Skenes takes Round 1 in head-to-head with fellow No. 1 overall pick

Top pitching prospect retires Holliday, throws 1-2-3 inning in debut

February 29th, 2024

SARASOTA, Fla. -- A matchup of Paul Skenes and Jackson Holliday is perhaps the most exciting pitcher-batter battle this spring. The two were the first overall Draft pick the past two years and rank as the top hitting and pitching prospect on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100.

“I wasn’t going to miss it,” said Pirates right-hander Thomas Harrington, who watched from the bullpen. “His stuff is obviously electric.”

It’s a matchup of power versus power. So of course, Skenes started the at-bat Thursday with a curveball. Then came the 100 mph fastball, which Holliday rolled softly to second base for an out. Round one between the two No. 1 picks goes in favor of the pitcher.

“It’s really firm, huh?” Holliday would say afterwards about that fastball. “I mean, he’s throwing 102. It’s pretty fast.”

Skenes would go on to throw eight more pitches in his 1-2-3 first inning Thursday in the Pirates’ 9-8 loss to the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Following Holliday, Adley Rutschman flew out to right and Heston Kjerstad to left. All three outs were with his fastball.

"It's a huge arm,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “Big guy. Big guy throwing hard."

But afterwards in the visitors' clubhouse, Skenes’ focus was on the whole arsenal.

“It's nice that hitters are on time for the fastball more often now,” Skenes said. “[That's] what I'm anticipating. So to be able to go out there and pitch rather than blow it by guys. Like I said, the velocity's a tool. It's not the biggest thing I want to rely on. But pitching is fun. I mean, blowing it by guys is fun. It gets old. Pitching and the art of it, I really love that."

That’s not to downplay his triple-digit heaters. Of his 10 pitches in his only frame Thursday, five were fastballs, clocking in at 100, 101, 99, 102 and 101 mph, as registered by the radar gun at Ed Smith Stadium. Since the advent of Pitch f/x in 2008, only nine starting pitchers have thrown 102 mph in a game. None of them were Pirates.

It’s eye-opening velocity, but in line with what Skenes did at Louisiana State last season during his ascension to becoming the No. 1 overall pick.

He wants to be more than just that power fastball, though. It’s why he focused on expanding his repertoire to incorporate five pitches this winter. He showed off four Thursday: The four-seamer, slider, curveball and changeup. The one that didn’t see any game action was what Henry Davis referred to as a “splinker,” or a splitter-sinker.

“It's not just the stuff,” Davis said. “He's really pitching.”

"I mean, it's a tool,” Skenes said about his velocity. “I don't know what I was today. I didn't check once. I don't get it on the postgame report. And frankly, the moment it stops being there -- hopefully 15 years from now -- then we'll probably have to adjust the game plan a fair amount.”

Davis caught Skenes plenty this winter at Pirate City, where they started forging a working relationship this winter. When asked if it was more fun to be working together in a game compared to just the back fields, Davis cracked a giant grin and said it was “pretty fun.”

The Pirates are hoping their two No. 1 overall picks could be a pitching battery for years to come. For Skenes, it’s not just because he’s got power stuff, but because he’s learning to use a full arsenal and is learning more about what he refers to as the art of pitching.

"Of all the things about Paul that make me excited, that's probably the most as a baseball player,” Davis said. “[It’s] indicative to future success in Pittsburgh."

The question then becomes: How soon will that battery be at PNC Park? Skenes is working on a new routine for a professional starter, but he showed Thursday that he could handle some of the best young hitters in the game.

But that’s not too surprising to him.

“I felt ready for a while, to be honest just because of being a confident player and that kind of thing,” Skenes said. “I think it's crazy to go out there and not believe in yourself. That's something that I believe I've trained over a long period of time. … As they face me more, [they’re going to learn more about me] because I'm going to face those guys a lot over the years. So I'm really looking forward to that."