Remember that time the Opening Ceremonies were scheduled, and then the Olympics went ahead and started a week early?
Perhaps in an effort to reassure sports fans that, yes, no matter what you’ve read in the Washington Post, the Games of the XXXII Olympiad are not dead in the water, the International Olympic Committee has yelled “play ball” as a symbolic sign that the
2021 2020 Tokyo Olympics are going full steam ahead.
Heck, some of the IOC’s marquee events are already going at full steam, on the pitch and on the diamond.
Forget a Q-bracket in Men’s Volleyball or a team diving exhibition. Tokyo kicked off a much-anticipated Women’s Football event 3 days prior to the lighting of the torch, leading to a stunning result as the politically-minded Yanks were clobbered 3-0 by football-minded Team Sweden. Japan announced its presence at the
2021 2020 Summer Olympics as a sports program as opposed to merely a beleaguered event host, whipping Australia 8-1 in softball with a display of power that will challenge Team USA’s hurlers.
Baseball won’t begin until Tuesday, allowing sportsbooks to leave basic pre-tournament odds on the Tokyo showdown right through the Opening Ceremonies this weekend (imagine that).
Due to the absence of active Major League Baseball professionals in the tournament, the 6 participating national teams are drawn tightly on the gambling board, in similar fashion to how a Men’s Basketball or hockey event at the Olympics draws balanced London action when NBA or NHL players respectively go missing.
Recreational gamblers love to count a top-ranked league’s roster spots on their fingers and toes, especially when it comes to national teams going for gold in a worldwide tournament. WagerBop means no disrespect to bettors who handicap the World Baseball Classic by counting the number of familiar MLB names on each squad – heck, it worked like a charm for the 2017 WBC. When a TV analyst like Barry Melrose looks at the camera sagely and says, “Switzerland has 6 NHL players, and Latvia has 2, so Switzerland is going to win today’s game 6 to 2,” he can sound like he knows what he’s talking about, even though any Olympics fan with common sense knows that the landscape is more complicated than that.
In the case of
2021’s 2020’s Tokyo baseball event, the “fingers and toes” analysts are all out of luck if not their precious bodily digits, because only the MLB aficionados at a sportsbook can name a substantial selection of the prospects, prodigies, college kids, and Japanese and Korean league participants on the diamond at the Summer Olympics. The good news (if an anxious angle for Team USA) is that Nippon Professional Baseball and Korea’s “KBO” are considered inferior to MLB because of the worst teams and journeyman players in those leagues, not because the best athletes of the KBO and NPB aren’t playing at an MLB level.
When Midwestern announcers describe MLB stat leaders as prevailing over “all of baseball,” it’s just an empty slogan. Even if you accept the principle that only the best teams count, Japan and South Korea are producing pro baseball clubs – at least a handful – which are stacked enough to compete with the Minnesota Twins or the Kansas City Royals. If a slugger hit 80 home runs in Korea while the MLB leader hit 40 in 150 games, the KBO batter would be the actual home-run king “in aaalllllllll of basebaaallll.”
Pick a KBO or NPB club at random for a 5-game series with the Twins, and they’d probably lose. Pick a team – as in, a roster – from the statistical leaders of both leagues and you could give the New York Yankees real problems in a series…especially in summer 2021. Shohei Ohtani isn’t revolutionizing baseball on the west coast because he was reared in a crappy professional league.
Tokyo baseball favorites have built Summer Olympics squads from a nucleus of outstanding pros plying their craft overseas, leading to optimistic gold medal betting odds on South Korea and host “Samurai Japan.” Are the high-risk odds on Team USA for gold (which just about match South Korea’s line for gold) a product of homeland bias on behalf of state-side speculators? Or do the Yankees (Tokyo’s “Yankees” instead of the New York Yankees in this case) have a shot to star in the gold medal game on August 7th?
