It’s hard to believe, but we are already a quarter through the 2016 WCL regular season. With that in mind, it’s time we sat down with head coach Graig Merritt to get his thoughts on the team’s progress so far, how he’s doing, and what we can expect from the team going forward…
What’s different with the 2016 HarbourCats, and why have we been winning games where last year we were struggling?
It really has a lot to do with the recruiting process that Jim [Swanson], Brad [Norris-Jones], myself, and the whole coaching staff – even our coaches from last year – went through to get good quality players in here. We were really good offensively last year, and we led the league in 4-5 categories, so offense wasn’t really our priority this year, it was pitching. And right now, we have really, really good pitching and that’s the main difference. You see the high scoring games for sure, but it’s pitching and defence that has us off to the fantastic start.
How is the team responding – they seem to be more relaxed, closer knit, more businesslike already?
I think it’s because of the characters that we have this year. Last year it took the guys two or three weeks to buy into what we were trying to do here, and that’s why we were 8-16 at that point. Once those kids bought in, it turned around. This group is different, and they all bought in from moment one. The bus rides have been fun, the dugout has been fun, and the clubhouse has been fun… We have a great group of kids and we just allow them to be themselves. We preach it to our guys… be who you are. If you’re weird, be weird. If you’re goofy, be goofy. If you’re quiet, be quiet – but just be yourself, and try your best to contribute however you can to win ballgames.
With the full roster here a lot earlier than last year, how do you manage playing time between the early arrivals – who did a great job – and some of the new guys who came expecting to play quality innings?
It’s a fine line, and I take great pride as a manager trying to keep these kids happy with their time – and it’s challenging with the numbers we have. I try and give guys days off when I see they need it or they get tired. But we study opposing team’s pitching staffs very closely and try to put together the best lineup to beat them. We’re not just throwing different guys out there, we study these teams hard to give us the best chance to win every night. The coaching staff does a great job digging for anything we can find on these guys coming in here, and it’s really helped us plan so far.
Has your coaching style changed this year? You seem more vocal, maybe a bit more animated?
That’s just because you sit closer to me this year! I’m the same. Actually though, last year my life was about reality TV (Graig’s stint on Big Brother Canada last season), and there was some rub-off on that. I wasn’t as prepared coming in here last year, and it was hard coming off that show to decompress, and it was very challenging. This year the HarbourCats are my number one priority. So yeah maybe I seem a bit more vocal, but this is really how I’ve coached my entire life.
How has the change in coaching staff impacted you this year? Alec Adame had such a huge part when we talked last year, and how has it changed with him not being here?
Alec had a huge part in this team. I think I am doing a bit more this year – not because the other guys can’t do it, but Alec and I were so close… Being a major league scout, and us having won a national championship together at Chico State, I just let him run certain things. Like calling pitches – I think Joe Fabre will be a great pitch caller in the future, but I’m calling them now. The only reason I stayed in pro ball for five years was because I was great at throwing signs. I couldn’t bat, but I could throw, I could catch, and I won because I could call a game. I love that part of the game and I’m enjoying calling them. That aside I can’t do what I’m doing with Joe [Meggs], Joe [Fabre], and Kelly [Norris-Jones]. Every hitter that comes into the box we have studied and we all have books on these guys. We are looking to exploit weaknesses on every guy, and it’s been a great team effort making that happens.
How is it different now that the team is winning to start the season, versus losing a bunch of games off the hop? Easier to motivate them and keep them interested?
Winning fixes everything doesn’t it? We have worked really, really hard since getting in here on May 31st, and the last two days we started giving them some time off. We’ve started later the last couple days, so the guys get to rest a bit, see this beautiful city, enjoy some time with their host families – and that’s real important so that we don’t wear these guys out. The dynamic of the team right now is in a really good place.
From the players we have this year, who do you look at and say “That guy has potential, that guy is going places”
Oh man, we have a ton of those guys, I could talk about each one of them. But a couple that come to mind… Jarron Silva – I want to see him in 3 or 4 years, he could be playing pro baseball. Cameron Cannon – in the glimpses I’ve seen so far. Griffin Andreychuk – I’ll fight my ass off to get him signed after his senior year. He deserves a chance to go hit in pro baseball. Will McAffer on the mound – I think he’s got a very high upside. Austin Dondanville – I’m really impressed with his gain in velocity this year… I’m leaving a bunch of guys out I know.
How’s the catching staff doing? Being an ex-catcher yourself, that’s a bit of a sweet spot for you isn’t it?
We have a great group of catchers here this year, and they are all different. One hits well from the right side, one hits from the left, and one is a bit better defensively. So again, we study the other team’s match-ups. There’s no set rotation, it all depends on who is going to give us the best chance of winning that game. One might end up playing three games in a row, it’s just the way it will work out. I am hard on those guys though, just because that was my job and I expect so much from them. I’m probably harder on them than I am on any of the other guys.
Who’s going to learn the most this year? Who’s going to be this year’s “Most Improved Player”?
The improvements these kids are going to make is astounding really. The simple adjustments, the game situations, the more playing time… Everyone is getting better every day, and that’s my job here, that’s my passion. It’s probably too early to pick a single guy, we’ll have to see as the season goes.
So at 11-3, how do you keep it going?
We just keep preparing. I remember walking in the clubhouse last year when we hit 8-16 and saying to Alec [Adame] “What are we doing wrong?” He said we’re doing nothing wrong, just stick with the process and keep preparing is what he told me. And we did that, and we are still doing that – right up to today. If we study the other teams and prepare each game, we can keep this thing rolling. Like I say, winning changes everything!
More with Graig as the season progresses, stay tuned!