After 1st 2 MLB starts, here's what Cubs have to say about Skenes

May 17th, 2024

CHICAGO -- The Cubs got MLB’s first crack at Paul Skenes when he made his big league debut against them in Pittsburgh last week. And although they had some success against the No. 1 pick in the 2023 Draft, they also acknowledge the obvious.

You can see something special in Skenes, baseball’s top pitching prospect.

“Yeah, there’s no question,” manager Craig Counsell said Friday morning before the Cubs’ 9-3 loss to the Pirates in their second matchup with Skenes.

“You flash 102 [mph],” Counsell added. “That’s good.”

As much as Skenes impressed folks in that four-plus-inning debut start against the Cubs -- he allowed six hits and three runs and struck out seven -- he took it to another level on Friday at Wrigley Field. The Cubs didn’t record a hit against the 21-year-old in his six innings of work. He struck out 11, including the first seven Cubs hitters to start the game.

That streak is the third longest by a rookie starting pitcher to begin a game in the Live Ball Era (since 1920), according to Elias Sports Bureau. Jacob deGrom (Sept. 15, 2014) and Jim Deshaies (Sept. 23, 1986) each struck out eight.

Michael Busch, who walked with one out in the fifth inning, was Chicago’s only baserunner against Skenes.

Skenes’ arsenal includes a four-seam fastball, a splitter and sinker hybrid he calls a “splinker,” a slider, a curveball and a changeup. On Friday, he leaned heavily on his fastball (41 pitches) and splinker (33), while also mixing in the slider (15), curveball (seven) and changeup (four).

“The split was really good, and they were competitive every single time, really,” Counsell said postgame. “There's enough velocity difference on those two pitches that it makes it really difficult.”

Skenes’ four-seamer averaged 99.3 mph and topped out at 101.2 mph on Friday. The splinker averaged 94.8 mph and maxed at 96.5.

“It’s a big boy throwing a heavy baseball,” said Cubs center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, who snapped Skenes’ strikeout streak to start the game when he grounded out to first baseman Rowdy Tellez for the second out of the third inning.

“He does a really good job with mixing and everything. It’s tough to hit anybody that throws 100+ with two to three really good secondary pitches and a sinker that moves like a changeup at 95.”

Mike Tauchman, the Cubs’ designated hitter who led off on Friday, said Skenes’ splinker tunnels well off of his four-seamer and has a similar look out of the hand, but the offspeed pitch has more run and drop than his heater.

In Skenes’ debut on Saturday, the Cubs had a 35 percent whiff rate against him (14 misses on 40 swings), including seven whiffs against his splinker. Of his seven strikeouts that day, four came against his four-seamer, two on his slider and one with his splinker.

On Friday, the Cubs had a 41 percent whiff rate (22 misses on 54 swings), with 12 whiffs against his four-seamer, five on his splinker and four on his slider. Eight Cubs struck out against Skenes’ four-seamer, two against his splinker and one against his slider.

“It felt a little bit more down the mound than his last start,” Tauchman said. “I thought the fastball command was pretty good today, and then he was able to tunnel that splitter, sinker or whatever he wants to call that pitch off of it, but throw those really, really competitively.

“When you're dealing with somebody with that kind of velocity and they have command and they're making you make split-second decisions, you know he did a good job.”

Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks took the ball on Friday and was matching Skenes early; he only allowed one baserunner (a single) through two innings. But Pittsburgh ultimately tagged him for 11 hits and eight runs (seven earned) in 4 2/3 innings.

“To be honest, I thought I made two bad pitches, which is crazy to look at that start and say that,” Hendricks said, pointing to two changeups he left up in the zone. “I thought I was even better down in the zone. I thought I executed maybe better than my last start. Just bizarre. So many soft hits falling in front.”

Jared Triolo hit one of those changeups for a two-run homer in the third inning, and Nick Gonzales hit the other for a double in the fourth. To Hendricks’ point, Rowdy Tellez hit a 66.4 mph single to left field immediately before Triolo’s homer. Yasmani Grandal hit a 66.9 mph RBI single in the fourth.

Hendricks, who had a solid outing against the Pirates Sunday in Pittsburgh, now has a 10.57 ERA in seven starts this season.