Anne Photograp News 2024

Paul Skenes called up to MLB: Inside the Pirates’ decision

Paul Skenes called up to MLB: Inside the Pirates’ decision

OVER THE WINTER, as the Pittsburgh Pirates considered how to unleash the best pitching prospect in a generation on the baseball world, they landed on a plan with which they felt entirely comfortable and positively uncomfortable. No matter how well-thought-out the steps, how sound the logic, how reasoned the process, the success of a pitcher hangs in the balance. Even if a team does everything right, it still can go very, very wrong.

For the last month, Paul Skenes, the subject of all the planning, has carved up Triple-A hitting. His long-awaited debut in Pittsburgh is imminent, with the Pirates announcing he will start Saturday against the Chicago Cubs, and Skenes will arrive with a bullet train worth of hype. He went to the Pirates with the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, the deepest in recent memory. He is capable of doing things with a baseball unlike any man before him: No starter in the big leagues ever has thrown as consistently hard as Skenes.

None of that hoopla factored into Pittsburgh’s approach to his 2024 season, but the alarming rates at which it has watched the game’s best hit the injured list certainly did. The Pirates didn’t want to rush the right-hander — and they didn’t want to hold him back, either. They loved everything about him — except for all of the things they couldn’t know. They drew a roadmap they hoped would bring out the best in him — and acknowledged they had no clue whether it would succeed.

“I don’t claim that we have any sort of scientific master formula for how we’re doing this,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “I don’t know for sure that this plan is right. I can’t say that.”

If we judge Skenes’ success on outcome over process, all has gone according to plan. Skenes has been everything he’s supposed to be: 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds of dominance, with an average fastball of 100 mph and four other pitches with which he befuddles hitters. Less than a year out from a College World Series appearance, he has a 0.99 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 27.1 innings for Triple-A Indianapolis this season.

The Pirates, though, understand that results-oriented analyses are inherently flawed. And while they found no comfort in managing the future face of their franchise with what amounts to an educated guess, they were able to take solace in at least one thing: When it comes to following a plan, Skenes has plenty of experience.

WHEN HE ARRIVED at the Air Force Academy in 2021, Skenes did not appear on any list to be the next great major league pitcher for a good reason: He was a catcher. As a freshman, he hit .410/.486/.697 with 32 extra-base hits in 188 at-bats. He was also the Falcons’ closer, notching 11 saves and showing enough acumen to go full Ohtani as a sophomore, starting 15 games on the mound and spending the rest of the time behind the plate.

Schools around the country took notice. Skenes entered the transfer portal and drew widespread interest. While some teams wanted him as a two-way player, LSU recruited him strictly to pitch. It appealed to Skenes, as did the Tigers’ pitching coach, Wes Johnson, who had parlayed a successful college coaching career into the Minnesota Twins’ major league pitching coach job before returning to the amateur ranks with LSU.

“He knew what he needed to do, but he didn’t know how. He was hunting the how,” Johnson said. “We got in there, and from his diet to learning a slider, we helped him figure that out.”

Deeply thoughtful and impressively methodical, Skenes gobbled up the knowledge offered by Johnson — in some cases literally. Typically, a pitcher throwing with the force of Skenes burns about 5,000 calories a game. To combat the energy drain of pitching, Johnson suggested Skenes supplement his diet with shots of honey.

“Paul would go through half a bear a game,” Johnson said.

Skenes needed the pick-me-up to execute what he was trying to pull off: surviving a jump from the Mountain West Conference to the SEC, the best college baseball conference in the country. Even more important than his dietary changes — which allowed him to maintain his weight during the season, a rarity — were the efforts to help Skenes start throwing an effective breaking ball. He had thrived at Air Force with a fastball-changeup combination, but SEC hitters would pummel him without an effective spinner. He spent the winter working with Johnson on a slider, and scouts who went to see Skenes in Baton Rouge emerged suggesting something that once seemed inconceivable: He might be good enough to steal the top spot in the amateur draft from his teammate, outfielder Dylan Crews.

Skenes spent the coming spring proving those scouts prophetic. Over 19 starts, he threw 122.2 innings and struck out 209 against 20 walks. In less than two years, he had become the most polished pitching prospect in a decade. All season, Skenes balanced otherworldly performance with an insatiable desire to learn more. Even as the slider emerged as an elite pitch, Skenes, after one particular start, told Johnson that while it was good enough to get out college hitters, it wouldn’t have played in the big leagues.

“He’s not hard on himself,” said Johnson, now the head coach at the University of Georgia. “He’s just really good at self-evaluation.”

At one point during the season that would end with Skenes winning the College World Series’ Most Outstanding Player for the national champion Tigers, he asked to meet with Johnson to assess his progress. During the conversation, Johnson said, Skenes seemed to finally realize what would soon become clear to anyone watching him.

“I don’t mean this to be arrogant,” Skenes said. “I think the only way I get beat is when I beat myself.”