Baseball at the Summer Olympics: Gold Medal Odds on Team USA and the Field
Team Japan (+105)
Team USA (+300)
Team Korea (+310)
Team Dominican Republic (+650)
Team Mexico (+1100)
Team Israel (+3300)
The biggest apparent contradiction in futures odds on baseball at the Tokyo Olympics is not found among the top 3 teams. Instead, it’s strange at a glance to see the Dominican Republic, the pre-tourney gold medal favorite at the most recent WBC, getting an underdog’s futures line of 6.5-to-1. Not that the Dominicans would be favored to win an elaborate world tournament, but in this year’s Summer Olympics field of 6 teams without MLB participation, why wouldn’t the former international favorites get shorter (or at least comparable) odds as they did in 2017?
Many of the finest DR ballplayers are in Major League Baseball, of course, and the Dominican Republic has lost a fair chunk of its preferred 2010s depth chart. And it’s not like the nation actually won the 2017 World Baseball Classic, with the Dominicans failing to reach the final elimination stage despite going 3-0 in a round-robin pool that included the United States. The Yanks took revenge in a playoff round once DR had been softened by pesky Puerto Rico, winning 6-3 behind a big day from Giancarlo Stanton.
We’ll investigate Team Dominican Republic’s chances further in the team-preview section below. But first, an important word about comparing NPB and KBO batters in the Summer Olympics.
Baseball defies the “eye in the sky” slogan of stat analysts. Players can make statistics change, but so can ballparks and elevations. Korea’s baseball league – as featured on ESPN during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020 – is built around ballparks that aren’t too different from North America’s pro baseball fields. Not every KBO owner can fill the massive parks that they’ve built, causing some to install spooky robot cheerleaders in the outfield stands (true story). But the batting, pitching, and circumstances are MLB-like enough to make some parallel cross-league comparisons in stats, accounting of course for the thin pitching of mediocre clubs in Korea.
Japan, on the contrary, has a baseball culture built around smaller parks, tricky pitching, and finesse, for the same reason that golf courses are rare properties and professional ice hockey and soccer have flourished infrequently in Japan’s crowded cities. There’s no space available for Nippon Professional Baseball teams to play in Busch Stadium circa 1985, not when ballparks are built in locations like the suburbs near Tokyo. NPB batters with decent power can rack up immense home-run totals deceptive to the naked analytical eye. Ordinary fly balls in MLB games would threaten to scream right over the wall in a typical Japanese park. Sandura Oh, a Japanese club ballplayer considered among the greatest sluggers ever, has an asterisk next to his home-run total that’s bigger than those next to Roger Maris or Barry Bonds. Oh hit a lot of baseball-distance home runs, and a few “softball” distance home runs too.
However, we shouldn’t discount a huge slugging % from a Japanese club player, not completely. Pitchers on clubs in Japan work very hard not to give up long fly balls, and NPB batters who can consistently drive the ball to the corner are winning 1-on-1 battles with some of the most devious hurlers in the sport.
Japanese sluggers might have to swing out of their shoes to keep up with the kind of dangerous power that American, Dominican, and Korean teams will bring to Yokohama Stadium, with its compact, symmetrical outfield and a 387-foot distance from home plate to the center-field wall (that’s shorter than Fenway Park). But when an NPB clean-up hitter has excellent slugging stats, we know that he’s making contact and putting the ball where he wants it against quality pitching. In fact, Team Japan might be the only squad in Tokyo that can consistently bat well against Japan’s pitching staff, for all the good that does the other 5 teams at the Olympics.
Finally, it should be obvious that the tink! metal-bat tradition and other weird variables prompt a skeptical eye when analyzing the tournament’s recent NCAA grads and amateur players, who may or may not play a significant role in the outcome, except to worry a manager about his Cinderella squad’s reserve ranks.
Scholastic and amateur baseball is so quirky from locale-to-locale that you wouldn’t know from a stat sheet if a Team Israel rookie is the next Roy Hobbs or a spring-training ghost until you see him play. (True story #2 – a Varsity diamond near my house has no home-run fence and operates on the rule that a home run is a fly ball that goes over the head of the deepest outfielder, causing players to sprint in parallel to long fly balls in fear of getting in front of the bean, rather than try to make the difficult overhead catch. No scout can collect meaningful power-hitting or base-running stats on the home team without accounting for a lot of lazy triples. Funny that the outfield wall is considered an obstacle to outfielders on the run – without the wall an outfield corps is methodical and dull to watch.) Once again, though, the same principle applies to prospects who’ve recently used aluminum bats as to the wooden-bat wielders in Japan’s small parks – batting averages earned against strong pitchers don’t lie, even when a slugging % can.
