Sunday, August 17, 2014

Building a successful WCL roster

The HarbourCats finished their second year in the WCL with a disappointing 25-29 record, a three-game improvement in the win column over the previous season. While they crept closer to the .500 mark, the ‘Cats did benefit from a fairly easy schedule and they racked up a combined 12-6 record against the weak Kitsap BlueJackets and Cowlitz Black Bears. If you take away those 18 games, the HarbourCats had a record of 13-23 (.361) against the rest of the league -- hardly the mark of a playoff contender.

In the two-year history of the franchise, the ‘Cats sport an unimpressive winning percentage of .435, and they hold the distinction of being the only team out of the three recent expansion franchises that failed to make the playoffs in their inaugural season (Medford and Yakima Valley are the others). There are many reasons why Victoria hasn't had much on-field success so far, but this post will focus on one in particular: the composition of their roster.

In spite of that .435 winning percentage, the HarbourCats have featured plenty of talent in their first couple of seasons. There have been players with flashy skills. Guys who threw hard and had nasty stuff. Guys who had blinding speed. Guys who could rake. “Toolsy” guys who could make scouts drool. We have even seen guys on the team who will play in the big leagues one day. In short, skill hasn't been the problem.

We have also seen rosters full of talent from the top NCAA Division I programs. Players who have played key roles on highly-ranked teams have been sent our way. We have had players who have been mentored by some of the top head coaches in college baseball. Players who have been on teams that made the College World Series have worn the HarbourCats jersey -- one guy even played on the team that won the (Division I) national title. Getting players from the best programs hasn't been the problem.

So what has been the problem with the roster these past two seasons? Our team has quite simply been too young and too inexperienced to compete for a playoff spot in the West Coast League. As a point of reference, let’s compare the 2014 HarbourCats roster to the two teams that made this year’s WCL Championship Series. The graph below shows the percentage of players on each team, broken down by the school year completed just prior to the WCL season.

2014 Roster Breakdown
As you can see, the HarbourCats roster was structured very differently from the Corvallis and Bellingham rosters. Only 36% of the HarbourCats were upperclassmen (sophomores and juniors in the context of summer college leagues), as opposed to 65% of the Knights players and 59% of the Bells. This experience gap between Victoria and the other two clubs was massive, so it shouldn't come as a big surprise that the HarbourCats only took four of the 12 games played against those teams in 2014. By the way, only 29% of Victoria players were upperclassmen in the team's inaugural season.

Victoria also had more incoming freshman (i.e. high school seniors) on their 2014 roster than the Knights and Bells combined. The WCL is a very good college wood-bat league, and it’s not easy for recent high school grads to perform well at this level -- especially for middle infielders and pitchers (the super-human Sean Watkins is the rare exception to the rule). In the future, the HarbourCats would be wise to minimize the risk of rookie meltdowns by taking only one or two incoming freshmen per season, and whenever possible only take an outfielder or a first baseman, who have an easier transition to the college game.

The other roster ingredient that we haven't had enough of, as compared to the playoff teams at least, has been desire. We need more players with a fire in their belly for summer baseball. Guys with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove to their college coaches. A number of HarbourCats have had significant success in the last couple of seasons despite coming from lesser-known programs, and there are plenty of other examples throughout the WCL. Alex Fagalde, Austin Russell, Alex Rogers and Connor Russell are four such examples from the Victoria squad alone.

The surprising Drew Davidoff
Photo by Brian Hayes
The surprising success of the three graduating Victoria Eagles who were signed to 10-day contracts for the last week of this past season is another case in point. Riley Edmonds, Dallas Patterson and Drew Davidoff were high school pitchers who were in tough against experienced WCL competition, but each player was the best HarbourCats pitcher in one of the final (meaningless) games down the stretch. How did they do it? A big factor was desire. These guys were fired up to be given the opportunity and they made the most of it. Their ERAs for the week? Only 0.00 (Davidoff), 3.85 (Edmonds) and 3.85 (Patterson).

This past season, I recall a couple of blog readers, a HarbourCats player and one of the player’s parents using a phrase that strikes me as odd. This puzzling phrase, usually used in defense of a player or group of players for some perceived slight, is that “... the players are giving up their summer…” I’m really surprised that some people consider it a sacrifice to travel to a foreign country, learn about another culture, get a taste of the minor-league experience, improve their skills and further their baseball career. The HarbourCats should be recruiting players who are thrilled to have this opportunity, instead of signing those who see the glass as being half empty. I realize that these players are in the minority, but the effect they have on their teammates cannot be underestimated.

Our new head coach, Graig Merritt, is already hard at work recruiting for next season. He’ll be building us a roster under the direction of GM Jim Swanson, who started in his job last December and largely (but not entirely) inherited the 2014 roster from the former head coach. Fortunately for HarbourCats fans, both Merritt and Swanson seem to have their heads around how to construct a winning WCL team. It’s likely that we’ll see a handful of returning players next summer, but look for a much different type of roster for year three of HarbourCats baseball… and possibly even that pennant race we have been waiting so long for.


  1. I actually believe that victoria will always need to have a roster about 20% better than opposing teams. Why? When I pick my billets up at 10am, from their road trip, on a game day, they have travelled all night in a coach. And then a ferry. They've had broken sleep, and as every athletic coach will tell you, you need 8 hours uninterrupted sleep to recover. And on at least 2 occasions, they haven't even been able to be picked up at 10am and have some extra sleep, they've had to do other things at RAP. I know the general response to this would be to 'suck it up, buttercup', but just as Bob Miller stated that coaching victoria was job number 2, for these boys, its actually job number 3, behind getting a good education, and playing baseball for their college. Injuries occur due to tired bodies, Victoria needs to learn from that, by either not taking everyone on road trips, or having an even bigger roster next year. Maybe the new coach will recognise this.

  2. Great job Gus!

    However I would be very hesitant to question a player's desire. These guys did not reach this level by being a slacker, they only know one way to play and that is to play hard. They all want to become major league baseball players one day and they know they will need to work very hard to realize that dream.

    1. Hi Annie,

      I understand what you are saying. However, I didn't say that the team had no desire, only that other teams wanted it more. I also didn't point the finger at any particular player. My point was simply that some other teams wanted it more than we did and that if the roster was constructed in a better fashion then we would have achieved a better result.

      BTW, I doubt that very many people will question the desire of one of Graig Merritt's teams. He'll have them fired up next year!