Great Britain Baseball ended last year ranked 29th in the world after climbing four places in 2016.
The news marks the end of a strong campaign for the GB programme, and with Olympic funding also still in the frame, expectations are high going into the 2017 season.
GB enjoyed successive rises in the second half of the year. In August, the official World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) rankings saw the team jump three positions to #30 after the U-18s finished 8th at the European Championship, and Great Britain finished second in the U-15 European Championship Qualifier. In November, GB gained another place after the Seniors finished ninth at the European Championship.
Nateshon Thomas at the WBCQ in New York. Credit: Paul Stodart
Head Coach Liam Carroll said the latest boost was proof that British baseball was moving in the right direction across multiple fronts.
"I applaud the efforts of a system that rewards programmes for developing talent at every level, from U-12s to the Senior National Team. This is consistent with The GB Way to inspire, develop and perform."
The rankings reflect national performance across all age groups over the past four years. Carroll added that the ‘dreamland’ target would be to crack the WBSC Top 12 by 2020, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. A place in the World Baseball Classic in March 2017, where a minimum of 100 ranking points could be accumulated, would have been enough to claim 24th place in the latest standings. But with GB having narrowly missed out in the final of the Qualifier, that goal is no longer feasible.
"The rankings are not the be-all and end-all," Carroll said. "There are not 28 nations out there that, at the senior level, could beat us."
Britain’s recent rises were also due to the Philippines dropping four places and Sweden two as previously accumulated points expired. South Africa, meanwhile, jumped 12 places in 2016, including eight in November, leapfrogging GB into 28th place.
In light of Great Britain’s recent Olympic funding application, the rankings offer tangible evidence of progress. As friendlies can contribute to points, it is understood that GB will attempt to find quality opposition against which to bolster their position, and their investment bid.
The rankings provide a benchmark for setting goals. Having a strategic plan in place is essential for baseball to succeed in Great Britain. The GB Way, a 100-page dossier outlining the GB approach, both on and off the field, recognises the need for goals – both measurable and accountable.
Though the rankings cannot prove who the best team actually is, they do give a strong indication of which baseball programmes are the most comprehensive. This naturally weights them towards countries where the sport is backed by corporate investment and a culturally-embedded programme. It's no surprise that the top five ranked countries all consider the sport their national pastime.
This self-perpetuating relationship is one of the cornerstones of Great Britain’s funding application argument to UK Sport, the body which handles grants for the Olympics. Baseball is returning to Tokyo in 2020, and as of early December, GB remains in the running for funding. Cracking the top 20, let alone the top 10, is largely contingent on investment. Rising up the rankings is like a rolling stone: success in one tournament opens the door to others, such as the Flagship Premier 12. Points are accumulated by attending tournaments, and preferential weighting is applied when teams with higher rankings attend those tournaments.
But this system gives a distorted picture of how strong Great Britain’s programme is – or could be. GB does not have the financial resources to attend many international tournaments, especially outside Europe -- and since 2007, with the exception of two World Baseball Classic Qualifiers, GB has not been able to field its strongest possible Senior team.
The second distortion is that previously the WBCQ was allocated ranking points, and as a result, Brazil was able to achieve a ranking as high as #13. In September, ironically Great Britain pulled off its biggest win since defeating Spain at the European Championships in 2007, ousting Brazil to reach the final of the competition. No ranking points were awarded, however, because the attending teams were invited to participate.
Great Britain coach Liam Carroll greets Brazil skipper Barry Larkin at the World Baseball Classic Qualifier
There is ample evidence to unofficially re-evaluate the Great Britain ranking, based on the Senior team's recent performances. Victories over Brazil and Pakistan in the WBCQ, who rank #17 and #24, respectively, and narrow losses in the European Championship against the Czech Republic (#14), Germany (#20) and Russia (#23), would suggest a low 20s spot as a baseline. Britain’s highest ranking in recent times is #21, in 2012.
"The one tournament [the WBCQ] in which GB can field its best team receives no world ranking points, but GB is not in a position financially to send teams to many of the points-weighted competitions," Liam Carroll said.
"Meanwhile, the tournament carrying the greatest weighting – the Premier 12 – is outside Great Britain’s reach, precisely because we can’t accumulate enough points to crack the top 12. We feel this leads to a world ranking that does not reflect either our performance level or our potential. So we would dispute our current ranking.
"We believe our real ranking is closer to the low or mid-teens."
Japan has been ranked #1 in the World since November 2014, and extended its lead over second-placed USA in 2016. Korea, Chinese Taipei and Cuba round out the top five. The highest-placing European team is the Netherlands (#9), who swapped places with Italy (#10) after winning the European Championship in September 2016.
Mexico has reached its highest-ever position at #6 and Australia has moved in to the all-important Top 12 at #11. Argentina, ninth place finishers at the U-23 Baseball World Cup, finished 2016 at #22.
The WBSC rankings are based on over 1,000 international contests and data points, weighing the results from each country's entire National Team programme. Recent post-scoring competitions include the U-23 World Cup (won by Japan, +690 points for the winner), the U-15 Baseball World Cup (won by Cuba, +460 points), the U-18 Baseball World Cup, the 2017 European Qualifier, and the U-12 Baseball World Cup 2017, plus qualifiers in the Americas and Europe. International friendlies are included, but score few points.
There will be three World Championships in 2017: the World Baseball Classic (March), the U-12 Baseball World Cup (July) and the U-18 Baseball World Cup (September). Great Britain will not take part in any of these; its biggest opportunity is the U-23 European Championship in August. For the Senior squad, the next window is in 2018.
“Place well in the Euros in 2018, where the winners will gain around 200 points, and suddenly we'll be knocking on the door of the top 20,” Carroll said.
The lack of a major competition in which Britain and its nearest rivals will take part in 2017 means there is not likely to be either a significant improvement or a decline in our position this year. While both Hong Kong (#26) and Pakistan (#24) look vulnerable, and South Africa’s monumental climb is unlikely to continue, the steady development of the Belgian baseball programme and the high level of competition from nations who are competing in point scoring competitions next year, could offset any potential gains.
GB Bullpen Coach Trevor Hoffman