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Indy's Skenes breaks down his wicked arsenal

MLB's No. 3 prospect dives into what makes his pitches so filthy
April 21, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS -- Paul Skenes was a national champion at LSU. He became a No. 1 overall pick with the Pirates in 2023. He’s been the Minors’ most dominant pitcher at Triple-A Indianapolis to begin 2024. And in many ways, he still thinks like that catcher calling pitches for Air Force

INDIANAPOLIS -- Paul Skenes was a national champion at LSU. He became a No. 1 overall pick with the Pirates in 2023. He’s been the Minors’ most dominant pitcher at Triple-A Indianapolis to begin 2024. And in many ways, he still thinks like that catcher calling pitches for Air Force -- where he started his collegiate career from 2021-22 -- a rare activity for a college backstop who also saw time at first base during his Academy days.

“Our coaches would like to say that’s a leadership opportunity,” he said, “which is what they’re doing more so than making baseball players. They’re developing leaders. Working with pitchers, planning, all that, that’s leadership. That was the mindset.”

Carving up opposing batters has become Skenes’ full-time job in every sense. He’s yet to allow a run in his first four International League starts. He’s struck out 27 Triple-A batters and walked only four over 12 2/3 innings. He’s fanned 57.4 percent of his hitters faced to begin his first full season. Yes, the Pirates’ plan to slow play the 21-year-old right-hander has played a role in his stunning numbers, but there’s no denying this:

Skenes has an arsenal ready to take the Majors by storm.

MLB Pipeline caught up with the No. 3 overall prospect in Indianapolis fresh off his latest eight-strikeout gem to find out more about his deep repertoire.


It’s the fastball heard ‘round the Minors.

The LSU legend has thrown 112 heaters through his first four starts and averaged 100.2 mph, making it the fastest pitch in Triple-A. He’s eclipsed triple-digits 74 different times. No one else in Triple-A has hit 100 mph more than 24 times as of Saturday. Expand that to the Majors, and only A’s fireballing closer Mason Miller comes close with 64 pitches at 100+ mph.

There isn’t much of a secret in what allows Skenes to develop that velocity either. He stands at 6-foot-6 and is listed at a solid 235 pounds. Throw in a crossfire delivery that can look effortless, and the ball explodes out of his hand.

“Just being strong and moving efficiently,” Skenes said. “It’s not magic. It works for me. Other guys do it differently. But that’s my bread and butter – being strong and moving efficiently.”

“I haven’t hit off him, but I assume that when you are hitting off him, it feels like he’s on top of you,” said Indianapolis pitching coach Drew Benes. “The velocity is going to make it play a lot of places.”

That’s a key note because there has been some concern about Skenes’ lack of ride on the heater. So far, the pitch has averaged just 13.4 inches of induced vertical break. The average Triple-A fastball has an average of 15.6 inches of IVB. In theory, the lack of perceived rise should make it easier for hitters to read the fastball and make contact.

And yet they haven’t with Skenes’ fireball. Triple-A opponents are just 3-for-28 (.107) with 18 strikeouts off the righty’s numero uno. He’s gotten misses on 37 percent of swings against the fastball; Triple-A average whiff rate for a four-seamer this season is 24.2 percent.

“I think the eyes are the biggest thing,” Skenes said. “I don't look at my shapes a ton, unless I find something drastically wrong in how I'm moving with my body because the body is going to affect how the ball comes out of the hand too. So I might look at the shapes there. But yeah, I just laugh when people talk like the [pitch data] plot is the end-all-be-all.”


Skenes has leaned on his fastball 53.3 percent of the time in the early going of 2024, and his most leaned-on secondary is his slider with a 23.8 percent usage rate. There’s a case to be made that the breaker, which averages 86.8 mph, is just as good as its straighter, faster counterpart.

The Bucs prospect has gotten 23 swings against his slider this season, and opponents have missed 12 times for a whiff rate of 52.2 percent, sixth-highest among Triple-A pitchers with at least 50 sliders thrown this season.

The 13-14 mph separation certainly helps, but perhaps the most notable aspect of Skenes’ slider is the variation in the amount of horizontal action. The slider has shown as much as 16 inches of horizontal movement like a true sweeper. It’s also shown even arm-side movement at times, acting more like a cutter.

