One of the most exciting things about the World Baseball Classic is that it presents many fans an opportunity to watch some of the great players around the world which they would generally not get to see. Americans fans can watch some of the great players in Japan, Korea or Taiwan, and those same Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese fans can watch players from the Caribbean leagues. As we have seen in the past, the WBC can be the launching point for players to get their names onto the international scene, and possibly end up in the big leagues. Players like Chapman, Céspedes, Darvish, Iwakuma, Ryu and countless others saw their stars first rise on the world stage. In this series, we’ll take a look at some of the best that the rest of the world has to offer, beginning today with those players who, for whatever reason, will not be able to join in this year’s classic. Let’s dive in!
#5 Kwang-Hyun Kim: Korea
Following the departure of Hyun-Jin Ryu from Korea, Kwang-Hyun Kim took over as the de-facto ace of the Korean team. A member of the squad at the 2008 Olympics and the 2009 WBC, Kim was already a veteran of international baseball competition, but the pressure was now on to pitch like the ace that team Korea lacked. Kim certainly has the physical tools. Standing 6’2’’ despite a thin 176 pound frame, Kim possesses a fastball that generally sits in the low 90’s but has been clocked as fast as 96 (155 KPH). He possesses a strong secondary pitch in the form of his slider, which scouts almost unanimously agree is MLB caliber and possible a plus pitch. His other secondary offerings, a curveball and change, lack the slider’s quality, but have been described by scouts as projecting as MLB average. Possessing a high leg kick and a true overhand delivery, Kim has a classic pitcher’s look about him on the mound.
Despite possessing the pop on his fastball and action on his slider to make him a target for MLB teams, Kim has always been viewed as something of a middling candidate to be posted from the KBO, as he has struggled throughout his career with control. Kim possesses an ugly 3.9 career BB/9. Kim may have had a breakthrough regarding control, as he has lowered his BB/9 in each of past three seasons and posted career lows in both BB/9 and K/BB ratio. Sadly for Korea, Kim and the SK Wyverns announced in december that the 28-year-old lefthander would be undergoing surgery to repair ligament damage in his throwing elbow which would keep him sidelined for up to 10 months, and certainly keep him out of the Classic. It’s a shame for Korea, who could use another quality starter, for baseball fans who would get a chance to see a hurler with real quality stuff, and for Kim, who has struggled a bit as the top dog for Korea and would get another chance to prove he can follow in Ryu’s footsteps.
#4 Freddy Asiel Álvarez: Cuba
It is hard to imagine that Freddy Asiel Álvarez is still only 27 years old. Álvarez seems like he’s been around forever after breaking in with his hometown Villa Clara ballclub way back in 2005. In his 11 years in the Serie Nacional, Álvarez has been one of the most successful domestic pitchers in Cuba (though he has experienced mixed results as a pitcher with the national team). Physically, Álvarez has a stocky build, standing 5’11’’ tall, and weighing in at a solid 216 pounds (per BaseballdeCuba). He has always had good velocity, typically sitting around 91, but topping off at 94 with his 4-seam fastball, and about 88-89 with his 2-seamer. Álvarez throws a single breaking ball in the low 80’s which is variously referred to in Cuba as both a slider and curveball depending on who is calling the game. Based on the action, I’d call it a slider. Álvarez is likewise one of a few pitchers in Cuba who do not throw a forkball, but rather, a true straight changeup right about 80 MPH. Even though Álvarez has had the kind of velocity throughout his career which allow one to pitch without any tricks, Álvarez is a true Cuban pitcher in that he is a master of shifting arm angles, adding hesitations feints to his delivery, and generally being pretty funky out on the mound while pitching.
For all of these reasons, MLB scouts were somewhat disappointed in Álvarez during the 2016 season with Villa Clara. Although his ERA remained a sterling 1.69, there were some troubling signs. His velocity appeared to drop over the course of the year, pitching in the Serie Nacional semi-final with a fastball that sat around 87-88. Likewise, his strikeout rate sharply declined from 7 K/9 in the first 10 starts of the year, to only 5.2 over his final 8 starts. His ERA likewise rose from 1.82 to 3.37. Finally, in the recently completed Serie del Caribe, Álvarez, in his lone start, surrendered 5 hits, 2 ER (as well as 1 unearned run) while recording only a single out and generally appearing out of sorts, lacking both the velocity on his fastball and the action on his slider. And now we might know why, as just days before the Cuban team was set to depart to Asia for their pre-tournament warm up matches, Álvarez consulted the team doctor and revealed that he had been pitching with a previously undisclosed injury to his throwing arm and that he felt he would not be able to participate in the Classic. It’s a loss for Cuba, missing one of their brighter young pitchers, but also for fans stateside who rarely if ever get a chance to see Álvarez pitch. Beyond simply the classic, we can only hope his arm heals up and he can return to being the pitcher he once was.
