When the 2017 World Baseball Classic rosters were announced on Wednesday evening, many Detroit Tigers fans (myself included) were surprised to see their team lead the way with 15 players listed across seven rosters. Some players, like Miguel Cabrera, were no surprise. Others, like Colombian pitcher William Cuevas, were players we had never heard of before.
Arguably the biggest surprise, however, was Michael Fulmer’s inclusion on the United States’ roster. Fresh off winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016, Fulmer is heading into an important spring. He pitched a career-high 174 1⁄3 innings across two levels last season, a huge jump from the 124 2⁄3 frames he logged in 2015. Even prior to his participation in the World Baseball Classic, fans were concerned about how that jump in workload would affect him in 2017.
We shouldn’t worry about the World Baseball Classic, though.
First, there’s a chance he might not even participate. Fulmer is listed as one of 10 designated pitchers on the U.S. roster. The World Baseball Classic rules stipulate that a team can have no more than two designated pitchers on their roster at any time. The team can replace these designated pitchers between rounds. Once a pitcher gets replaced on the roster, he cannot go back. With only three rounds in the entire tournament, the U.S. can only use a maximum of six designated pitchers. They have already chosen Danny Duffy and Tanner Roark as their designated pitchers for the first round, and have eight total designated pitchers on their roster.
Then there’s the potential workload itself. The World Baseball Classic consists of the aforementioned three rounds. The first is what some would consider a group stage; the U.S. is in a group of four teams, all of whom will play each other over the course of four days (the U.S. plays games on three consecutive days from March 10-12). There is a chance for a tiebreaker game, giving teams a maximum of four games in the group stage.
The second round is similar to the first. The top two teams from each of the four groups (eight teams total) form two new groups. Those teams play one another in similar format, with potential for a fourth tiebreaker game. The four teams (two in each group) to advance from that round play the semifinal games, with the two winners advancing to the final on March 22.
Long story short: the maximum number of games the United States can play (tiebreakers included) is 10 over a 13-day period. If you eliminate tiebreakers, that number drops to eight over the same 13 days. Fulmer is not eligible for the first round, so he could only be on the roster for a maximum of six games over a nine-day period. With such a condensed schedule, Fulmer likely would not pitch in more than two of those games.
The U.S. roster is working in Fulmer’s favor as well. Of the 18 pitchers listed on their roster, 10 are relievers by trade. Others, like Duffy, Roark, and Seattle’s Drew Smyly, have worked out of the bullpen before. If he is selected to participate, Fulmer would likely be used in a starting role. This would help him keep pace with his normal spring training schedule. If anything, Fulmer may throw a little less at the World Baseball Classic than he would in Lakeland.
Of course, there is always a chance that a player could get hurt during tournament play. The early-season travel coupled with a heightened intensity during games puts players in situations they don’t normally face in March. However, there is a chance for injury in any baseball competition. With the relatively light schedule and ability to swap designated pitchers out between rounds, Fulmer’s preparation for the MLB season should only be minimally affected.