We could argue that a team like the 2018 Pirates needed to fashion a fast break out of the starting gate to have a realistic chance at contention.
Perhaps ‘need’ is a strong word here, but with young players taking on additional responsibility after two high-profile players were traded in the offseason, early positive feedback might be more significant than for other more experienced, more established teams.
The Pirates could've won eight of 10 at any other point during the season and it wouldn't have been as important as doing it now.
— Matt Gajtka (@MattGajtka) April 10, 2018
Clint Hurdle is a believer in that theory, as he firmly stated Sunday in his office at PNC Park.
“I’d say probably 100 percent of the time,” he said. “Think about your life. What was important to you (on) your first year on the job, your first day on the job, compared to how you prioritize your days now? You probably learned through experience there are certain things that aren’t quite as important as you thought when you walked through the door.”
To that point, we’ve seen plenty of major-league ‘underclassmen’ put an early stamp on 2018, greatly aiding the Pirates’ 8-2 record.
Jameson Taillon has two impressive starts under his belt — including that touchstone one-hitter against the Reds on Sunday — with fellow Class of 2016 starters Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault holding their own.
“For starters, our job is to go as deep as we can,” Taillon said Sunday, beaming after his first pro complete game. “So that was really gratifying for me to be able to do it.”
On the hitting side, MLB newbie Colin Moran leads the Pirates in batting average (.344) and on-base percentage (.400), while Josh Bell’s .333/.400/.462 line through 10 starts is exactly what the Pirates were looking for at the outset of his second full season.
“Nothing breeds confidence like success,” Hurdle said after Tuesday’s 8-5 win in the Cubs’ Wrigley Field opener. “We’re breeding it across the board. Individually, we’re picking it up. They’re playing well together.”
The going hasn’t been as easy for fresh-faced relievers like Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas, both of whom have scuffled in the middle innings.
Again, neither man is brand new in the majors, but they have plenty to do to keep spots in the Show. As Hurdle has put it, the Pirates are willing to let their green relievers “cut some teeth” in meaningful situations.
There’s hazard in that approach, but there could also be a harvest.
“More often than not, if you get caught up in only results, it can be problematic,” Hurdle advised. “To build consistency over the long haul is how you maintain and elevate your success. With young players, if you get them up and get them rolling, it can only help. However, you know there are times you know they’re not going to do well. Slumps are going to come. Dry spells off the mound are going to come. It’s just the ability to shrink the recovery time. That comes through experience.”
Gregory Polanco has had plenty of hard knocks since his Pirates debut four years ago. Lengthy slumps. Pestering injuries. Lingering questions.
But even though he has more than 500 big-league games to his name, you’d better believe that leading the team in homers (three), extra-base hits (seven), RBIs (13) and walks (eight) has him smiling.
“I feel great,” Polanco told me over the weekend. “I’m seeing the ball pretty good. Swinging the bat good. Just trying to stay healthy and keep working.”
Polanco said this is the best he’s felt to start a year since 2014, when he tore up the Triple-A International League with a .328/.390/.504 line in 69 games, earning him a June call up to the majors.
2014 was also a breakout year for Corey Dickerson, who became a full-time player for the Rockies that summer. Despite carrying a career OPS+ of 119 through nearly 600 MLB games, he’s never played on a winning team.
Surely he’s pleased with his .342 average and .964 OPS in his first Pirates fortnight, but Dickerson seems more struck by the support he’s received, both directly and indirectly.
“This is a young group that doesn’t want to give up at-bats,” Dickerson said Sunday. “Every guy has a lot of energy here. The communication between teammates is unbelievable. This is not a selfish team. Guys are sharing (advice and observations) with each other.
“I think everybody’s just having fun. Everybody’s just feeding off each other.”
Appropriately enough, Dickerson’s TV interview Tuesday at Wrigley was backdropped by a clowning Jordy Mercer. Mercer, 31, is one of six Pirates regulars hitting .300 with an OPS north of .800 in the opening 10 games, so he should be feeling good.
Not that Mercer wants his results to dictate his disposition, but after a spring spent working on keeping his weight back at the plate and recognizing breaking balls, he had little tangible Grapefruit League results upon which to build.
“It’s not bad,” Mercer said of his production so far. “You’re just trying to find that rhythm, that timing. Something I wasn’t able to do in spring training, which is fine. I don’t put a lot of stock in spring training anyway. I’m older now. I’ve seen both sides of it. It’s all about getting prepared, getting ready, seeing some pitches, getting in a good spot and going out there and playing.”
There’s a hesitance in that clubhouse to read very much into a good two weeks. Players learn a particular brand of stoicism from their first season of pro ball, so as to protect their psyches from the fickle nature of performance in this sport.
Still, after all the consternation and controversy of the past couple of months — emanating from external and internal sources — this has to be as close to a perfect prescription as possible, right?
“I think this can get overcooked,” Hurdle said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve played 10 ballgames. We’ve gone out there, wanting to make plays, wanting to make pitches, wanting to have good at-bats. That’s basically the plan.”