To make that harder to do, he picked up a few other pitches at LSU to complement his fastball and slider. To capitalize on his velocity, Skenes toyed around with a splinker — a hybrid of a splitter and a sinker — thrown by only one other pitcher, Twins closer Jhoan Duran. With his newfound feel for spin, he developed a curveball, too. While neither pitch fully formed in college, he kept working at them.

“What we’re seeing, more than anything, is a remarkable desire to be very honest with information, very honest with feedback and very fast to adjust,” Cherington said. “I hate making comps. This is not a great comp because it’s not the same type of player. But I’ve told people I believe Mookie Betts is the best practice player I’ve ever been around. Yes, he’s talented, but specifically because he’s so open to the truth and has such a comfortable relationship with, ‘Oh, I’m not doing that well enough? Great. Give it to me so I can do something about it.’

“It sounds so simple, but it’s very hard for people to do that. And we see some of that in Paul. Different players, different personalities, different people. But that relationship with the feedback he’s getting about what his pitches are doing, what his delivery is doing, this is the target of where they want it to be. Those adjustments happen quickly.”

FOR THE BETTER part of a decade, the Pittsburgh Pirates have lived among the dregs of Major League Baseball. They are terminally parsimonious, running a bottom-five Opening Day payroll for the past seven seasons. Since Cherington took over as GM in November 2019, they’ve made organizational strides but never finished higher than fourth place in the National League Central division.

To win the inaugural draft lottery in 2022, then, was a gift for an organization that last made the postseason in 2015. On July 9, 2023, the Pirates chose Skenes over Crews and Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford with the first pick in the draft. After signing for a record $9.2 million bonus, Skenes threw 6.2 innings over five Low-A appearances that summer. They were glorified bullpen sessions following the grind of the college season, more an opportunity for Skenes to familiarize himself with the organization and vice versa.

The real work started last winter. The Pirates recognized that Skenes could have pitched effectively in the major leagues the day he was drafted, but they wondered whether sending him there to start the 2024 season would be best for his long-term development. Before it could figure out how best to deploy Skenes, the Pirates’ front office needed to answer a question: What are we trying to accomplish?

“We took him 1-1. We really, really think highly of him,” Cherington said. “We’re placing a very strong bet on him and have believed since the day we drafted him that he’s going to be a really good major league starting pitcher. But pitching is hard to predict a week from now, let alone a year from now.”

What Pittsburgh landed on attempted to balance the future and the now. A drastic increase over his 122 innings from last year spooked the Pirates, even, as Cherington admits, “there’s an arbitrariness in that.” Starting Skenes in the major leagues while throttling him could cause undue strain on the team’s bullpen.

By sending Skenes to the minor leagues, the Pirates reasoned, they could see firsthand how he best operates and what he needs. He could introduce his splinker and curveball in an environment likelier to build confidence in the pitches. He could check a number of boxes progressively: efficiency in his early starts with limited pitch counts, game-planning as he was allowed to go through a lineup multiple times and stamina as he transitioned from five days’ rest to the standard four in the major leagues. All while keeping his minor league innings totals low so they don’t have to shut him down before the end of the season.

“We’d rather have the majority of the volume available to him be in the major leagues and not the minor leagues,” Cherington said. “Managing the volume progression early so it’s building more slowly than an established major league starter’s would, but in a way where we’re not using an unnecessary number of innings in the minor leagues.”

The plan made sense to Skenes. He’s 21 years old. As tantalizing as pitching in the major leagues is, he’s also patient enough to recognize the value of slow-playing his first full professional season. At the same time, because of the Pirates’ miserly ways and general ineffectiveness — they currently occupy last place in the NL Central at 17-21 — the less-charitable read on the decision was that the team was manipulating Skenes’ service time. By keeping Skenes in the minor leagues until 11, when he’ll officially be called up for his debut, he will reach free agency after the 2030 season instead of 2029.

“I really don’t believe it’s played any role in this case. I really mean this,” Cherington said. “We decided in spring training that … we wanted to build the volume more slowly than an established major league starter would. Once we made that decision, functionally, it has to start in the minor leagues.”

FROM THE MOMENT he started in Triple-A Indianapolis, it was evident Skenes did not belong there. In his first outing, he struck out five hitters in three perfect innings. He allowed two baserunners in his next start with six punchouts. He K’d eight hitters in each of his next two games, both with 3.1 scoreless innings. He allowed his first run in his fifth start, then stretched out in his sixth with six shutout innings on 75 pitches. At this point, every box is checked.

“Seriously, when I say he’s pretty good, it’s different. I ain’t being dramatic,” said reliever Brent Honeywell, who was with the Padres and White Sox last season and played in Indianapolis with Skenes this season. “It’s like, oh, he throws hard, he throws hard, he throws hard. Yeah, that s—‘s cool and all, but the kid can flat-out pitch. Pitch. That dude paints. He throws it where it’s intended to go, and I think it’s the biggest thing that Paul Skenes does. He’s got a cool fastball. His heater’s really good. But that dude throws the ball where it’s supposed to go.”

