The International Baseball Federation (IBAF) published their first set of world rankings on Tuesday. Like the ‘Big Four’ in the Premiership, Cuba, the USA, Korea and Japan sit apart from the rest at the top of the standings, with Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Canada being the next in line.
While other baseball ranking lists have been put together recently, most notably the European club rankings by Mister-Baseball.com and BaseballdeWorld, this is the first official set by the international body that factor in performances over the last four years in senior, university and youth tournaments. The rankings have prompted much comment and debate, as intended, and they deserve to be looked at from a British perspective.
How important are the rankings?
Great Britain are listed twenty-third out of forty-four teams in these debut set of rankings, with the majority of their 24.88 points coming from the successful 2007 European Championship campaign.
A huge amount of effort and talent has gone into moving Great Britain’s senior team on to the next level in international baseball (not disregarding the previous successes the country has enjoyed, such as the silver medal at the Euros in 1967). So with the work and skill that is being put in, it is interesting to know if a very respectable IBAF world ranking would be seen as mission accomplished for the national programme.
Stephan Rapaglia, GB’s Head Coach, spoke to BaseballGB on the subject of the rankings and had this to say:
“While I think the rankings are useful for generating additional interest in international baseball, something that we in GB Baseball certainly consider important, it is difficult to give the rankings much credence. Most of the ranked teams simply do not have enough common international experience to be compared meaningfully to one another. Nevertheless, for programme visibility purposes, I am glad that we are included in the rankings. And, I certainly hope that our performance in the 2009 World Cup will enable us to climb up a few steps.”
It is satisfying, then, to see that, while the rankings are no bad thing for GB baseball, the focus is very much on future success, and for GB success means achieving the programme’s dual goal of assembling the strongest possible squad for international competition, while furthering “the development of GB-based ballplayers who have the requisite skill and level of commitment to participate in the GB programme,” in Stephan’s words.
Team GB’s rankings road map
The IBAF have made it clear in their press release that these rankings will be used “for promotional purposes only”, a statement that supports Stephan’s call for caution when it comes to treating them as an exact science and also one that allows us to further consider the rankings in the intended spirit.
Of course, any future success would help GB to rise in the rankings and, as Stephan notes, the next stage on which they can earn ranking points is the Baseball World Cup. This event is being staged in September this year and Great Britain have been put into an opening round group containing Japan, Nicaragua and Russia (who will be hosting the group in Moscow).
You don’t need the IBAF’s rankings to know that Japan are the most imposing team of the four and would undoubtedly start as strong favourites to top the group. They currently sit at the bottom of the Big Four in the rankings and, as those teams have predominantly played in the same events during the relevant time period, that position can be seen as a fair reflection on their performances in comparison to their major rivals. It’s been a case of good but not quite good enough for the senior team, with their 2006 World Baseball Classic (WBC) triumph being the notable exception. They will be hoping to retain their WBC title in March and to follow it up with a World Cup win later in the year.
Nicaragua and Russia are more of an unknown quantity. The former’s relatively high ranking (twelfth) suggests that they have a good team, but we should acknowledge that their participation in the three ‘Americas’ tournaments covered by these rankings gives them a boost.
Russia are thirtieth in the table and six of their 9.63 points have come at youth team level, although that doesn’t mean their senior team should be taken lightly. Great Britain will be looking to improve their overall record against Russia, a contest which they currently trail 3-6 (this includes games against the USSR), and the senior team will be meeting both Japan and Nicaragua for the first time.
A tentative schedule for the World Cup has recently been released and this would see Britain facing Japan in their first game, Nicaragua in their second game and Russia in the first round finale. The top two teams from each of the five first-round groups will progress, along with the four best third-placed finishers. This means that GB should certainly go into the tournament confident that they can at least make it into round two.
The wider European picture
The 2009 World Cup was moved from the original host Cuba to Europe in an effort to promote the sport in this continent prior to the International Olympic Committee’s meeting in Denmark, scheduled for October. Consequently, eight of the twenty-two teams are European and this will give them all a chance to tot up some IBAF ranking points (accepting that we don’t know how the points will be dished out as yet).
The Netherlands and Italy have been the two European baseball powerhouses for over half a century, with the Dutch being firmly on top right now (sixth overall compared to Italy’s ranking of thirteenth). As things stand it would be difficult for any European team to overtake them in the rankings in the near future and that’s not simply due to their own ability.
Both the Netherlands and Italy will be able to pick up further ranking points due to their participation in the WBC. This is effectively an ‘invitation-only’ tournament and it clearly gives them an advantage over other non-participating teams. Great Britain lobbied for a place in this year’s WBC on the back of a silver medal finish in the 2007 European Championships. This exciting prospect was quashed by the decision to bring back all of the sixteen entrants from the 2006 event.
The top two European teams could also pick up points ahead of their local rivals on account of the fact that, as joint hosts, they will receive byes into the second round of the World Cup.
As for Britain’s placement compared some of the other European teams, Spain are in sixteenth place and a glance at where they picked up their points should give GB confidence that they can climb up the rankings if they continue the very encouraging form showed over the last couple of years.
Meanwhile, Germany currently sit nineteenth in the rankings with 36.32 points, a placement that will rankle British baseball fans somewhat. Eight of those points were accumulated at the Final Olympic Qualifier a little under a year ago when the Germans were handed Great Britain’s spot in the tournament. Had GB won those points instead (with Germany receiving none), they would have vaulted up to twentieth place and also moved past another European team (Czech Republic) in the process. Add it to the list of ‘reasons to be disappointed’.
GB on the up?
In truth, it is rare to find a set of rankings such as these that can be completely relied upon as a genuine measure of ability and performance. Few football fans put much store in FIFA’s world rankings, for example.
However, the concept of maintaining rankings to promote international baseball has to be a good thing for the sport. Furthermore, although the WBC will skew things a bit, GB could move up the list by the end of the year if the team puts in a good showing at the World Cup.
And whether you’re interested in the rankings or not, that’s definitely something we will all be hoping for.
Thanks to Stephan for his comments and also to Joe for his valuable input.