Why the Pirates believe now is the right time for Skenes

May 11th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- Ultimately, the decision to call up was two-fold, the first being that the things he was working on with Triple-A Indianapolis -- such as certain pitch executions and use of pitches -- had been satisfied.

The second, and more important in general manager Ben Cherington’s eyes, is that his work volume had been built up enough for the Major League game. That was an area of concern as the Pirates tried to protect the right arm of the game’s most highly coveted pitching prospect in over a decade. They didn’t want to overwork him, so he built up for the season slower as a way to manage innings and ease him into the professional game.

On Saturday, the wait is over. Skenes day has finally arrived.

“He felt confident that he could come up and help us win games,” said Cherington pregame Thursday. “Really as simple as that, and as we said going back to Spring Training, most of the time it was going to be him telling us. Not all of it, because we were in control of some of the scheduling and volume, so not all of it was up to him. But most of it was going to be up to him and I think he told us pretty loud and clear that he was ready.”

“Organizationally, this is a win for us,” said manager Derek Shelton. “This is a guy that we identified for multiple reasons, highlighted, had a process to bring him to the big leagues, which many people may or may not have agreed with, but he actually got here pretty quickly. I do appreciate it because organizationally, this is something that's very important. We identified a guy scouting-wise, we've done a good job in the short-term developing and now we get a chance to deploy him in the big leagues.”

Shelton preached managing expectations on Skenes throughout his pregame availability. It is still a Major League debut, after all. It just so happens to be for this generation’s top Minor League arm.

“We're excited to watch him pitch but also it's a Major League debut,” Shelton said. “Let's just let the kid go out and be him and not put anything else on him except for just going out and being a Major League pitcher.”

You can’t fault fans for putting such high expectations on Skenes. This day has been on the radar ever since the Pirates took him first overall in the 2023 MLB Draft 10 months and two days ago. He’s looked like a big leaguer ever since he pitched for Louisiana State last season, and he carved up Triple-A hitters, striking out 45 with a 0.99 ERA over 27 1/3 Minor League innings.

Factor that electric 102 mph stuff with social media clips that go viral seemingly every time he pitches, and it’s easy to see why there is so much excitement surrounding the North Shore of Pittsburgh right now.

“I would say there's probably not been very many over the last 15-20 years that have been this much anticipated,” Shelton said. “It's because [he is] a one-of-one, and it's a one-of-one that got to the big leagues extremely quickly, so I think that's why.”

So what makes Skenes the type of pitcher that can handle that type of pressure? Shelton pointed to Skenes’ military background, pitching two years for the Air Force Academy.

For Cherington, his answer was again two-fold. The first is he’s had to deal with this many eyeballs on him for over a year now, dating back to his time with LSU and in the College World Series. The other is this guy is pitching even better than last year.

“We thought he'd get better over time, obviously, but to do that in a relatively short time is impressive,” Cherington said. “These things are not easy. These things he's trying to do are not easy. His pitches are different. The way he attacks hitters is different from a year ago. He's become a better pitcher in a relatively short amount of time. And he was doing that at the same time that we were putting some restrictions on him that he would probably not have put on himself, if it was all up to him.

“So I think the combination of those two things: the fact that he's gotten better and is a better pitcher, at the same time he wasn't in full control of his pitching. Both of those things stood out to us, and how he handled them."