By Cliff Corcoran
It didn't take long for the 2017 World Baseball Classic to generate a compelling story. In the very first game of the tournament, first-time entry Israel pulled off a shocking 10-inning upset of host country Korea. Israel then came out the next afternoon (local time) and whooped Chinese Taipei, 15-7, jumping out to a 2-0 record before any other team had even played a second game.
On Thursday, Israel defeated the Netherlands, 4-2, to sweep Pool A and advance to the second round. This from a team that wasn't even expected to be in the tournament.
Who are these upstarts? Let's get to know them better.
1. Israel entered the Classic qualifying round ranked 41st in the world by the World Baseball Softball Confederation. Yet, not only was Israel one of just 16 teams to make the actual tournament, in its first two games in the tournament it defeated South Korea and Chinese Taipei, ranked third and fourth, respectively, by a combined score of 17-8.
2. The discrepancy between Israel's ranking and performance is due in large part to the fact that its Classic roster is comprised almost exclusively of American professionals who would not be playing for Team Israel in another context. The World Baseball Classic allows players with multiple national affiliations to choose which country they want to play for, be it a country in which they are a naturalized citizen, the country of their birth or the country of a parent's birth. All a player has to do is provide documentary evidence that he would be granted citizenship or a passport by that country if he applied for one. Created as a refuge for the Jewish diaspora, Israel effectively guarantees citizenship via the Law of Return not only to any person of Jewish descent, but also to those who have converted to Judaism or simply married someone Jewish.
As a result, American players of Jewish descent comprise nearly all of Team Israel's roster. Indeed, none of the 16 teams in this year's Classic has fewer native countrymen than Israel. Of the 36 players on Israel's active roster and in its designated pitcher pool, 35 were born in the United States. Only 37-year-old righty Shlomo Lipetz was born in Israel (Tel Aviv, to be exact), even though Lipetz has primarily lived in the U.S. since attending college in San Diego. Lipetz did not appear in either of Israel's victories thus far in Round 1. The only other player on Team Israel to possess actual Israeli citizenship is Dodgers minor leaguer Dean Kremer, a duel-citizen who was born in Stockton, California.
3. Kremer, who recorded the final two outs of Israel's victory over Chinese Taipei, is additionally notable as the only Israeli citizen ever to be drafted by a Major League team. In fact, he was drafted twice. The Padres took him in the 38th round of the 2015 amateur draft, but he didn't sign. When the Dodgers took him in the 14th round last year, however, he did sign and made his professional debut with the Pioneer League's Ogden Raptors last July. The son of Israelis, Kremer spent his summers in Israel as a kid and spoke Hebrew at home with his family.
4. While pitching for UNLV last year, Kremer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that there is no Hebrew word for baseball.
5. Israel is likely the best-educated team in the Classic. Of the 36 players on their active roster and in their designated pitcher pool, 32 attended college. Among those 32, two went to Yale, three went to Stanford, two went to Duke, two went to St. John's and seven attended a Cal State school. On top of all that, manager Jerry Weinstein holds a masters degree in physical education from UCLA.
6. Despite the ease with which Americans of Jewish descent qualify for Israel's roster, the best Jewish baseball player in the Classic isn't playing for Team Israel. Instead, he's playing second base for Team USA. That player: Tigers' second baseman Ian Kinsler.
7. Despite the influx of American professional players and its early success, Team Israel lacks obvious star power. Other than Kinsler, the best active Jewish Major Leaguers -- Ryan Braun, Jason Kipnis, Joc Pederson, Kevin Pillar, Danny Valencia -- are not participating in the Classic. Of the 28 men on Israel's active roster in Round 1, only two appeared in the Major Leagues last year: Mets utility man Ty Kelly and first baseman Ike Davis, who is a non-roster invitee to Dodgers' camp this spring. Kelly and Davis combined for just 86 Major League plate appearances in 2016.
8. The other side of that coin is that Lipetz is the only one of the 28 players on Israel's Round 1 roster not to have played for either a Major League team or an affiliated Minor League team in the last two years. In fact, just three other members of Israel's active roster didn't at least play for an affiliated Minor League team in 2016, and two of them are Major League veterans: center fielder Sam Fuld, who missed the year due to injury, and ace Jason Marquis, who sat out the year in semi-retirement. The third is left fielder Blake Gailen, who played in independent ball in 2016 after spending most of 2015 with the Angels' Double-A team. The upshot there is that, while Israel may lack for star power, its base level of competence is very high, as its roster is almost entirely comprised of players who have played both college and minor league baseball.
9. Israel's first two wins came in two very different games, a 2-1 extra-inning victory over Korea in which their two runs scored on a walk and an infield single, and a 15-7 laugher over Chinese Taipei in which the mercy rule very nearly came into play. The one constant in the two games, however, has been Israel's ability to get on base. They hit .216 with just two extra base hits against Korea, but reached base at a .370 clip in that game, creating enough opportunities that they were ultimately able to get that second run across. Against Chinese Taipei, they collected six extra-base hits, including home runs by Ryan Lavarnway and Nate Freiman, but what made those hits so productive was that 24 of the 50 men they sent to the plate reached base, good for a .480 OBP. Then, against the Netherlands, they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning and never looked back.
10. Team Israel is set to play the first game of the second round -- which will also follow a round-robin format -- against the runner-up from Pool B on Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET. Israel will slot into Pool E with the Netherlands, and the two will wait to see which two teams from Pool B will join them. Pool B includes Japan, Cuba, China and Australia.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.