Skenes struggles in Double-A debut in front of record crowd

Highly touted righty gives up 4 runs on 3 hits, 2 walks in 2/3 of an inning

August 27th, 2023

ALTOONA, Pa. -- John “Smooth” Wilson has been a team assistant with Altoona for roughly a decade and a half. He’s likely seen more Curve baseball than anyone in attendance at Peoples Natural Gas Field on Saturday night. As fans formed a line on Park Avenue three hours prior to Paul Skenes’ Double-A debut, Smooth pondered the other games to command this much hype.

There was Stephen Strasburg’s Double-A debut in 2010, Andy Pettitte’s rehab start in Game 1 of the Eastern League championship series several months later and the Pirates and Curve’s exhibition in 2013. All three games paled in comparison to Skenes’ first time toeing the slab in Altoona, an occasion that commanded a crowd of 10,164, the largest in the ballpark’s history.

“I didn’t know that. That’s cool,” said Skenes, the Pirates' No. 1 prospect and the No. 3 prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline. "Obviously, that's not why I play the game. It's not why any of us play the game; we play to win and compete. It is cool to have an audience, wherever it is. Playing at LSU and playing in the College World Series, you're going to have that no matter what. That's humbling for sure, and I'm glad we could give them a good game at the end of it.”

Skenes couldn’t give the packed house the show they had hoped for, nor the start he wanted.

The plan was for Skenes to pitch two innings, but the right-hander recorded just two outs (both strikeouts), allowing four earned runs on three hits and two walks on 33 pitches before being pulled. Skenes, though, maintained perspective.

“A bad outing is just a bad outing,” Skenes said. “It's just baseball. Obviously, I want to go out there and win and pitch as best as I can every outing, and I'm going to do everything to prepare to do that for every outing. But, it is baseball. The beautiful thing is it's never as bad as it seems, and it's never as good as it seems.”

Still, Skenes flashed the talent that enticed the Pirates to select him with the first overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft on July 9. recording his first strikeout with a 100 mph four-seam fastball and his second with a biting slider. Skenes sat in the 97-100 mph range, throwing 12 pitches that touched 99 and two pitches that touched triple digits. Dewey Robinson, the Pirates’ senior advisor of pitching development, described Skenes as a pitcher who comes around “probably once in every 10 years.”

“What he brings to the table is extremely impressive,” Robinson said. “The size, the velocity, the durability, the feel for pitches. If you were gonna design the body of pitcher, he comes pretty close. We have to be smart enough to say, 'OK, we'll leave this alone,’ and let him go pitch or ask, ‘What are we going to tweak or help him with?’"

Along with Skenes’ talent, the 21-year-old has drawn rave reviews for his off-the-field makeup. Altoona manager Callix Crabbe and Pirates director of coaching and player development John Baker both described Skenes’ self-awareness as rare.

Crabbe recalled Skenes showing up 45 minutes before the team clubhouse opened on the day of a bullpen session, as well as Skenes’ detailed explanation as to why. Baker remembered how he and Josh Hopper, the Pirates’ coordinator of pitching development, compiled a list of things that they wanted Skenes to refine, only for Skenes to have already compiled that same list.

“When you look at people that become one-percenters, that’s the thing that you’re going to see. We come to the point where you recognize what you need to do, day in and day out, to become successful,” Crabbe said. “He’s clearly figured that out. … At the same time, he’s not so committed to the routine that he’s not able to deal with some of the subtle nuances and variability in the day-to-day pro environment.”

Skenes is already at his third Minor League affiliate this month, but another promotion isn’t on the immediate horizon. When asked whether Skenes will spend the rest of Altoona’s season with the team, Baker said that it’s “probably a fair expectation to have.” Altoona’s season ends on Sept. 17, while Triple-A Indianapolis’ season ends on Sept. 24.

A little over a month into his professional career, Skenes is already halfway to Pittsburgh. Should Skenes string together several good starts with Altoona, a cup of coffee at Triple-A Indianapolis could be a possibility. As far as the 2024 Opening Day roster?

“He’s definitely gonna put a lot of pressure on us to have to make that decision,” Baker said. “I don’t envy the position that Ben [Cherington, GM] and [manager Derek Shelton] are gonna be in come Spring Training when they see this guy on the mound, because he’s impressive. He’s gonna do everything he can to force our staff to make a really tough decision, and at the end of the day, that’s all we really want to ask of these players anyway: Make it hard.”