Summer Olympics: Baseball Team Previews and Best Betting Odds
Forget what we said about “no familiar names.” Former New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka is headlining the host national team’s roster. Tanaka, who played 7 MLB seasons and went 78-46 over that period, is now back home with Nippon Professional Baseball, but that’s no sign that his skills have eroded, especially the skill set needed for a short gold-medal runs. Team Japan will boast a host of other experienced NPB pros as well as half of a dozen newcomers making their Olympic debuts.
Veterans like Hayato Sayamoto and Tetsuto Yamada are examples of Team Japan batters whose home-run stats are inflated by miniature outfields – the pair have combined for nearly 500 dingers in NPB. But the lineup will be full of crafty and unfamiliar threats from the plate. Sōsuke Genda is an infielder to watch, a 2021 NPB All-Star and an expert contact-hitter with quickness around the base paths. While a compact, perfectly oblong park should theoretically carry some advantages for fielders trying to contain Japan’s baserunning, there’s also the angle that without a substantial crowd on hand, a quieter field will produce laser-focus and ample communication between base-coaches and runners.
Japan has never won a Summer Olympics gold medal in baseball, but took home bronze in 2004 and silver in 1996. Unlike many host squads that automatically qualify to play under the 5 rings, Japan got to skip qualification as Olympic host while preparing what could easily prove to be the best lineup in Tokyo.
Team Japan begins Group Stage play with a tough match-up against the Dominican Republic on Wednesday.
Baseball was not included in the Olympics in 2012 or 2016, but Team USA hasn’t won the gold since 2000. It’s safe to say that USA Softball is the far-superior brand on Summer Olympics diamonds. But the 2021 squad looks as poised and able as a roster can, when not blessed by the top league from its home country, anyway.
The United States lineup is built almost entirely around MLB, NPB, and Triple-A veterans, with little room for recent NCAA grads or any raw prospects in training. USA Baseball has correctly surmised that only a refined squad can hope to out-fox Japan or South Korea in a big ballgame, and has resisted the usual mistake made by North American federations in other sports, who tend to overrate professionals in North America and overlook key potential additions from 2nd-best leagues around the world. The top players in Japan could always beat ordinary “bubble” guys here in the USA – but other federations might have a hard time admitting that.
Todd Frazier, possibly the only household name with Team USA in Tokyo, led the way to a 4-1 qualification record by batting .400 and totaling 6 hits and 5 RBIs. Frazier is an 11-year MLB veteran with 218 career homers and notable stints with the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets.
Tristan Casas, a member of the Boston Red Sox’s AA affiliate, also had a stellar tournament in which he matched Frazier’s average at the plate. Pitching is a question mark compared to the team’s strong batting and competent fielding, but the presence of hurlers like Nick Martinez of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks will be a boon even when an American club hurler is on the mound, thanks to their extensive knowledge of the Japanese lineup and the NPB style of hardball.
Team USA could benefit from a fortunate draw, facing Team Israel in a Group B opener – an opener for the United States that is. Israel has to play Korea the previous day, softening the Israeli pitching staff for what could be the USA’s easiest win. Following that, however, the Yanks will face the All-Star KBO pitching at least once in a Group B ballgame scheduled for July 31st.
South Korean baseball has historically performed quite well in the Olympics, and won gold medals the last time hardball was part of the Summer Olympics in 2008. The team went 3-2 in the 2019 WBSC Premier12 international tournament, earning a second-place finish and a spot in Tokyo. Korea dusted the United States 5-1 in the Super Round before falling to Japan in the championship.
Shortstop Kim Ha-seong and outfielder Lee Jung-hoo are 2 ballplayers to watch in Tokyo. Ha-seong had a home run and 2 RBIs and batted .333 for the Q-tournament. Jung-hoo batted .385 and finished with 10 hits and 4 RBIs. Baek-Ho Kang’s role on the Korean team is as familiar to North American speculators as his name is not – he’s a 1st baseman with a big-time batting average and plenty of power. Kang could become the maiden KBO batter to hit .400 or better for a season in the fielder-friendly league since Ozzie Smith and the St. Louis Cardinals were World Series champs in 1982.
