PITTSBURGH -- Any other year, the Pirates could look at their 2-4 record and shrug it off as just a tiny part of a long season, only 3.7 percent of their 162 games. But this isn’t any other year. With six games in the books, Pittsburgh is through 10 percent of its shortened schedule.
“From the outsiders, there’s this added pressure that everyone has to be good right away out of the gate,” starter Joe Musgrove said. “We’ve got to stay afloat. We’ve got to stay in the middle of the pack, stay relevant, then when we hit that hot streak, we’ve got to ride it as long as we can. Our energy, our attitude is good. We’re not discouraged. We’re not down. It’s a small sample size so far.”
This season, small sample sizes are the only sample sizes. What’s happened so far may not foretell anything about August or September, much less 2021 or beyond. But it happened, and it’s all we have to evaluate.
Here are nine observations from the first week of the Pirates’ season.
1) Shelton isn’t going to write nine names on the lineup card and leave them there for 60 games. He’s going to experiment.
We knew this heading into the season, and he reinforced it by using six different lineups in six games.
After three games, Shelton rearranged the batting order to move Adam Frazier and Josh Bell up while bumping down Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds. The only players who have started all six games at the same position are Frazier at second base and Reynolds in left field. The pitching situation is fluid, too. Shelton has used different relievers in similar high-leverage spots, though the one constant has been Nick Burdi finishing both victories.
2) Some of that shuffling is the product of circumstance. It’s likely more about evaluating their roster.
During a typical Spring Training, position players ease into playing consecutive nine-inning games over the span of six weeks while relievers gradually ramp up to making back-to-back appearances. They didn’t have that opportunity in a three-week Summer Camp. Shelton, his coaching staff and general manager Ben Cherington also want to get a feel for the Pirates’ personnel in a limited amount of time, so they’re getting everyone involved.
At some point, though, will Shelton mix it up to prioritize players’ production over planned playing time?
“I think we have to give them some sort of consistent at-bats. We’ve played six games,” Shelton said. “Obviously it is a shorter season, and obviously we’re going to take a look at some guys. We’ve run some different lineups out to give us a different look.”
3) The late innings are going to be an adventure for now.
The Pirates will be careful about how often they use Burdi as they look to protect his right arm. They’re still without closer Keone Kela. Kyle Crick didn’t look right before he went on the 10-day injured list.
So their current high-leverage options are Burdi, Richard Rodríguez and Michael Feliz. Burdi has looked great in both of his appearances, while Rodríguez and Feliz have been up and down since last season. With so few sure things, the road ahead could be bumpy as Shelton searches for solutions.
4) Burdi looks like the real deal.
As long as he stays healthy, he’s got future closer written all over him.
“It’s been six years in the making. Three surgeries later, finally got the first one,” Burdi said after recording his first save Tuesday night. “So it was definitely exciting.”
Even if he’s not named the temporary closer, there’s no doubt Burdi -- with his triple-digit fastball and wipeout slider -- is Shelton’s preferred high-leverage reliever while Kela is on the COVID-19-related injured list.
5) The Pirates' lineup as a whole is off to a rough start with the lowest average and OPS in the Majors, but Colin Moran has been a bright spot -- and not just in the home opener.
Moran is 6-for-20 with three homers and a double in six games. He said during Summer Camp that he’s focusing more on solidifying his approach than tinkering with the mechanics of his swing. After his research revealed that he chased too many cutters and sliders last year, coincidentally or not, two of his three homers have come on sliders.
“I worked with [hitting coach Rick Eckstein] a lot in Spring Training,” Moran said. “I really liked where I was at. I tried kind of not to mess things up too much during the quarantine.”
6) With their lineup scuffling, they probably need to see more of José Osuna.
The problem is finding playing time for him.
Some fans have unreasonably high expectations for the corner infielder/outfielder, but he showed the kind of power this lineup mostly lacks by going deep Sunday in St. Louis. But where will he play? Gregory Polanco, Bell and Reynolds aren’t going anywhere. Moran has been their hottest hitter. Phillip Evans has looked good as well, and he’s a superior defensive third baseman.
7) One more silver lining: Jacob Stallings’ defense.
We knew about the strides he made last season as a pitch-framer, and he’s been one of the best catchers in baseball on that front so far this year. He also caught two runners stealing and shown some athleticism behind the plate with smooth blocks and tags.
“It’s been outstanding,” Shelton said. “I would be hard-pressed to bet, in the first three or four games he’s caught, that there’s been anybody better catching in baseball this year.”
8) The piggyback plan worked, as Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl combined for 5 2/3 scoreless innings on Monday, but it probably won’t last forever.
When rosters shrink, as scheduled, to 28 players at the end of two weeks and to 26 after another two weeks, the Pirates will need to put that extra arm in the bullpen rather than carrying six starters for five spots.
That could create an interesting predicament, especially if veteran lefty Derek Holland pitches as well as he did on Tuesday and even more so if JT Brubaker -- a starter relegated to long relief -- dominates like he did in his MLB debut. But moving a good arm to the bullpen isn’t necessary a bad thing, given their current lack of relief depth.
9) Clay Holmes, Geoff Hartlieb and Dovydas Neverauskas looked better than you might expect based on their past results.
Holmes flashed a nasty curveball before he went down with a strained forearm. Hartlieb pitched two important innings on Tuesday. Neverauskas gave up an unearned run in the 11th inning on Monday, but he has four strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings.
The Pirates clearly need all the relief help they can get, and they believe those three have good enough stuff to stick in a Major League bullpen. They hired pitching coach Oscar Marin to get more out of arms like theirs. Based on what we’ve seen over the last week, it’s worth figuring out if he can.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.