When will the Pirates call up Paul Skenes and his 'best-stuff-in-the-world type of stuff'?

Pittsburgh is still building up the top prospect's workload, but his latest Triple-A outing showed that Skenes will soon be ready for a new challenge

INDIANAPOLIS — It won’t always look this easy for Paul Skenes. But so long as the best pitching prospect in baseball — and one of the best the game has seen in quite some time — is pitching in the minor leagues, chances are Skenes will have a substantial upper hand on the competition.

On Tuesday in Indianapolis in front of an announced crowd of 6,237, Skenes confidently dismantled another Triple-A lineup, this time the Blue Jays’ Buffalo affiliate. Only one Bisons hitter reached third base over the course of the outing, as Skenes stifled his opponents over six scoreless innings, striking out seven and allowing just four hits. He lowered his ERA on the season to 0.39 in 23 innings.

As the baseball world eagerly awaits his MLB debut — with frustrated impatience about his continued presence in Triple-A escalating with each outing — it’s worth remembering how quickly this has all happened for the 21-year-old Skenes. Just two years ago, Skenes was a two-way player at the Air Force Academy, catching and DH-ing for the Falcons when he wasn’t busy being the best pitcher in the Mountain West Conference. He transferred to LSU for his junior season, where his burgeoning talent on the mound prompted him to ditch the bat and focus on pitching full-time.

The results were extraordinary. Suddenly, Skenes was being compared as a prospect to the likes of Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and he authored one of the best seasons ever by a pitcher in Division I baseball — 1.69 ERA, 0.750 WHIP in 122 2/3 IP with 209 strikeouts to just 20 walks — helping fuel the Tigers to the seventh national championship in program history. A month later, Skenes was selected first overall in the 2023 MLB Draft.

Drew Benes is now in his eighth year as a pitching coach in the Pirates organization and his second with Triple-A Indianapolis. When Pittsburgh won the first overall pick in the draft lottery at the 2022 winter meetings, Benes was already excited about the possibility of working with a pitcher of Skenes’ caliber. “I was really hoping we were gonna take him,” he told Yahoo Sports.

So far, watching Skenes hone his craft up close has been every bit as impressive as expected. “What I've learned about him is that he's a competitor, and he's very prepared,” Benes said.

The word preparation comes up often when talking to Skenes’ teammates and coaches. Grant Koch, who has caught five of Skenes’ six starts this year, echoed that sentiment. He explained that in addition to the game plans he puts together going into each start, Skenes prepares his own plan of attack based on his study of the opponent.

Knowing that Skenes has done his homework makes the collaboration over the course of a game that much easier. “If he wants to shake, that's totally fine with me because he's prepared,” Koch said. "He knows what he's doing. And I'm just back there to hopefully supplement him. … When he's on the mound, we're a team. But like I said, it's his game, and I trust him.”

Beyond the game-planning, Koch has also been impressed by Skenes’ knack for handling the more subtle responsibilities of a starting pitcher.

“I think what he does in terms of controlling the running game, times to the plate, command, knowing the situation — I think that's the stuff that's going to make him great,” he said. “Obviously, stuff is a huge factor in that. But I think the little things are what's going to make him consistently great.”

That was on display Tuesday after Buffalo outfielder Nathan Lukes lined a single to lead off the sixth inning. Lukes accounted for three of Buffalo’s four hits off Skenes on the night, all three of which were low line drives to left field on first-pitch fastballs. Considering the bevy of weapons at Skenes’ disposal, allowing him to get ahead in the count is a dangerous game for hitters; ambushing first pitches was a keen strategy on Lukes’ part.

But in the sixth, Skenes held a leading Lukes close to first base with a throw over before Koch was able to catch him stealing on the fourth pitch of the next at-bat thanks to Skenes’ quick delivery, even on a slider. It was the second time Koch has nabbed someone at second base with Skenes on the mound this year, and they have yet to surrender a stolen base. (Granted, there haven’t exactly been a boatload of baserunners for Skenes to worry about.)