#3 Po-Jung Wang
Po-Jung Wang (Wang Po-Jung using Chinese naming convention) burst onto the scene in Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League with the Lamigo Monkeys towards the end of the 2015 season. In 29 games, the 22-year-old gave fans plenty to look forward to, batting .324/.377/.640 and cracking 9 HR. But even the most optimistic fan couldn’t have foreseen what Wang had in store for his official rookie season in 2016. The right fielder authored arguably the greatest season in the history of Taiwanese baseball. Wang led the CPBL in base hits, breaking the league record of 176 with his 200 hit campaign. But that wasn’t all, Wang also led the league with a .414 average to go with his .476 OPB and .689 SLG. He belted a total of 29 home runs (40 pro-rated), drove in 105 (147), stole 24 bases (33). Needless to say, Wang ran away with the Rookie of the Year Award and the league MVP.
Physically, Wang appears to have the physical tools to succeed at the next level, whether he should choose to follow through on his expressed desire to move on to Japan’s NPB or he decided to take the bigger risk and try to make it in MLB. Wang has a full build at 6’0’’ 194 lbs, and he appears to have the strength to drive the ball to all fields. While it seems unlikely that his 30 HR power from CPBL will translate exactly to the majors, most scouts agree that he has enough power to hit for extra bases and could find himself somewhere in the 10 to 20 HR range, depending on his ability to make contact with the ball. Wang’s stance finds his body held primarily upright with a slight bend at the knees. His hands are held far out from his body and he exhibits a pronounced waggle of the bat, as you can see in this clip:
In addition to his talent, Wang seems to have a style that is more at home in the Caribbean than in Taiwan, as he has become world renowned for his titanic bat flips. Check out this doozy from Chinese Taipei’s game against Canada in the 2015 premier 12:
Sadly for Wang, he will not a get a chance to show the world his great skill as well as enthusiasm for the game, as he is one of a number of players who is caught up on the ongoing conflict between Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League, and Chinese Taipei Baseball Association. The strife between the two organizations regarding the national team has led the CPBL to boycott the upcoming WBC, with Wang’s Lamigo Monkeys joining said boycott. Wang’s absence will hurt Chinese Taipei’s chances, of course, but will also take a bit of the fun and excitement away from the tournament, as he promised to be one of the most dynamic players in the Classic.
#2 Luis Robert Moirán: Cuba
Luis Robert Moirán broke into the Serie Nacional with the Tigres of Ciego de Ávila at the tender age of 16, though he wasn’t exactly evoking memories of El Niño Omar Linares, as he appeared in only 17 games and finished with a rather paltry .125/.214/.167 line. The good thing about 16 year old baseball prospects, though, is that they’re a pretty fair bet to get better. And Robert got a lot better. His sophomore season saw him raise his triple slash line to a much more palatable .244/.304/.317 while also securing more regular playing time, appearing in 54 games as a 1B, CF, LF, and DH for the Tigres. Robert followed that up with a 3rd season that saw him, now firmly entrenched as the starting left fielder for Ciego de Ávila, push his line to .305/.384/.413, knock 5 homers, and even swipe 8 bases. But that rise was dwarfed by the performance of Robert in his age 19 season in the past Serie Nacional. He burst out, belting 12 HR in 52 (21 pro-rated for a 90 game Serie Nacional Season, 37 pro-rated for a 162 game MLB season) games and boasting an absurd .401/.526/.687 line which vaulted him into a very short list of the best young players in Cuba, and comparing favorably to the age 19 seasons of some another Cuban outfielders: Yoenis Céspedes (.351/.442/.649, 23 HR), and Yasiel Puig (.330/.430/.581, 17 HR).
Physically, Robert looks the part of a future big league caliber player. At 19, he is a bit lanky, standing 6’2’’, but weighing in at the start of the Serie Nacional at 174 pounds, but he has bulked up during each of his three full seasons in Cuba with no reason to suppose he can’t continue to build muscle. He already has the speed to play in the outfield at a big league level, and his instincts and feel will only improve. Robert’s stance is, for the most part, classically Cuba, with his hands held high and tight to the body. The upper body is closed to the pitcher, though he stands slightly open with his stride foot. Excepting the foot, the stance is strikingly similar to Yasiel Puig’s:
Sadly for Cuban fans hoping to see Robert don the national reds in the WBC, in November 2016, Robert bolted from the island in the hopes of catching on with a big league club. The Cuban fan’s loss, however, will be the MLB fan’s gain (a common refrain over the last few years), as Robert would appear to be on a fast track to a big league stadium near you all to soon.
