Skenes flaunts nasty repertoire in true 'five-pitch game'

June 18th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- At this time last year, as Paul Skenes was amid his astronomical rise to becoming one of the top pitching prospects in recent memory, so much of the excitement was around two pitches in particular: his triple-digit fastball and his wipeout slider. He had more pitches at his disposal and his talent was not tied to just two offerings, but those pitches were the bedrock for a first overall MLB Draft pick.

So what happens when neither pitch is performing like it should? It turns out those other weapons were built on solid ground, too. Despite pitching without his fastball for most of the night, Skenes was able to strike out seven over six innings of one-run ball Monday at PNC Park, leading the Pirates to a 4-1 victory over the Reds.

Back in Spring Training, Skenes made clear that he wanted to be a five-pitch pitcher. Obviously, having all of those weapons can be a boon, but there can be a difference between having five pitches and being a five-pitch pitcher. The latter usually implies that the hurler has pitched through fire to get through a start or two, one where things might have gone sideways if he didn’t have all five pitches.

“It was truly a five-pitch game today,” said Skenes. “I used all five pitches. It’s definitely fun to be able to pitch like that and play a little bit more of the mind games with them.”

The Reds hunted fastballs early and made some solid contact. Elly De La Cruz flied out to the warning track in left off a four-seamer in the first inning, but Jeimer Candelario and Spencer Steer produced a two-out run with hits off of the fastball.

“Early on, we were really trying to be ready for his fastball,” Reds manager David Bell explained afterwards. “Obviously, he has a good fastball. I thought we did a good job with that in the first inning.”

It was the first time Skenes had allowed a first-inning run in his seven Major League starts, and had he continued forward with his normal pitch mix, the Reds could have made it a long night. Instead, he adjusted, going with his curveball and splinker (his splitter-sinker hybrid) more for the middle innings.

After throwing 10 four-seam fastballs in his 19-pitch first inning, Skenes threw just two in the second and three in the third. He ramped up its usage again to complete the sixth, but that was after he had firmly established he could control the bottom of the zone with his offspeed and breaking stuff.

The splinker became Skenes’ primary pitch on the night, accounting for nine of his 18 whiffs. He still thinks of it as a sinking fastball first, and with the drop he was getting, he lived down in the zone. That usually doesn’t jive with a high-spin four-seamer, but the mirrored spin between the fastball, splinker and curve let all the pitches play, and five of Skenes’ seven strikeouts were with fastballs or splinkers at the knees or lower.

“They’re tunneling off in the same portion,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “When you can execute the fastball down -- because we know he has the ability to go up with heavy velocity -- but when you’re executing the fastball down, you’re able to tunnel off the other two pitches. He did a really nice job of it today.”

Skenes also threw his changeup more than usual -- a total of 10 times -- giving him another tool to change velocities to help keep the Reds off the fastball as the game progressed. That’s a pitch the right-hander barely threw in college because it didn’t behoove him to give SEC hitters a slower offering, but it’s continued to develop as his pro career continues.

“I think as he continues to grow, we see the ability to use weapons,” Shelton said.

Mix in a couple of doubles from Bryan Reynolds to jumpstart the offense, and the Pirates are 1-0 against a divisional rival. It’s a win that shows that their prodigy pitcher isn’t just a two-trick pony, either. He wants to be a five-pitch guy, and he showed it Monday.

“It’s literally just getting to a position where I have to use them, to an extent, to where I have to use all five of my pitches,” Skenes said. “That’s where I was today. … There are days when I can’t use a pitch. Today it was one of those days where I kind of had to use all five pitches to get through it.”