Honeywell is right. It’s not just the fastball, which Skenes has thrown 46.9% of the time at an average of 100 mph on the dot. The splinker is a weapon, generating swings and misses 21% of the time as it sizzles up to 97 mph. Batters are hitting .158 against the slider. Five of the 11 curveballs Skenes has thrown have been on the first pitch, a surprise for anyone who dares sit fastball.

“The great ones have this ability to stretch their mind to these uncomfortable levels,” Johnson said. “That’s why they don’t give away at-bats. That’s how they don’t take pitches off. Paul already has that side of him. The Pirates knew what they were getting with the talent and body and raw numbers. But he’s so advanced on that kind of stuff.”

Knowing that their time with him was nearing its end, Skenes’ teammates in Indianapolis tried to enjoy the remaining moments. They’ll miss his outlandish performances, sure, but also his baseball knowledge and sense of humor. Grant Koch, who caught the majority of Skenes’ starts, had a running joke on days he didn’t play. If a reliever needed to warm up, Koch would toss Skenes his catcher’s mitt and say, within earshot of the coaching staff: “Hey, Paul, go grab him for me real quick. I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” The response, Koch said, from the coaches: “No, no, no, no.”

“When you’re around people that are great and special at what they do, you learn a lot being around them,” Koch said. “Pitching and game-planning wise. Routine stuff. He takes his work very seriously. Hopefully I’ve made him comfortable and helped him in a way. But I’m appreciative of the time. It’s been a cool experience.”

Not just for a player like Koch who has yet to make the big leagues but one like Honeywell who’s angling to return. Six years ago, Honeywell was regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball, universally ranked among the game’s 15 best. Though arm injuries waylaid Honeywell’s ascent, he emerged with the sort of perspective that few understand.

Everyone, Honeywell said, will want to get a hit off Skenes’ fastball — “just to tell their friends they did it.” And in the major leagues, where 29 pitchers this season have thrown 100 mph-plus fastballs, velocity doesn’t play quite the same. It’s necessary, he said, for Skenes to remember that as good as the fastball is, he’s far more than one impressive pitch.

“He knows where he is going,” Honeywell said. “He knows where he is headed. He knows what his job’s supposed to be. He goes about his business the right way. The kid just wants to pitch. And I think the kid was made to pitch.”

ONE NEED ONLY consider the careers of previous pitching phenoms Mark Prior and Stephen Strasburg to see how wrong things can go for even seemingly the safest of pitching prospects.

In 2002, Prior blew through the minor leagues in 51 innings and threw another 116.2 that season. He jumped to 211.1 innings the next year and at 22 years old looked like baseball’s next great ace. Arm injuries derailed his career. He threw his last big league pitch at 25.

In 2010, Strasburg was even better than Prior in 55.1 minor league innings and threw another 68 before he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and needed Tommy John surgery. He returned in late 2011 for five starts and cruised through 159.1 innings in 2012 before the Nationals shut him down three weeks before the postseason. On-and-off injuries limited him for the remainder of his career, and he threw his last meaningful pitch at 31.

Now it’s Skenes’ turn. And it comes at a trying time for pitchers, when for all of the gains the sport has seen in maximizing pitching performance and velocity, keeping elite arms healthy remains a high-stakes crapshoot.

“The pitching ecosystem knows so much about how to optimize: the body, the delivery, the way the arm works, how fast guys move, creating force,” Cherington said. “What hasn’t changed is the way the elbow and shoulder are built when you’re born. We have way more data. We should be way more precise about what’s going on.”

It will be years before the Pirates know if the plan worked. And even if it does — if Skenes stays healthy and turns into the next great ace — the line from plan to success is neither clear nor causative.

As scary as the prospect of Skenes improving on the fly might be for the rest of the NL Central, it’s what the Pirates need. Already this year they’ve added a hypertalented, hard-throwing, right-handed rookie to their rotation in Jared Jones. Pairing him with Skenes and right-hander Mitch Keller gives Pittsburgh the sort of starting staff that could be the envy of baseball sooner than later and perhaps convince owner Bob Nutting to push the Pirates’ payroll past $100 million for the first time.

Cherington is quick not to get too far ahead of himself. He tries not to stress about the list of high-velocity pitchers and arm injuries. Shohei Ohtani isn’t pitching this season because of reconstructive elbow surgery. Nor are Spencer Strider, Shane McClanahan, Sandy Alcantara and Eury Perez. Cole and Jesus Luzardo are out with elbow injuries, Grayson Rodriguez and Bobby Miller on the shelf with shoulder issues. That’s nine of the 10 hardest-throwing starters in 2023 — a spot Skenes and Jones are certain to fill in their absence.

“We don’t know exactly the right way to manage it,” Cherington said. “We don’t. We want to win games, and they give us a chance to make that happen. In most cases, we’d really like to have models that really inform our decisions. And then humans can stress those models and push them left and right. In this case, we don’t have a model telling us.”

Ahead they forge nevertheless, unclear if their plan was right, praying things don’t go wrong. Such is life in modern baseball, where you never know. You simply hope.