The fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic gets underway Monday, and the Orioles will be well represented, sending six players to the tournament. Among them are two pitchers: righty Mychal Givens (USA roster) and lefty Vidal Nuno (Mexico).
Some WBC critics have decried the tournament as a danger to pitchers. The timing of the WBC, the argument goes, interrupts pitchers’ usual spring training routines. It forces them to pitch with maximum effort in game situations before their arms are fully ready, which could make them more prone to injury and ineffectiveness in the regular season.
Is there any truth to this criticism? Let’s look at the six previous Orioles pitchers who were targeted for that year’s Opening Day roster and took part in the WBC to see how they were — or weren’t — affected in the regular season.
Erik Bedard, 2006
WBC: Bedard made one dominant start for Canada, striking out six batters in four scoreless innings. His team was eliminated in the first round of the tournament.
Regular season: Bedard showed no ill effects whatsoever from his WBC experience. In 2006, he emerged as the Orioles’ undisputed ace, going 15-11 with a 3.76 ERA. His 33 starts and 196 1/3 innings pitched that year were the highest totals of his career; he never again topped 28 starts in a season.
Daniel Cabrera, 2006
WBC: During the Dominican Republic’s run to the semifinals, Cabrera looked sensational in his two starts, allowing one run and racking up nine strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings. Most surprisingly for Cabrera, he walked just two batters.
Regular season: Cabrera had a maddening, control-challenged 2006 for the Orioles. So, what else is new? He was 9-10 with a 4.74 ERA in 26 starts, leading the AL in both walks (104) and wild pitches (17). That was basically a typical season for the erratic right-hander. He did suffer right shoulder inflammation that landed him on the disabled list in mid-May, which possibly stemmed from his preseason WBC experience. But he returned less than three weeks later and had no further injury problems.
Rodrigo Lopez, 2006
WBC: Lopez was no great shakes for the Mexico staff. He was tagged with two of the club’s three losses during the tournament, despite a decent 3.86 ERA.
Regular season: Lopez’s 2006 season for the Orioles was, simply put, dreadful. He led the AL with 18 losses and 124 earned runs allowed and stumbled to a 5.90 ERA, a full run higher than his previous year. It can’t be assumed, though, that Lopez’s WBC stint was responsible for his slide. He stayed healthy all year, and his 2006 wasn’t noticeably worse than two of his previous seasons — 2003 and 2005 — based on his walk rates, home run rates and WHIP.
Bruce Chen, 2006
WBC: Four-fifths of the Orioles’ projected 2006 rotation took part in the WBC, with Chen joining Bedard, Cabrera and Lopez on international rosters. Chen made one, five-inning start for Team Panama, which went winless in the tournament and was quickly bounced.
Regular season: No Orioles pitcher took a sharper plunge in 2006 than Chen. Coming off a breakout 2005 season (13-10, 3.83), Chen imploded, failing to win a game in 40 appearances — 12 starts — and finishing the season with a 6.93 ERA. His WHIP, hit rate and home run rate all skyrocketed.
Could Chen’s single WBC start have affected his regular season so dramatically? Chen himself probably doesn’t think so, or else he wouldn’t have returned to pitch for Panama three years later in the 2009 tournament. In fact, the now 39-year-old Chen is coming out of retirement to play in the 2017 WBC as well, this time for China.
Jeremy Guthrie, 2009
WBC: Guthrie’s tenure with Team USA was a miserable one, at least statistically. In two starts, both losses, he was torched for 10 runs (six earned), 14 hits and a team-worst 14.73 ERA.
Regular season: Guthrie’s year didn’t get much better once he returned to the Orioles. Coming off consecutive sub-4 ERAs for the club, Guthrie posted a 5.04 mark in 2009, and his 17 losses were the most in the majors. He surrendered 10.1 hits per nine innings — an increase of nearly two per game over his previous year — and coughed up an AL-worst 35 home runs. Still, he was durable, making 33 starts and pitching 200 innings for the first time in his career.
Pedro Strop, 2013
WBC: As the Dominican Republic steamrolled its way to the 2013 title with a perfect 8-0 record, Strop was an integral bullpen piece. He pitched in six of the eight games and didn’t allow a run, collecting seven strikeouts and vulturing three wins in relief.
Regular season: If there’s one player who can make a strong case for being waylaid by the WBC, it’s Strop. His heavy workload and all-out effort in the tournament likely didn’t do him any favors once the regular season rolled around. Strop, who’d been the Orioles’ top setup man in 2012, was off-kilter from the get-go in 2013, giving up three runs in his first game and seemingly losing his confidence early. Strop landed on the DL with a lower back strain in late May and didn’t improve after his return. He had a 7.25 ERA when the Orioles jettisoned him to the Cubs as part of the Jake Arrieta/Scott Feldman trade July 2.
What have we learned about the effects of the WBC on Orioles pitchers? Well, nothing definitive. Most Orioles pitchers who participated in the tournament ended up having a lousy regular season that year (with Bedard the notable exception), but if the WBC was responsible, it’s hard to see the evidence. Strop was the only pitcher who both suffered an injury and pitched demonstrably worse than his previous season.
If there’s any conclusions to be drawn from that tiny sample size, perhaps the WBC has a more significant effect on relief pitchers than it does on starters, given that they pitch more frequently. If that’s the case, the Orioles will be holding their breath about Givens in particular throughout this year’s tournament. They can only hope he doesn’t go the way of Strop in 2013. Nuno, a swingman, is also expected to pitch out of the bullpen in the WBC.