Skenes' splinker lights up Tigers on his 22nd birthday

Catcher Koch's MLB debut is a boon to fireballing right-hander

May 30th, 2024

DETROIT -- Pirates rookie right-hander dominated the Tigers with his fastball and splitter -- getting six of nine strikeouts with that pitch -- and collected his second MLB win in Wednesday’s second game of a doubleheader with a 10-2 victory at Comerica Park.

Skenes, making his fourth MLB start on his 22nd birthday, was two off his career-high of 11 strikeouts against the Cubs in a May 17 game at Wrigley Field in which he didn’t allow a hit over six innings to earn that first win. He walked one and allowed two runs on three hits against the Tigers, with Matt Vierling hitting a slider for a homer in the sixth.

He hasn’t gone deeper than six innings in a game, and requiring 21 of his 96 pitches in a 1-2-3 fourth inning when he struck out Mark Canha, Colt Keith and Akil Baddoo was taxing. He got each of them on swinging third strikes against his splitter. That pitch, thrown with a split-finger grip, has sinking action and is also known as the splinker.

“It was the pitch he used the most,” said Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton. “He got some at-bats that got extended, and the most impressive thing was he still finished hitters.”

The splinker – which Skenes said had its name coined by Pirates’ Triple-A catcher Henry Davis -- darts and dips, and can give batters fits.

“And we’ve got a really cool name for it,” Shelton said with a smile. “The way he holds it I think is different, and I think that’s why it’s got a really cool name.”

The No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball said on Tuesday that he was looking forward to teaming up with catcher , a Minor League teammate who made his first MLB start in the second game.

“As a catcher, game-calling is huge, and receiving is everything. And he’s the whole picture as a catcher, and so we got to know each other real well in Indianapolis this year [in Triple-A],” Skenes said about Koch. “We got to know each other a little bit during Spring Training, too.

“He and I have clicked as well as any catcher I’ve thrown to.”

“What’s helpful for us is that he’s caught Skenes seven times,” said Shelton. “…He has caught him that many times. He’s familiar…So, that’s helpful for us. And the fact that he was already in Pittsburgh was very fortunate.”

So, what did Koch, who’s seen the splinker more than anyone, think of it in this game? Was it the best Skenes has thrown the hybrid pitch?

“Yeah – especially depth-wise,” Koch said. “It’s a ground ball pitch, but definitely had a lot of depth today.”

Skenes said of the splinker: “It’s a good pitch, and we were leaning on it today for sure. I had a good feel for it, and it was doing well. So, we kept throwing it.”

Detroit manager A.J. Hinch agreed.

“It looked like we had a couple opportunities to chase him early with a couple hits or stringing together some high pitch counts. And then he had the equalizer: His split was really good anytime he went to it,” Hinch said. “Whatever he calls it, it’s really effective and really impactful to both sides of hitters. He could go get chase with it. He could go get swing-and-miss. So we had a hard time with the overall package. He’s a talented kid."

Koch struck out as a pinch-hitter in the 8-0 Game 1 loss to Detroit in his MLB debut, and walked and scored a run in the second game that he caught.

“It was just surreal,” said Koch. “I know everyone says that, but it’s hard to put into words. There were moments when I would look around and take it in, and so it was crazy.”

“We’ve had a good relationship this year,” said Koch about Skenes, “and I feel I’m comfortable with him.

“Just the fact that I’ve had a lot of experience with him -- obviously a lot of conversations, a lot of sides and little stuff that can help us throughout the game.”

Skenes said he was thrilled to hear Koch would be catching him.

“It kind of gave me chills. He’s the man. I’ve loved throwing to him, and I know he deserves it.”

Skenes’ impressive outing proves the duo is a good combination for the Pirates.

“It was cool,” Skenes said after the win. “I haven’t gotten to talk to him a ton yet about it. We just went straight into talking about how the game was. That’s kind of how our relationship is, and I’m super grateful for that. Not just that I could be a part of his debut, but I get to throw to him.”

It was a game they’ll both cherish.

Andrew McCutchen hit a three-run homer in the third and drove in four runs while coming up a triple shy of hitting for the cycle. He provided more than enough offense for Skenes, who said the only other pitcher who throws the splinker is Twins reliever Jhoan Duran.

“It’s something that’s not a fastball but you’ve got to treat it like a fastball because it’s 94-plus [mph],” said McCutchen. “Maybe treat it like a sinker. But not many people do it. That’s why [Skenes] is who he is.”