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Paul Skenes makes MLB debut: Four things to know as Pirates’ flame-throwing phenom strikes out seven vs. Cubs

The Paul Skenes era has begun in Pittsburgh. Skenes, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft, made his MLB debut on Saturday afternoon for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and held the NL Central rival Chicago Cubs to three runs in four innings in front of an energetic PNC Park crowd (PIT 10, CHC 9). He struck out seven and threw 84 pitches in his four innings plus two batters. 

“I’m excited he’s here,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said prior to Saturday’s game (via MLB.com). “He deserves it. He’s proven that he needed to be in the big leagues.”

Skenes exited with runners on first and second and no outs in the fifth inning and reliever Kyle Nicolas allowed both inherited runners to score. Nicolas lost the plate and walked in both inherited runners (it was the start of a wild inning in which the Pirates issued six(!) bases-loaded walks to the Cubs), which are charged to Skenes and put a bit of a damper on what was an otherwise impressive debut. Here’s his line:

Mike Tauchman was the first batter Skenes faced as a big leaguer and also the first batter Skenes struck out as a big leaguer. He blew a 100.9 mph fastball by Tauchman for strike three to begin his afternoon. Skenes also struck out Seiya Suzuki, the second batter he faced. Can’t start a career much better than that.

Here are all seven strikeouts:

Skenes’ debut was the most anticipated MLB debut for a pitcher since Stephen Strasburg in 2010. Strasburg, himself a former No. 1 pick, struck out 14 Pirates in his debut. In a cool little bit of symmetry, Pittsburgh’s leadoff hitter that day was Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen was also Pittsburgh’s leadoff hitter for Skenes’ debut Saturday. 

Joey Votto had this to say about Skenes:

Lefty masher Connor Joe slugged a three-run home run off Cubs ace Justin Steele, which gave Skenes at least a chance to pick up the win in his debut. Oneil Cruz followed with a homer to make it back-to-back jacks. It was only the fifth left-on-left homer of Cruz’s career. That’s the formula for the Pirates right there — Skenes striking guys out and Cruz hitting dingers.

Skenes, 22 later this month, pitched to a 0.99 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings in Triple-A before being called up. Our R.J. Anderson ranked Skenes as the best pitching prospect in baseball entering the season, and the 10th-best prospect overall. Here’s his write-up:

Skenes went No. 1 in July’s draft on the basis of his power arsenal and his proximity to the majors. His fastball clocked in around 98 mph during a late-season appearance in the Florida State League, and his slider has proven to be an effective chase offering. Turns out he didn’t strike out nearly 48% of the batters he faced during SEC play by accident. Even so, Skenes was more polarizing in scouting circles than the above information indicates. His fastball’s shape has “dead zone” properties, a fancy way of saying it’s easier to track because of a similar amount of vertical and horizontal movement. That blemish won’t keep Skenes from having a big-league career — Nathan Eovaldi and Hunter Greene both have “dead zone” fastballs — but it may cause his fastball to be less effective than it should be based on pure velocity.

Pirates GM Ben Cherington said the Pirates will stick with a six-man rotation for the time being — Bailey Falter, Jared Jones, Mitch Keller, Martín Pérez, and Quinn Priester are the other five rotation members — which lines Skenes up to make his next start next Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. He’ll face the Cubs in each of his first two MLB starts. Here now is what you need to know about Skenes following his MLB debut.

1. MLB has a new velocity king

As expected, Skenes brought the heat in his MLB debut. His four-seam fastball averaged — averaged — 99.9 mph in Triple-A this season. His first pitch as a big leaguer: 101.0 mph. All told, Skenes threw 17 pitches at 100 mph or better Saturday, including six at 101 mph or better, and his fastball averaged 100.1 mph. 

That 100.1 mph average fastball is the highest by a pitcher in a game this year by half-a-mile an hour. It is the sixth highest average fastball velocity in a single game since Statcast launched in 2015 (min. 40 fastballs):

  1. Hunter Greene: 101.0 mph (Sept. 17, 2022)
  2. Hunter Greene: 100.5 mph (July 26, 2022)
  3. Jacob deGrom: 100.4 mph (June 5, 2021)
  4. Hunter Greene: 100.4 mph (March 20, 2023)
  5. Hunter Greene: 100.2 mph (April 16, 2022)
  6. Paul Skenes: 100.1 mph (May 11, 2024)

Skenes generated four misses on 15 swings against his fastball, a 27% whiff rate that is north of the 21.9% league average. It is a tiny sample size, of course. Still, the movement profile on Skenes’ fastball is not great, so it bears watching how many bats it misses at the big league level moving forward.

2. The new sinker is legit

The Pirates selected Skenes with the No. 1 pick for his devastating fastball/slider combination and above-average control, and he certainly leaned on those two pitches Saturday. He threw 33 four-seamers and 23 sliders among his 84 pitches, so that’s almost exactly two-thirds of his total pitches. That’s a pretty typical usage rate for Skenes.

Skenes also added a new sinker this season that Statcast classifies as a splitter because it moves so much at a high velocity. It is a sinker though — “It’s a sinker, but call it whatever you want,” Skenes told our Matt Snyder — and he used it plenty Saturday. Twenty-one of his 84 pitches were sinkers and the Cubs missed with seven of their 12 swings. That 58% whiff rate is astronomical.

All told, Skenes generated 14 misses on 40 swings in his MLB debut for a healthy 35% whiff rate. He also got a swing and miss or a called strike on 33% of his pitches, which is a strong rate. Whatever you want to call it, sinker or splitter, it is clearly a real weapon for Skenes, and something he’ll lean on plenty moving forward.

3. The Pirates let Skenes extend his pitch count

Skenes threw 84 pitches in his four innings Saturday and that is a new season high for him. He topped out at six innings and 75 pitches during his extremely careful build up in Triple-A. Skenes started the fifth inning at 74 pitches, so the Pirates pushed him into uncharted pitch count territory to give him a chance to pick up his first MLB win.

Alas and alack, a double and an infield single ended Skenes’ afternoon, and he did not qualify for the win. The Pirates have handled him very carefully this season, perhaps excessively so, so Skenes was not given a chance to push through the fifth inning despite a seemingly comfortable 6-1 lead. In the grand scheme of things, 84 was the most important number Saturday. Skenes built up his pitch count a little further in his big league debut.

4. Skenes handled adversity well

The Cubs had their best chance to break through against Skenes in the second inning, when they loaded a bases with one out on a hit by pitch (Nico Hoerner), a walk (Michael Busch), and a single (Miles Mastrobuoni). Skenes escaped by striking out Yan Gomes and getting Tauchman to ground out to second. It was the bullpen that made a mess of things in the fifth inning.

This is notable because Skenes did not face a single bases loaded situation in the minors, either this year or last year. The second inning Saturday was his first bases loaded situation since he was at LSU last spring. That’s part of being a big leaguer: learning how to get out of jams. Top pitching prospects are so overwhelming these days that they can rarely run into trouble in the minors.

Dominating is great, we all want to see our team’s best young pitchers mow through opposing hitters, but navigating jams is part of the job too. Even the best pitchers get hit around now and then. Learning how to escape trouble and limit the damage is a crucial development step. Skenes’ final pitching line is a bit deceptive because Nicolas and the bullpen let things get out of hand. Skenes did well in his first real test Saturday.

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