#1 Shohei Ohtani
Japan’s Shohei Ohtani has been heralded as the best player currently playing outside of the major leagues, and with good reason, as he has displayed an almost limitless talent for the game of baseball. The press for Ohtani began early in Japan, as he was a top prospect even in high school, where he recorded a 99 MPH pitch during the Japanese High School Baseball Championship and drew interest from numerous MLB teams. There was serious thought that he would bolt from Japan straight to the majors, but the Hokkaido Fighters nevertheless took Ohtani #1 overall in the Japanese amateur player draft in 2012 and managed to convince him to remain in the Land of the Rising Sun for at least the beginning of his professional career.
And what a beginning that has turned out to be! Ohtani’s rookie year with the Fighters saw him post a solid, if unspectacular, 4.23 in 61.2 spread across 11 starts. He struggled somewhat with walks, issuing an unseemly 33 in total, and 4.8 per 9 innings. Whatever issues troubled him in his first season, it appeared he had shaken them off by his sophomore campaign, as Ohtani blossomed on the mound, dropping more than a full run and a half from his ERA, which finished at 2.61, posting a 1.17s WHIP, lowering BB/9 to 3.3, increasing his K/9 to a league leading 10.4 (he finished 3rd in total strikeouts with 179) in 155.1 spellbinding innings. Named to the 2014 All-Star game, Ohtani had one more trick up his sleeve, uncorking a first inning fastball which registered at at 101 MPH (162 KPH), the fastest pitch ever recorded in Nippon Professional Baseball history. Already one of the best pitchers in Japan, Ohtani would only continue to improve, lowering his ERA further in each of the next two seasons, culminating in a 2016 season which saw him go 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, a 0.957 WHIP, 11.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and win the Pacific League MVP award.
But he didn’t just win that award for his outstanding work on the mound, because Ohtani has also become one of the best offensive players in NPB. As a rookie, we saw glimpses of Ohtani’s skill at the plate, when he batted .238/.284/.376 in 204 PA mostly playing in the OF for the Fighters. He followed it up with a .274/.338/.505 lin in his sophomore season, and even cracked 10 HR. A poor season 3 showing of .202/.252/.376 with 5 HR cast some doubt as to whether Ohtani could maintain his offensive performance under the demand of regular pitching, but Shohei would put any such concerns to bed with his breakout 2016 season. Playing regularly as the Fighters’ DH between turns on the mound, Ohtani turned in an excellent season, leaping to a .322/.416/.588 line, hitting 22 HR, driving in 67 runs, and even managing to swipe 7 bases. Ohtani became the first player in the history of NPB to be named to his league’s Best Nine (akin to the All-Star team) at two positions, being named the outstanding pitcher and DH of the league. Take a look at Ohtani’s season for the ages below:
Ohtani is built for a successful big league career. He is tall enough (6’3’’) to generate a good downward plane on his fastball, and he’s no bean pole, already weighing in at 190 pounds. Obviously Ohtani possesses an overwhelming fastball, but that’s hardly his only tool. He throws a splitter in the high 80’s which is regarded as an MLB caliber pitch, as is his slider in the mid to low 80’s. His curveball is, at present, more of a developing pitch. On the mound, Ohtani has pitched almost exclusively from the stretch, and his delivery has more than a passing resemblance to that of Yu Darvish (possibly by design, as Ohtani grew up watching Darvish pitch). At the plate, some scouts have suggested that Ohtani’s swing is perhaps a little bit too long for his dominant performance at the plate to translate to the big leagues, but even if he’s not posting MVP numbers at the plate, at worst Ohtani figures to be among the best hitting big league pitchers in recent memory, and a possible pinch hitting candidate who can offer the kind of roster flexibility that MLB teams crave.
Sadly for baseball fans (and maybe a little fortunately for Cuban fans like myself), in early February, it was announced by the Fighters that the ankle injury which Ohtani had suffered in game 4 of the Nippon Series had not been healing as anticipated and that he would not be in proper condition to participate in the Classic. This is a real shame for fans back stateside, who may not now get a chance to watch this exciting young player up close in person until he is posted to the major leagues, which is not expected until 2019 at the earliest.