Skenes needs more time 'building his volume' at Triple-A

April 18th, 2024

There’s no date yet for ’ potential Major League debut, and it’s OK to be a little antsy wondering when it will be. The Pirates also currently have a hole in their starting rotation with Marco Gonzales on the injured list.

But Skenes, MLB Pipeline's No. 3 overall prospect, isn’t the guy getting the callup to the Majors -- not through any fault of his own, but because he needs to continue to build up for his first full professional season.

Results-wise, it’s hard to find much to nitpick from Skenes’ first three outings this season. He has yet to allow a run with Triple-A Indianapolis, striking out 19 with just six baserunners allowed over 9 1/3 innings. However, he’s been purposefully limited on how deep he can go into games. He was capped at just three innings in his first two outings, and while he had a little extra wiggle room his last time out, he only faced one more batter in the fourth before he hit his pitch count limit.

“With Paul, we’ve been very intentional about how we’re building his volume coming into the season with a goal of really accomplishing two things,” said general manager Ben Cherington during his 93.7 The Fan radio show Sunday. “One is to try to get him to an appropriate total volume for 2024 coming off last year, when he pitched a full college season and then just a little bit of pro ball.

“We don’t want to go from zero to 100 right away. Paul’s so important to us long term, so we want to be really thoughtful about that.”

This is consistent with what the Pirates said in Spring Training when they told Skenes he was not going to make the Opening Day roster. A lot of it has to do with the volume of innings he has pitched the past few years. The Pirates' No. 1 prospect threw just 26 2/3 innings as a freshman with the Air Force Academy, then saw that figure jump to 85 2/3 as a sophomore. He had another significant increase in competitive innings last season with Louisiana State University, landing at 122 2/3 frames. He then added 6 2/3 innings over five outings as a professional.

In the past, the Pirates have generally been hesitant to add much more than 40-50 innings to a pitcher’s previous high season workload. They’ve gone about it in a variety of different ways in the past. In 2022, Roansy Contreras was shut down for several weeks midseason and then needed to build back up in the Minors. Johan Oviedo and Mitch Keller were given six-day breaks between starts over the final two months of last season.

They’ve already taken measures to try to limit Jared Jones’ innings in the Majors, telling him before his last start on Tuesday against the Mets that he was going to be limited to five innings.

For Skenes, the plan was a slower buildup to get him used to a five-day routine. Shorter outings allow him to get used to that routine while also helping to limit the number of innings he throws. This way, ideally, the majority of his innings are with the Major League team.

For now, though, it makes him the rare player who is at Triple-A but isn’t quite on the Major League radar yet. The pitcher who replaces Gonzales is going to be ready to pitch a full start right now.

“I think the key there is looking at guys who have been stretched out and who have built up volume enough so that they’re sort of in a normal starter’s schedule at this point,” Cherington said. “I think we’ll be looking at guys who have gotten into that 85-90 pitch count threshold first.”

In his first three outings with Indianapolis, Skenes threw 46, 44 and 55 pitches, so he’s obviously not quite to that point. Being allowed to pitch into the fourth in his most recent outing is a positive sign that he is getting closer.

As Cherington put it, “Every time a box is in front of [Skenes], he checks it.”

There’s plenty of reason to believe that he will continue to do so in the future. At the moment, there’s a reason why he is starting in Indianapolis on Thursday instead of PNC Park on Friday, but that could change in the not-so-distant future.