South Korea’s pitching stable features the cream, not the dregs, of the Korean Baseball Organization. Starter So Hyeong-jun was the 2020 KBO Rookie of the Year, and reliever Jung Woo-young won the award in 2019. Some of the hurlers on the national team haven’t lost any Korean Baseball Organization starts in recent memory.
Team Dominican Republic was the final baseball squad to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, could still pose a serious threat to the rest of the field. Every single member of the team’s roster is either part of an MLB team’s farm system or playing in the Dominican Professional Baseball League.
MLB veteran Melky Cabrera will suit up for his country, having played 15 years in the MLB with an impressive .285 batting average and close to 2000 hits. José Bautista, another hard-to-forget name for American baseball fans, will patrol 3rd base.
The Dominican Republic won all 3 of its games in Tokyo’s Final Qualifying Tournament, defeating Venezuela 8-5 in the championship to clinch their spot in the Games. Cabrera hit a 2-run dinger and Luis Castillo starred in a 3-inning performance.
Is the DR as deeply stacked as it is when MLBers were allowed? No, but that’s true of every team in the tournament. Dominican Republic’s gold medal odds vs gold medal chances ratio is promising at 6/1 or 7/1, and there’s not much time for the line to change.
From an offensive standpoint, and perhaps pure athletic explosiveness, Team Mexico is a formidable underdog at 10/1. Former MLB All-Star Adrián González will compete for his home country, bringing 15 years of pro experience with him.
MLB journeyman Danny Espinosa will also take the infield alongside Gonzalez, playing a role similar to the “NHL ringers” without a contract who were snuck-into the 2018 Olympics to skate for Canada, helping the Habs to a hard-earned bronze.
Mexico’s 6-2 record in the 2019 WBSC Premier12 earned a spot in this year’s Olympics as the top team from the Americas region. OF Jonathan Jones lifted his squad to the berth in the Games by batting .367 and racking up 3 home runs and 6 RBIs.
Mexico’s draw isn’t easy by any stretch, in Group A next to Japan and Dominican Republic. However, in a field so small, the winner will pretty much have to out-shine every contender along the way no matter what the brief round-robin scenario is like.
At +3300, the Israelis appear a fairly appealing option for those interested in betting on a big underdog to make some noise.
MLB veteran Ian Kinsler is the lone former star on the roster, and the team will look to him for big-time production and leadership in Tokyo. Kinsler played 14 seasons in the MLB and finished with a career .269 batting average, 1999 hits, and 257 homers. Infielder Danny Valencia will also bring some pro experience to the team, having played 9 years in the states and notching 795 MLB hits.
2021 will mark Israel’s first appearance in the Olympics, but the country has participated in the World Baseball Classic and the European Baseball Championship. Pitcher Joey Wegman led the latter event with a flawless 0.00 ERA in 2019, a crazy number that actually does stand-up well against the robotic (mound-bound robotic, in this case) exploits of Korea’s strong stable.
You’ll find WagerBop’s recommended futures bets and units to wager on baseball at the Tokyo Olympics on scroll, but please peruse MLB and international baseball scout Jake Peter‘s guest prediction (it’s a good’un) before moving onward.
And remember, you can actually breathe – and enjoy the Opening Ceremonies – before this damn event gets underway.
Take it away, Jake –
-Right now, the Vegas oddsmakers are severely undervaluing the Mexican national team. Team Mexico has the 5th-best odds of winning gold, but could very well shock everyone in Tokyo. There’s great value to be had in a prop bet on Mexico to finish in the top 3, especially considering the small 6-team field at hand. The team has more MLB talent than most of its opponents. Don’t be fooled—Mexico may never have medaled in the Olympics before, but this year is without a doubt the nation’s best shot to do so.
Our Recommended Gold Medal Picks
South Korea (+310) (3 unit maximum)
Dominican Republic (+650) (2 unit maximum)
Mexico (+1000) (2 unit maximum)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.
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