May 25, 2024

Top MLB pitching prospect Paul Skenes to debut for the Pirates Saturday

Last season, as Paul Skenes was churning through the SEC while helping to lead the LSU Tigers to a College World Series title, a rival head coach commented that Skenes was out of place.

“He’s pitching in the wrong league, I’ll tell you that. He needs to be in the American or National League,” Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle told The Athletic’s Brody Miller.

Schlossnagle also told Miller that Skenes was among the best three college pitchers he’d seen, joining Stephen Strasburg and Mark Prior. Both Strasburg and Prior made their highly anticipated major-league debuts in the calendar year after they were drafted. Skenes will be once again in that same company.

The Pittsburgh Pirates announced on Wednesday that Skenes will debut Saturday versus the Chicago Cubs. It will arguably be the most eagerly anticipated starting pitcher debut since Strasburg in June 2010.

Skenes’ ascent from part-time reliever/catcher at Air Force to major-league phenom has been as swift as one of his 100 mph fastballs. Following two years at the Air Force Academy, Skenes transferred to LSU, where he went 13-2 with a 1.69 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings while bringing the CWS trophy back to Baton Rogue. After going first overall in last year’s MLB draft, Skenes made five brief appearances in the Pirates system, tossing 6 2/3 innings with a 5.40 ERA and a 10:2 K:BB. The Pirates knew they were getting a special player and person when they took him in the draft, but he exceeded those expectations in their early interactions with him.

“This is the most self-aware 21-year-old baseball player I’ve been around,” Pirates farm director John Baker told The Athletic last September.

Skenes began this spring as the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball, according to The Athletic’s Keith Law. There was some talk over the winter that perhaps Skenes would leap right to the big leagues, but the Pirates quelled that notion when he made only two official appearances in major-league camp. Still, even as the regular season began with Skenes in Triple A, it seemed only a matter of time before he’d be toeing a major-league rubber.

With every start he made, that anticipation only grew. He didn’t allow a run until his fifth start. In his seventh start, he allowed his first home run. Even with those “blemishes,” he posted otherworldly numbers for Indianapolis — a 0.99 ERA and a 45:8 K:BB in 27 1/3 innings.

The numbers, of course, only tell part of the story with Skenes, who — like Prior and Strasburg before him — can make skilled hitters look like Little Leaguers with his combination of plus fastball velocity (he regularly breaks triple digits) and wipeout slider.

“(He) hides the ball extremely well behind his body thanks to a compact arm action, allowing him to get away with some iffy fastball command and below-average life on the pitch,” Law noted in his preseason top-100 prospect report. “He offers ace ceiling, with size and arm strength you can’t teach.”

Law also noted that Skenes would need to throw his changeup more frequently in the pros than he did in college and add a sinker, two boxes he checked in his minor-league outings this spring. (He’s also been throwing a splitter and an occasional curveball.) Triple-A hitters had no answer for this improved version of Skenes. They hit only .175 against him with four extra-base hits. Now, he’ll get the ultimate test in the big leagues.

Skenes joins an improving Pirates staff that already includes Mitch Keller and promising rookie Jared Jones, as well as second-year starter Quinn Priester. Top prospects Anthony Solometo and Bubba Chandler are currently in Double A and could bolster the Pittsburgh staff as soon as next season.



Pirates 2024 top-20 prospects: Paul Skenes, Termarr Johnson lead the way

Further reading

How the Pirates are managing young arms, a Leiter family milestone and more ‘Sliders’

Meet Paul Skenes, a top MLB Draft prospect whose path to LSU was never clear-cut

From Paul Skenes to Brice Matthews: Reviewing the pro debuts of the 2023 MLB Draft first-round picks

Top 100 MLB prospects 2024: Keith Law’s rankings, with Jackson Holliday at No. 1

(Photo: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)