Israel’s Improbable Run
Israel’s national team is a mostly American group of has-beens and wannabes who are playing to win the World Baseball Classic— and it’s exciting for baseball.
Israel is five wins away from a world baseball championship.
On March 6, baseball’s best impression of March Madness — the banally named quadrennial “World Baseball Classic” — kicked off in four cities across North America and Asia. Seoul hosted Pool A, which included Israel, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei. The latter three teams all automatically qualified for pool play by virtue of their appearance in the last edition of the tournament in 2013. Israel, on the other hand, had to overcome the odds to even qualify for the big dance . It did so in September of last year, making its way undefeated through a double elimination qualifier by beating Pakistan, Brazil, and Great Britain in quick succession. Although those three countries aren’t your typical baseball powerhouses, they’re all ranked by the World Baseball Softball Confederation as better than Israel, which dials in at 41st on the global charts.
And so it was that on the eve of the tournament — March 5th, 2017 — ESPN’s Eddie Matz called Team Israel “the Jamaican Bobsled Team of the WBC”. And as charming as it is to imagine Team Israel showing up at Seoul International without climate-appropriate attire or functioning baseball equipment, this comparison vastly undersells the competitive level of Team Israel in the WBC. They’re underdogs, sure — but a different type of underdog than the Jamaican Bobsled Team that did not actually finish competition at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
As if trying to prove this point, right after Matz taunted Israel for being ranked 41st in the world (“just behind baseball powerhouses such as Poland and the Ukraine”), the team marched on undefeated right through the WBC opening round. On March 6, it faced South Korea, the 2009 WBC runner-up and owner of the WBSC no. 3 ranking, right behind actual baseball powerhouses Japan and the USA. The box score reflects a mostly even match throughout the game, with Israel collecting six hits and South Korea collecting seven through nine innings for one run each. (Israel also had more squandered opportunities, with 14 runners left on base to S. Korea’s 9.) In the top of the 10th, improbable hero Ryan Lavarnway (owner of a career .198 average in five years of MLB playing time) singled to advance Ike Davis, who had walked earlier in the inning. Perpetual Rookie League and Single-A veteran Mike Meyers entered as Davis’ pinch runner, and one out later Scott Burcham reached base and drove Meyers home, collecting an RBI on an infield single (to second!). Josh Zeid struck out the side in the bottom of the inning to secure the 2–1 Israel victory.
But this is baseball, and baseball can be weird. It would be easy to write off Israel’s surprising performance if it wasn’t sustained. But shortly after escaping South Korea, Israel neatly handled Chinese Taipei 15–7, behind five combined hits and two home runs from Lavarnway and Nate Freiman and 15 other hits from their teammates. Chinese Taipei, by the way, currently owns the #4 spot in the WBSC rankings, behind Japan, the USA, and South Korea. Although the game revealed the weakness of Israel’s bullpen (the score was 15–3 before relievers Troy Neiman and Dean Kremer surrendered four runs and a walk on two doubles and a single in the bottom of the ninth), Israel dominated the game for the first eight and a half innings, allowing only one multi-hit inning and collecting 6 Ks.
This second win all but cemented Israel’s spot in the WBC’s second round, but for good measure they capped off the round with a win over the Netherlands (#9 in the WBSC rankings) in their final game of pool play on March 8th. Facing a star-studded lineup with the likes of Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar, Jonathan Schoop, Didi Gregorious, and Xander Bogaerts, Israel allowed only five hits and one earned run, collecting eight of their own hits in the 4–2 victory. Israel did most of their damage in the bottom of the first against Netherlands starter Robbie Cordemans, who only lasted one innning and now officially owns a WBC ERA of 27.
To date, Team Israel has defeated Korea (#3 WBSC), Chinese Taipei (#4 WBSC), and the Netherlands (#9 WBSC) with a combined run differential of +11. Its real test begins this evening (for North American viewers), when the team heads to Tokyo to take on Cuba (#5 WBSC) in the opening game of Round 2. After that, it will face the Netherlands again and Japan (#1 WBSC) for the first time. If it is one of the two top finishers in this pool, the team advances to a semifinal match and, if it wins that, to a winner-take-all championship game on March 22nd.
