will be no new entrants into the World Baseball Classic Qualification process.
It appears the groups are not yet finalised, however. La Estrella reported on Jan. 5 that Panama will face Czech Republic, France, Great Britain, Pakistan, and Spain. La Prensa agreed, noting on Jan. 9 that Nicaragua will compete against Brazil, Germany, New Zealand, Philippines, and South Africa.
Our source suggests, however, that the earlier set of dates will feature France, Pakistan, and four other countries. The second group would be Czech Republic, Great Britain, New Zealand, Panama, Philippines, and Spain. The PhilStar corroborated this breakdown of the teams on Jan. 8.
New Information on WBCQ Format
One other change to the format is of perhaps greater importance. In 2016, the qualifiers were a modified double-elimination format, in which the winner of the de facto championship game advanced to the WBC. If a team entered the game with no losses and was not victorious, it was still eliminated.
This year, however, sources agree that the top two teams in a double-elimination tournament will advance after round robin play. This almost certainly means that four of the 12 teams in the double-qualifier will advance to the 2021 WBC. More on this in a moment.
Even if only one from each tourney move on, it would still mean the Classic would swell by two teams. Even more interestingly, unless Brazil and South Africa advance, as many as four teams will play in a World Baseball Classic for the very first time.
Details are still lacking, but it seems likely that MLB and WBSC will agree on a format that mirrors the Europe-Africa Olympic Qualifier in which each team plays each other, even after elimination. This is a significant positive as it means all countries will play five games, rather than a minimum of only two as in previous years.
Likely WBC 2021 Expansion
Many of you will be wondering: What about the four teams relegated from the 2017 WBC, Canada, China, Mexico, and Taiwan? Absolutely no information is available, but given their absences from this super-qualifier (mega-qualifier? über-qualifier?), it seems likely that they will remain in the Classic. Otherwise, it would mean four additional qualifiers in the next nine months or so, a highly unlikely proposition. Indeed, Mexico believes that it will be “classified to the group stage” [link].
It is quite possible that these changes were prompted, in part, by the highly controversial elimination of Mexico from the 2017 WBC Pool D. Mexico was told by a MLB official that a win would advance the squad to the Super Round. For those who may not recall the event, we were the only site to report in English from the 3:40 a.m. press conference [link].
So, where does this leave us? The 12 nations that are certain to be in the 2021 championship are: Australia, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Korea, the USA, and Venezuela. Joining them, in all probability, with secure bids are the four relegated nations, Canada, China, Mexico, and Taiwan. And, rounding out the field, four teams of the above 12, bringing the field to 20.
Given this scenario, the WBC will likely remain at four pools, but with five teams in each. Round One would then change to Round Robin, with the top two advancing to the Super Round as in previous years. The remaining schedule would be identical to 2017.
It is worth noting that the Americas Olympic Qualifier will also be held in Arizona from March 22-26. It comprises eight countries, of which only Nicaragua will return from the WBC Qualifier. The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and USA join Nicaragua in Pool A. The other squads represent Canada, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela in Pool B.
Potential Hosts for the 2021 WBC
On Jan. 8, we were the first anglophone source to report another piece of the puzzle that is the 2021 WBC. According to Rodrigo Fernández, Director of MLB’s Mexico office, only Japan and the USA are currently being considered as hosts.
Given that four qualifiers previously held worldwide have been condensed into one location over a fortnight, this seems like a distinct possibility. In 2017, Tokyo drew 206,534 fans in Pool B and Miami saw 163,878 in attendance in Pool C. Meanwhile, Jalisco punched 86,132 tickets and Seoul sold only 52,286 tickets.
On the other hand, the qualifying rounds in 2016 saw two international venues smash Brooklyn’s totals. Mexicali had 56,465 fans, Panama City was at 35,520, Brooklyn at 11,846, and Sydney at 7,964.
More details will certainly emerge this year on host sites for 2021, but pending further changes—and this may happen, given that federations have had information changed at least twice since September—all that remains for the WBC Qualifiers is for a schedule to be announced and our conclusion on relegated teams to be endorsed. Stay tuned to our Twitter @ExtraInningsUK for further details.
All photos copyright Extra Innings UK with the exception of Kino Sports Complex, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.