Spring training is upon us, but there’s more than one way to get your baseball fix throughout the year. 2020 sees the return of the sport to the Olympic schedule – hardly surprising, given that the host nation is almost as mad for it as the United States. With it comes four qualifying events to decide a field of six teams heading to Tokyo to compete for a medal.
Here we’ll give you the breakdown on the format; who’s in, who’s still looking for a place, and how you can follow the action.
Six teams will compete in Tokyo – a small field compared to the eight in previous years. As such, the group stages won’t decide who progresses and who goes home. Instead, the teams are split into two groups of three and a round-robin tournament determines the seeding.
The top seed from each group will earn a bye before facing each other in the quarter-final. From here, it’s a modified double-elimination tournament. A second-seed team that loses any of its games in the first three rounds drops into a second bracket, where they’ll be able to battle their way back to the finals for a chance at a medal. The third-seed team that loses its opening knockout round is eliminated.
More information on the format can be found at the Wikipedia page for Baseball at the 2020 Summer Olympics
As the host nation, Japan are automatically qualified. Joining them so far are Israel, South Korea and Mexico. Israel earned their spot by winning the Europe/Africa Baseball Qualifier, while South Korea and Mexico finished second and third at the WBSC Premier 12 tournament. Japan took home the gold in that event, so the qualifying honours went to the next two finishers.
Who’s still vying for a spot
The United States are conspicuous in their absence from the event so far. They finished fourth in the Premier 12, losing 3-2 to Mexico in ten innings. They’ll get one more shot in the Americas Qualifier tournament starting on 22 March, facing competition from Canada, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua and Colombia.
The final Olympic slot will be filled by the winner of the Final Qualifier in April. Six teams will take part – the Netherlands (Europe/Africa runner up), Chinese Taipei, China (top two finishers in the Asian Baseball Championship not already qualified), Australia (chosen to represent the Oceania region), and two runners up from the Americas Qualifier.
Teams to watch in the qualifiers
Of the unqualified teams, the United States are the obvious entry here. Despite not featuring any players from an active 40-man MLB roster, they boast a wealth of talent from the minor leagues – including Tanner Houck, Xavier Edwards and Alec Bohm.
Their toughest competition will come from Cuba and Venezuela (ranked eighth and ninth in the world, respectively) – the list of players from these countries on major-league rosters reads like a who’s who of baseball. Like the United States, these teams won’t be using currently active major-league players in their rosters, but there’s still a ton of skilled players to pick from.
The remaining countries aren’t of such high pedigree, but upsets can happen. Everyone here is ranked 15th or better in the world, so expect some good games.
In the Final Qualifier, it’s not quite as clear-cut. Chinese Taipei have made a name for themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the international stage – they narrowly missed out on a chance at the bronze medal at the Premier 12. The Netherlands and Australia are not that far behind them either. They’ll be joined by the second and third teams from the Americas Qualifiers – likely to be the United States, Cuba or Venezuela – which will give them an uphill struggle. This is set to be a close-fought competition.
Teams to watch in the OlympicsEmbed from Getty Images
The obvious favourite is the host nation, Japan. Nippon Professional Baseball is often referred to as Quadruple-A baseball, and a large number of Japanese players have made big splashes on major league teams. Ichiro Suzuki or Shohei Ohtani, anyone?
South Korea’s baseball program has also shown its might in recent competitions, culminating in a tough-fought final at the Premier 12 against Japan. They finished second, with superb performances from Jung-hoo Lee, Hyun Soo Kim and Hyeon-jong Yang. If the United States qualify, they’ll have a hard time against either of these countries.
One dark horse to keep an eye on is Israel. They finished the Europe/Africa Qualifier with four wins and one loss, including a dominating performance against the Netherlands. Prior to 2017, they were ranked 41st in the world – but a solid performance in that year’s World Baseball Classic propelled them to 19th (fourth in Europe). A factor in their favour is Israel’s “Law of Return” – in which anyone in the world with Jewish heritage can return to the country and be granted citizenship. This gives them access to a significant amount of talented players with minor and major league experience – Jeremy Bleich, Joey Wagman and Danny Valencia have all put up strong numbers for them.
How to watch the qualifiers and the Olympics
The qualifier tournaments, and the Olympic event itself, are organised by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), and they’ve done a great job of embracing free streaming services. You can find live games and highlights on their YouTube channel or find links to gametime.sport on the event schedules pages:
Commentary for the events is primarily in English, although in some there may be other languages presented depending on which nations are taking part. The WBSC works with some great broadcasting talent, and there’s always plenty of knowledge on offer. If you’re unable to stream video, they also feature an MLB Gameday style play-by-play segment where you can track every pitch from every at-bat.
The Olympic tournament itself will run from the 29 July to the 8 August.
The games will be broadcast by official partners in your region (for the UK, this will be the BBC and Eurosport). The BBC will carry all the events, primarily available on Red Button.
Chris Finlay is covering the Colorado Rockies and international baseball during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @chrisjfinlay