'He’s a unicorn': Skenes from the eyes of his catchers

May 11th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Alex Stumpf’s Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

PITTSBURGH -- Justin Miknis is living a boyhood dream. He grew up in DuBois, located about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, and he’s playing professional ball for the Pirates, the team he watched growing up.

And on Saturday, he gets to see what can do.

“Growing up a Pirates fan, it’s cool to see the organization making some moves like that,” Miknis said. “I’m glad he’s up there, that’s for sure.”

Miknis won’t be able to attend Skenes’ Major League debut on Saturday, but he’s already had a front-row seat to the Skenes show. He’s part of the fraternity of Minor League catchers who have caught the top pitching prospect.

Ahead of Skenes’ first start, MLB.com reached out to three catchers who caught Skenes at different levels -- Miknis with Single-A Bradenton, with Double-A Altoona and with Triple-A Indianapolis -- to get their thoughts on the Pirates’ prized prospect.

How different is his stuff from watching it on TV versus catching it live?

Miknis: “His stuff is just different, you know? To be able to throw that hard and command it, it’s impressive.”

Bins: “Obviously watching it is eye-opening, and catching it is even more eye-opening. He’s got a good feel for four or five different pitches, and he can throw any pitch in any count. It’s fun when you have a guy out there that knows what he wants to do with the ball. … It’s more fun catching it than it is watching it.

“I tell everybody you can’t tell the difference between 95 [mph] or 102 catching it, but you can tell a difference [when] hitting it.”

Koch: “It’s obviously a different experience. He’s a big dude. It’s one of the things I noticed first. How close he is to you because of how big he is. Obviously it’s 102 [mph], but he’s so close to you and he’s a little bit across his body. It’s a little bit different to get used to.”

Do you have a favorite memory catching him?

Miknis: “I think his first strikeout was a really good changeup down-and-in. It was pretty good, and it got past me. It was a dropped third strike and the guy advanced to first. So that’s kind of a bad memory [chuckles].”

Bins: “[In his first start for the Curve], it was awesome to play in front of that many people here in Altoona. Biggest crowd ever. I feel like he got a taste of what pro ball is like and what his future is going to be like pitching against the top hitters in the world. Things didn’t go the way we wanted it to in that first inning, but it was a good experience and he learned from it. … That second start in Erie, the first guy got on and then he struck out the side with a heater and two sliders.”

Koch: ”I think we were in Toledo. A guy’s on first, he steals. The [batter] swings and I get up to throw and the [hitter] is out over the plate. It should have been interference, but they didn’t call it. I throw it, and I throw the guy out, but Paul’s not even looking because he’s screaming at the umpire, ‘That’s interference!’ I can see him, the ball’s going over his head and he’s not looking at the ball. He’s walking towards me as I’m throwing to second, screaming at the umpire. It was so funny. He was locked in his moment and he was going to fight for it being interference. We had a laugh afterwards.”

What makes him special?

Miknis: “He has something about him when he’s on the mound. A certain confidence. He works really hard. With how talented he is, he can probably sit back and let his talent do the work, but no, he works really hard. I think that’s what makes him above and beyond everyone else.”

Bins: “He’s got the size. He’s got the mental part of it. Obviously he throws hard and knows what he needs to do to get guys out on the mound. He’s a polished pitcher that I feel like could have pitched in the big leagues the day after he got drafted. … He’s a unicorn on the mound.”

Koch: “I don’t think it’s one thing. I think he does a lot of things really well. I think he’s really polished. He’s super smart out there. He really has an idea for what he wants to do and what the hitters are trying to do. I think he does a great job controlling the running game. I think that’s overlooked a lot of times, but it matters to him. … He stays even-keeled out there. He has a lot of confidence. I don’t know if it’s one thing. I think he does a lot of things really well.”