Mastering the nitty gritty is important. Success against the best hitters on the planet requires attention to detail. But let’s not overshadow why Skenes began drawing such superlative scouting comparisons in the first place: His repertoire is nothing short of superb.

The velocity is overwhelming in both its magnitude and its frequency. Entering Tuesday, Skenes had thrown 76 pitches north of 100 mph in his first five starts, the same number that had been thrown by every other Triple-A pitcher combined. He added another 13 triple-digit heaters against Buffalo and held the velocity comfortably through the duration of the outing. His first fastball of the night clocked in at 100.4 mph; his last at 100.9 mph.

"The stuff is obviously best-stuff-in-the-world type of stuff,” Benes said. “So the focus has really just been on attacking the zone.”

If the four-seamer isn’t fearsome enough on its own, Skenes’ elite velocity enables another pitch to stand out even more. While Statcast registers the pitch as a splitter, both Koch and Skenes tend to call it a sinker. The grip Skenes uses for it is something of a hybrid between the two.

“It has the velocity of a sinker,” Koch said of the unique pitch that averages nearly 95 mph, “but then the action of a hard splitter. It's definitely a weapon.”

Whatever you call it, it’s a unique pitch for which Benes could conjure up only one current pitch as a comparison. When coaching in the Florida State League in 2019, he saw a 21-year-old named Jhoan Duran unleash a similar offering against his Bradenton squad. “I looked at my manager and said, ‘Is that a splitty?!’” he recalled. “I'm like, ‘What was that?’”

Duran has since become one of the premier closers in MLB, in large part due to that exact pitch. Skenes, meanwhile, boasts a comparable offering as a starter — with the command to get the most out of it.

“It's a special pitch,” Benes said. “And when you're throwing that at 94-97 … golly, that's gotta be hard to hit.”

A hard slider, a more traditional changeup and an occasional curveball round out the rest of Skenes’ high-octane arsenal. Here’s the usage breakdown:

  • 46.9% four-seam fastballs (100.0 mph AVG)

  • 25.3% sliders (86.5 mph AVG)

  • 18% splitters (94.8 mph AVG)

  • 7.3% changeups (88.0 mph AVG)

  • 2.5% curveballs (83.9 mph AVG)

By combining his physical gifts with his steadfast commitment to improvement, Skenes has accelerated his acclimation to the professional level. "Every week, there’s a target,” Benes said of Skenes’ developmental routine during his first month in Indianapolis. “He knows what he wants to work on, and he gets it done every week.”

At this point, Skenes could simply rely on the potency of his pure stuff to garner outs; instead, he is choosing to be intentional about when and why he is throwing each pitch.

“I think you're picking and choosing when you're going to use certain weapons because you might not need all of them right now, in this particular game today, but you're picking and choosing when to sprinkle stuff in and when to just put guys away,” Benes said.

“He's done a good job of trying to try to balance that and maneuver through that.”

When will we see Skenes in Pittsburgh?

No matter how dominant Skenes has looked against Triple-A competition, immediate success at the highest level is no guarantee whenever he is granted the opportunity.

In the wake of optioning top prospect Jackson Holliday back to the minors after his early struggles, Orioles GM Mike Elias noted that he believes the gap between Triple-A and MLB has gotten bigger recently. And we need look no further than the opposing starting pitcher Tuesday in Indianapolis — a rehabbing Alek Manoah looking to get his career back on track — to be reminded of the unpredictable perils of pitching development, even for those who do find early success at the big-league level.

So far, though, Skenes is hitting every mark and checking every box on his meticulous march to the majors. Which brings us to the obvious question: When will we finally see him in a Pirates uniform? At this point, it’s mostly a matter of workload and pacing.

