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Ominous Start for USA Baseball

USA BaseballThe United States Olympic baseball team played their first game today, and lost to Korea 7-6. USA trailed for almost the entire game, but scored three runs in the ninth to take a one-run lead. Korea, designated the home team, then scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to take the game. Before today, USA baseball was undefeated in opening games at the Olympics, and also undefeated against Korea. The Olympics uses a round-robin format for the baseball tournament, so USA still has at least six games remaining. The team has plenty of time to rebound from this loss, but it still is a tough one to take.

Korea deserves some credit for how well they played. Former MLB player Jung Bong started for them, and looked surprisingly sharp. Every reliever that followed him, with the exception of Ki joo Han, also looked fairly good. On top of that, their lineup flashed surprising power and an ability to catch up to pitchers with a little better velocity than they are likely used to.

In small sample sizes (such as one game), luck plays a surprisingly large role in the outcome of a baseball game. For the most part, skill takes the better part of a season to truly separate, so even a round-robin tournament like the Olympics takes a surprising amount of luck to win. It would be easy to say that team USA was due to lose an opener, and lose to Korea. Both were probably true, but there were still some very ominous signs from the game.

I am worried that the coaching staff has taken this team and made them worse than they should be. Baseball at the international level is not as different as basketball, but different regions have slightly different styles of play that, based on today's performance, I think the coaching staff has completely ignored. To start with, it is known that across Asia (especially in Japan and Korea), pitchers feature their breaking ball much more than American pitchers. This is a very well-known fact too; M's pitchers have belly ached throughout the year about how Kenji calls so many breaking balls, as if they are playing in Japan. The propensity of breaking pitches hitters see is also the reason scouts questioned if position players like Ichiro and Hideki Matsui would be able to handle the fastball in the majors.

So, even with no scouting report whatsoever on the Korean team, I would have had the Asian style of pitching in mind. As a result, I probably would have started a more powerful pitcher (like Jake Arrieta), and made the Korean hitters prove that they could handle a power pitcher. More importantly, I would have warned my hitters about all the breaking balls they would probably see. I would have told them to sit on the breaking ball instead of the fastball.

What did team USA do? They started Brandon Knight, a pitcher that has a decent fastball, but that ultimately survives by mixing speeds with an effective breaking ball. Knight's last tune-up against Canada was very impressive, so I am not that irritated that he got the opening start in the Olympics. However, I don't think several of the team's younger, more powerful pitchers are much (if any) worse than Knight right now, and I think any of them would have been a more difficult match-up for Korea's hitters. In the end, it may have not made a difference, given the surprising bat speed that I saw out of their lineup.

I was stunned at how bad team USA's hitting was today, and I have a hunch it is due to inept coaching. For the first eight innings, all the hitters took huge swings over the tops of breaking balls. They were clearly going for home runs (which the commentators assured was Davey Johnson's style of play, and what the team had in mind when building the offense), and I am definitely in support of power over small ball. However, they were completely geared for the fastball all day, and stubbornly stuck with their approach regardless of any situation. As a result, Tae hyon Chong, nothing more than a glorified underhand junkball pitcher, struck out six USA hitters in a row at one point. It seems that even the Koreans were stunned at how effective he was, considering they decided to take him out after only one time through the lineup. Maybe Chong was tired, but the commentators hypothesized that maybe Korea thought that the USA hitters would figure out the second time around that Chong was just throwing slow breaking garbage at them, and the US would start to tee off. After thinking about the game some, the commentators may have been right.

I was about to give Korea's pitching all the credit until the ninth inning. That's when Korea brought in Ki joo Han, who looked like their best reliever. He had the best arm of all the pitchers they had used. Han came in throwing fastballs, and all of sudden the USA offense came to life. They bludgeoned Han's fastball all over the park, despite seeing a steady diet of breaking balls for the first eight innings. I expected the team to be behind on his fastball, but the opposite was true. Korea's manager noticed this, and intelligently brought in another breaking ball pitcher. Outside of Matt Brown's fantastic at-bat in the ninth, team USA immediately was crippled again.

The USA hitters have seen breaking balls at least as good as the ones Korea was throwing today. Maybe they do not crush breaking balls, but there is no way they all could have advanced to AA and AAA by crushing fastballs and flailing away at breaking pitches as bad as they did today. Sure, players have bad days, but the entire team making the same mistake over and over (and not adjusting) makes me leery. It wreaks of a bad coaching job to me.

Team USA better figure out the breaking ball in a hurry. Japan should feature just as many breaking pitches, except they will likely have sharper break and better command. Really, after today, I don't know why any team in the tournament would bother throwing anything but breaking balls to USA. They were so geared for the fastball it was pathetic. Maybe it was just a bad day, but the violent swings and misses all day may point towards a fatal tactical error.