Skenes uses a combination of scouting reports and personal understanding of his command on a given day as factors in his decision of when and how to manipulate the length of the slider, but it’s the same two-seam-style slider grip.

“I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is,” he said. “I just know what the short one feels like and what the big one feels like.”

But figuring out which version of the slider can be a guessing game for more than just the batter.

“He doesn’t throw a cutter, but I may call for a cutter or a slider depending on how big I want it,” said Grant Koch, who caught each of Skenes’ first three Indianapolis starts. “But a lot of times -- I would say for the most part -- it’s him deciding, and I’ll just read it. I know generally what it’s going to do from catching him now, and depending on the situation, he’ll make it shorter or bigger. But that’s something I can deal with on the fly.”


Fellow No. 1 overall pick Henry Davis referred to Skenes’ “splinker” in Spring Training. Benes says the Indianapolis coaching staff also calls it a splinker. When Koch uses the PitchCom, he calls for a sinker.

It has a low 1,807 rpm average spin rate like a splitter. It has a 95.0 mph average velocity and 15.3 inches of average arm-side movement like a sinker.

“It’s tough to scout for a little bit,” Skenes said. “I think that’s why they started calling it a splinker. It’s not like any other sinker, and it’s not like any other splitter. It’s a hybrid pitch. … Call it whatever you want.”

The pitch developed when Skenes was working to add a sinker back to his repertoire. As his four-seam velocity increased, college hitters were having difficulty catching up, and the right-hander didn’t want to give them a slower fastball they could touch. But with pro hitters (and their improved bat speed) looming after the Draft, the righty got to work after the College World Series on incorporating a fastball that would have more arm-side movement. One slip of his grip allowed Skenes to feel the pitch more on his index finger, thus killing more of the spin, and led to one of the most unique pitches in the Minors.

“It happened by accident,” he said, “and then it became a conscious thing to get it off that [index] finger more. You watch the EDGE [performance evaluation] video, and it still comes off the middle finger last, but the feel for me and the thought is to get it off the index finger.”

Skenes has thrown the hybrid splinker 26 times through four starts for a 12.4 percent usage rate. He’s gotten nine called strikes and whiffs for a CSW rate of 34.6 percent, above the 30 percent “good” standard.

“You have to decide what you’re going to be on,” Benes said. “You can’t be on 102 and still hit offspeed, and if you’re on offspeed, you can’t hit 102. It’s something hard that creates movement. Hopefully, it’s an early-count, weak-contact pitch, but who knows. He’s young. He’s going to throw it a lot.”


Skenes’ splinker gets called a changeup by the Pirates’ internal measurements even though it isn’t because the potential ace has a true one of those too. His version -- thrown with a Vulcan-style grip that splits the ring and middle finger -- dates to his days as a junior in high school, well before the slider took over as his best secondary.

“I didn’t really have a slider my freshman or sophomore year at Air Force,” Skenes said, noting his pronation bias in his throwing motion. “I was fastball-changeup as a closer, so relying on that, it’s just something I’m super confident with.”

The current edition comes in the upper 80s with 2,025 average rpm and 18.4 inches of average horizontal arm-side movement. He’s only thrown 15 cambios so far through four starts, all against lefties. Those have resulted in six swings and six misses, a perfect 100 percent whiff rate.


As if four pitches weren’t enough, Skenes has one more hitters need to consider. Or that they need to start considering now anyway.

“I started throwing [the curveball] during the season last year, probably the fourth or fifth week of the season in college,” he said. “I don’t think guys had it in their report because the first time it literally got touched was in the SEC tournament on a foul ball or something. It was always a take pitch or a miss pitch, and now it’s a little different because they have it in their report. But it’s a different shape. It’s the one with more hump behind it versus more of a flat spin [in the slider].”

Skenes has thrown only seven curveballs in the young season, and four have come on 0-0 counts. With an 84.3 mph average velo, it’s his slowest pitch and has the steepest drop at 42.5 inches on average. It also features 7.4 inches of horizontal, making it slurvy, and it remains a distant fifth in one of the Minors’ deepest arsenals.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.