The most important parts of any Skenes statline right now are the innings total and the pitch count. That he has struck out nearly 47% of the batters he has faced this season is preposterously impressive, but it’s not what is being used to gauge his readiness. Coming off a junior season at LSU that saw Skenes shoulder a significant workload for the Tigers — all by the end of June — Pittsburgh evidently does not want to see its prized prospect step on the gas nearly as hard this early in the season. That is reflected in how Skenes’ workload has gradually increased with each Triple-A start:

  • March 30: 3 IP, 46 pitches, 9 batters faced

  • April 5: 3 IP, 44 pitches, 11 batters faced

  • April 12: 3 1/3 IP, 55 pitches, 13 batters faced

  • April 18: 3 1/3 IP, 65 pitches, 14 batters faced

  • April 24: 4 2/3 IP, 71 pitches, 19 batters faced

  • April 30: 6 IP, 75 pitches, 22 batters faced

The contrast to his workload a year ago is staggering. By the end of April 2023, Skenes had made 11 starts, 10 of which lasted at least six innings. He had thrown 1,077 pitches and faced 264 batters over 65 1/3 innings, more than triple his current totals in his first full-season of pro ball.

Even if Skenes was talented enough to compete in the big leagues a month ago, that did not seem to override Pittsburgh’s commitment to building up his innings at a gradual pace. Now, after completing six innings in efficient fashion Tuesday, Skenes looks like a much more viable option to slot into a big-league rotation and be counted on to pitch deep into a game in the near future.

Which brings us to the other component of Skenes’ call-up: pacing. The idea is for him to be hitting his stride in the summer and down the stretch, rather than unleashing his best in April and May. As for whether the Pirates, reeling since their 9-2 start, will be in the mix at that stage of the season enough for Skenes’ innings to make an impact on a postseason race? That’s a different story. But regardless of the standings, curating Skenes’ innings to peak later in the season is a reasonable approach.

Beyond building up his pitch count, Pirates GM Ben Cherington has also spoken about wanting Skenes to work toward getting on a five-man rotation and acclimating to the four days of rest he’ll receive between starts in the big leagues. This is another adjustment starting pitchers have to make when they enter pro ball from college, where they tend to start once a week.

Skenes was no exception. Here’s how many days’ rest he got between his 19 starts at LSU last season (excluding his first outing):

  • 4 starts on 7 days’ rest

  • 11 starts on 6 days’ rest

  • 2 starts on 5 days’ rest

  • 1 start on 4 days’ rest (his last start of the season, an eight-inning masterclass to send LSU to the College World Series finals)

Of Skenes’ five Triple-A starts since his first outing of this season, four have been on five days' rest, and one was on six days' rest.

“He’s working on things that will allow him to be a good major-league pitcher more than just trying to be a good Triple-A pitcher,” Cherington said recently, a sensible notion on its surface.

On a radio appearance on Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan earlier this week, Cherington suggested that Skenes’ turn through the Indianapolis rotation could soon shorten to the MLB standard of four days’ rest between starts. If that’s put into effect after Tuesday, Skenes’ next Triple-A start would come Sunday, once again at home against Buffalo. If the team wants to keep playing it slow and give him five days of rest (or more), Indianapolis doesn’t play again until Tuesday in Louisville.

Enough about Indianapolis, then — what about the Pirates’ schedule? Pittsburgh has a nine-game homestand beginning Friday with three games against Colorado. Then the Angels come to town for three starting Monday, followed by a three-game set with the Cubs the following weekend. With Skenes’ workload to the point where he can be counted on to pitch reasonably deep into a big-league game, it seems reasonable to expect his debut at some point during the homestand. Perhaps it’s Sunday against the Rockies or early next week vs. the Angels. If not, the Cubs series sure would make for a fun debut.

Either way, Skenes’ downright dominance with Indianapolis suggests we might've already reached a point of diminishing returns with his continued presence at this level. As important as it is for Skenes to build up his workload, the challenge from a performance perspective has definitively been met. Skenes doesn’t just look like a good Triple-A pitcher; he looks like a good major-league pitcher pitching in Triple-A.

Is he ready to be a good major-league pitcher pitching in the major leagues?

There’s only one way to find out.