If Israel is able to pull this off, it will be impressive. Exactly half of the team’s 12 non-pitchers have never even played in a Major League Baseball game, despite all being Americans who play (or have played) in the minor league system. Only one member of Team Israel has a career MLB batting average over .250. Two of the team’s non-pitchers, Ike Davis and Sam Fuld, have been productive at the major league level, compiling a combined ERA of 9.7 across 4827 plate appearances in 1266 games. But both are past their prime — Fuld turns 36 later this year and hasn’t played in the Majors since 2015; Davis made a brief appearance for the Yankees in 2016 and has only played in 82 games since 2015. The other four members of Team Israel who do have Major League experience have been below replacement-level on average (combined WAR of -1.2) and have hit a combined 56 extra-base hits (XBH) in 791 plate appearances, including 17 HRs. Compare these career combined numbers with Mike Trout’s 2016: 10.6 WAR, 66 XBH in 681 PAs, 29 HRs.
And yet Team Israel keeps winning.
Israel has never been a great place for baseball. Efforts in the early 2000s to start a professional baseball league died after one season. The Yarkon Sports Complex outside of Tel Aviv appears to be Israel’s only major stadium. According to Baseball Reference’s Bio Index, no one born in Israel has ever played in a Major League game. Haaretz reported last summer that Team Israel pitcher Dean Kremer became the first-ever Israeli citizen to sign with a major league team when he was drafted by the Dodgers last summer.
This dearth of baseball in the national identity explains why there are only two Israelis on Team Israel. The other 34 members of the team are all Americans who meet the World Baseball Classic’s lax criteria for playing on a national team: they meet the criteria for becoming a citizen if they wanted to do so. And as The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman pointed out, Israel’s Law of Return expands the pool of potential Israeli citizens to include all Jews and non-Jews with Jewish parents or grandparents.
Although it may seem patently absurd to allow someone to compete for the team of a country that he has never even visited, in this case it is largely a function of necessity: baseball does not enjoy a major global following, so without lax eligibility rules, the competition would be limited to a few major teams from East Asian, Latin American, and North American countries. In theory, allowing players to play on an expanded list of teams aids the export of baseball around the world.
The early data suggests that it is working. Multiple media outlets have already covered Team Israel’s improbable success. “Israel at World Baseball Classic a Triumph for Jews Everywhere,” declared the Jerusalem Post. The team’s “Mensch on a Bench” mascot has been a social media sensation. The UK’s Guardian was a bit more cynical: “Israel’s baseball team: a cute farce, but still a great story.” It is a great story. And although the members of Team Israel are mostly Americans, they have been able to use the experience to connect with the Jewish culture of their parents and grandparents. Earlier this year the team visited Israel for a goodwill tour — the first visit to Israel for at least some of the players. When Israel’s national anthem is played before games, the players remove their caps and don matching kippot.
Folks who are upset about the WBC’s nationality rules are missing the point. And if we’re honest, we have to acknowledge that the whole WBC is an enjoyable gimmick anyway. Take the U.S. team, for example, which is the prohibitive favorite to win the WBC. The team boasts some really good players (Daniel Murphy, Ian Kinsler, Giancarlo Stanton) and a couple of great ones (Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado), but noticeably absent from it are MLB superstars like Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Corey Seager, and Anthony Rizzo. Pitcher comparisons are even more stark, with Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman headlining the WBC rotation, while Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Noah Syndergaard enjoy the pace of Grapefruit and Cactus League competition and prepare for MLB’s opening day. Viewed in this way, Team Israel’s success seems a little bit less improbable. It’s less like Jamaica almost winning the Olympic bobsled event and more like the University of Tampa beating the Philadelphia Phillies in a 2015 spring training exhibition game.
But no matter. The WBC is fun. And Israel’s improbable run will probably do more to generate interest in the sport in Israel than any of the preceding efforts to establish a professional league. This band of ballplayers has the chance to represent their heritage by what they love doing most, and they’re doing it well. That’s good for the fans, good for the players, and good for baseball.
In this World Baseball Classic, I’m pulling for the Mensch on a Bench.
Zac Crippen (@ZacCrippen) | Twitter
The latest Tweets from Zac Crippen (@ZacCrippen). Baseball fanatic. ⚾️ Lead writer at The Bullpen. 🎙🎧Co-host with…
Did you like this piece? Do you have any feedback? Let me know on Twitter!