Giants Pirates Baseball

Pirates starting pitcher Paul Skenes has been dominant in his first three major league starts. “I think everybody is obviously going to expect him to go out there and dominate everybody,” Pirates catcher Joey Bart said. “He’ll probably do that.” Matt Freed/Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — By the unlikely standards he has set for himself during his first year of professional baseball, Thursday afternoon was a quiet one for Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Paul Skenes. In his third major league outing, the most polished and promising pitching prospect in recent memory threw six innings of one-run ball against the San Francisco Giants. He only struck out three batters in the process. He only hit 100 miles per hour with his fastball four times.

The joke, of course, is that any starting pitcher allowing one run in six innings in his third major league outing would be happy with those results. But Skenes, his manager and his teammates later acknowledged that those six innings against an experienced lineup were nowhere near his best.

“Breaking ball command (was not there),” Skenes said. “I made do with it, but it was mostly relying on the fastball today, more than slider/changeup like we had the last couple weeks. But you have to compete with what you have.”

So this, it seems, is Skenes on a bad day, on a day when all he had was a fastball and his unique “splinker” splitter/sinker. This is Skenes on a day he has to “grind,” as his manager, Derek Shelton, put it, referring to the fact that seven people reached base against him and one of them even scored.

“It’s the big leagues,” Shelton said, using a phrase managers often use when rookie pitchers encounter trouble in the majors. “This kid’s really good, but we have to respect that those are big league hitters up there who are really talented.”

Everything is relative for Skenes, whom the Pirates took first overall out of LSU less than a calendar year ago. At 21, he has already given the entire baseball world a reason to turn their eyes toward Pittsburgh every five days. The massive expectations he has earned seem like no problem for his 6-foot-6 frame to carry. He does not look like a player who needs to be coddled as he transitions to the majors. He looks like a player who just needs to be unleashed.


And while it is early, Skenes also resembles an ace of a different era, a rare transformative starter whose presence on the mound draws crowds to the stands. Steamy Thursday afternoons in May are quiet at most ballparks around the country, but the Pirates announced an attendance of 23,162. The Pirates have drawn 23,000 or more to PNC Park five times this season. Two of those games were Skenes starts.

“I think everybody is obviously going to expect him to go out there and dominate everybody,” Pirates catcher Joey Bart said. “He’ll probably do that. There’s a good chance he does. But it’s really hard for a kid who was pitching in the SEC tournament last year this time. I really like the way he’s composed himself. I’ve been impressed.”

When the Pirates drafted Skenes last summer, his stuff was ready, his repertoire was growing, and his maturity was unquestioned. Few college pitchers in recent memory could say the same.

When he made his much-anticipated debut earlier this month, Comparisons to former Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg were as inevitable as they were imperfect. Skenes, like Strasburg, was considered a can’t-miss college pitcher with big league polish by the time he entered the draft. Skenes, like Strasburg, moved through the minor leagues quickly after being drafted. Skenes, like Strasburg, had an elite fastball and untouchable secondary stuff, the kind of arsenal that seems likely to fail only if its owner is not healthy enough to wield it.

But Skenes, unlike the reserved and reticent Strasburg, is a willing participant in stardom. He has worn a full suit to the ballpark on start days since his debut, a blossoming trademark of his big league routine. He has a famous girlfriend, gymnast and influencer Livvy Dunne, who posted a selfie in a Pirates hat for her 5.2 million Instagram followers mere minutes before Skenes’s outing Thursday.

And most noticeably, he seems to have no fear. In a recent interview, when asked about big league hitters adjusting to his stuff, Skenes said matter-of-factly: “Go ahead and adjust. Good luck.” Thursday, when asked about the fact that he struck out just three Giants, he said he knew San Francisco would put the ball in play and just had to trust that the contact that even the best hitters in the world would make against him would be weak.


“I trust myself over pretty much anyone, any lineup,” said Skenes, explaining that the odds of anyone getting four straight hits against him are not exactly high. So far, he is correct: In three starts, Skenes owns a 2.25 ERA, has struck out 21 batters in 16 innings, and has allowed a total of 16 baserunners.

The trouble is that Pittsburgh’s roster is not yet complete enough that Skenes’ arrival vaults the Pirates into immediate contention. In fact, the Pittsburgh bullpen collapsed when Skenes departed Thursday, sending the Pirates to their second-straight backbreaking loss and to five games under .500.

But Skenes is not the only reason for optimism. The man who started on Wednesday, a 22-year-old rookie with a 100 mph fastball, seems capable of shaping a brighter Pirates future, too.

Jared Jones grew up knowing Skenes’ name as a kid in Southern California. When Jones needed to warm up for a showcase in the summer of 2019, Skenes caught him. At the time, Skenes had yet to star at Air Force as a two-way force, had yet to transfer to LSU to focus on pitching.

“He was always a catcher and pitcher first. He got to college, got really strong, and I think everything took off from there,” Jones said. “And once he got to LSU, he became a totally different dude.”

Jones, who is listed at 6-foot-1 but jokes that he is 5-foot-4, says he regularly teases Skenes about how he, too, can throw 100. Their lockers are next to each other in the Pirates clubhouse, making it easy to notice that even with his hat on, Jones only rises to Skenes’s shoulder. They live together and goof around together, so much so that even two hours before Skenes started Thursday, they were locked in conversation.


“We have a pretty good idea of what we can do here,” said Jones, holding out a T-shirt that read “Allegheny Electric Company” and featured pictures of Jones and Skenes drawn in yellow on a black background. “We’re pretty excited.”

Now that they have seen what they can be in the majors, they have every reason to be. Jones said after Skenes pitched four innings in his major league debut, he asked Jones a rather silly question.

“Are we going to be pitching back-to-back days for the rest of the year?” Skenes asked.

“I think so, that’s how rotations work,” Jones said.

“Wow,” said Skenes, who, having faced big league hitters for the first time, was entirely unafraid to prognosticate. “That’s gonna be sick.”

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