How Paul Skenes has changed the way he pitches in pro ball — Keith Law

Paul Skenes is (almost) here. Let us rejoice and be glad. But how ready might he be to get big-leaguers out? As much as he’s dominated hitters in his brief time in the minors, the way he’s already started to expand and revise his repertoire should give the Pirates even more optimism than they might have had last year when they drafted him — although I still see at least one more adjustment he’ll have to make to how he uses his various weapons.

At LSU, Skenes was mostly four-seamer/slider; those two pitch types accounted for 91 percent of the pitches he threw in 2023, with a changeup making up most of the remainder. He didn’t need anything else, since the two pitches on which he relied so heavily were both pretty effective. He’d dial the fastball up to 102 mph and missed more bats with it than most pitchers do with their four-seamers, and the slider was … well, thoughts and prayers were appropriate, as hitters whiffed over 60 percent of the time they went after it. He barely threw anything else because why would he help out the hitter that way?



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Skenes indicated to the Pirates after he was drafted that he wanted to try to add a two-seamer because he understood that his four-seamer doesn’t have much movement in either plane. It’s impressive for someone who can throw 102 to recognize that it’s not the be-all and end-all of pitching to throw extremely hard, an important element for a young pitcher to understand, especially as major-league hitters have shown they can get to triple-digit velocity if it’s straight enough. He’s already made a big adjustment to his arsenal even working with the Pitch Count Fairy staring over his shoulder in every start, adding a new pitch that’s both effective on its own and seems to be helping the four-seamer play up as well.

His third-most used pitch this year is his ‘splinker,’ which he has thrown about a third as often as he’s thrown his four-seamer (which is to say that one of every four fastballs he threw was the splinker). The splinker, which is a splitter-sinker hybrid, gives a very different look to hitters because it looks like the fastball out of his hand and has very similar horizontal movement (only about a half an inch of difference) but is 5 mph slower and drops 13 inches more than the four-seamer does. Triple-A hitters have responded loudly by saying, “Thanks, I hate it.” They’ve whiffed more on the splinker than on the four-seamer, just slightly so, but hitters are swinging and missing 30.2 percent of the time they offer at the four-seamer and exactly one-third of the time (33.33333….percent, for you fellow math nerds) they swing at the splinker. You could argue that he has three 70s (out of the 20-80 scouting scale) in his arsenal and I wouldn’t put up a fight.

Skenes did have a little bit of a platoon split in Triple A, by which I mean that left-handed batters hit him a little bit and right-handed batters might as well have been swinging pool noodles. Splitters typically work like changeups, serving as weapons for hitters on the opposite side of the plate to keep them from teeing off on a pitcher’s fastball, since any breaking pitch will tend to break in towards their bat path anyway. Skenes’s splinker is a splitter-lite, with half the calories of a true splitter — er, lacking the same sharp ‘bottom’ or downward break of a true split, but should be good enough to keep lefties from sitting on the four-seamer. He just isn’t using it as much against lefties as he is against righties: Only 1 in 6 of his fastballs to lefties have been splinkers, while 2 in 5 of his fastballs to righties have been (15.4 percent compared to 41.7 percent). It’s the opposite of what I expected to find, given the typical purpose of a splitter. I assumed that at least he’d have consistent usage regardless of the batter’s handedness, or if he was more splinker-heavy to either side, it’d be to lefties, since he’s going to use the slider much less often to lefties for the reasons I mentioned above.

Skenes’ Statcast pitch mix visual from his last Triple-A start.

His approach to lefties in Triple A was just to attack them with four-seamers and a smattering of changeups, a pitch he doesn’t use to righties at all. His changeup is more 87-88 with more arm-side movement than either fastball and slightly less downward movement than the splinker. It should be pretty effective, and it was the handful of times he threw it in Triple A, but he will need to throw it much more often to left-handed hitters in the majors than he did to them in the minors.

The gap between Triple-A baseball and the majors is as large as it’s ever been, something I’ve been preaching since the minors resumed after the cancelled 2020 season and none other than Orioles general manager Mike Elias mentioned the other day when discussing the decision to return Jackson Holliday to Triple-A Norfolk. I think this gap affects hitters more than pitchers on first looks, though, so while I have been conservative when talking about what rookie hitters might do in their first go-round in the big leagues this year, I feel like Skenes could miss his alarm, roll into PNC Park in his pajamas, and still strike out nine guys in four innings.

It’s big, big stuff, and he hides the ball pretty well for a guy his size. Some hitters will guess fastball and cheat a little, and that’s going to mean a few extra hard-hit balls, maybe even home runs, while he makes some adjustments. The answer to that, and to keeping his ERA down, might just be to use the splinker and changeup more to lefties to show he can get them out as well as he does right-handed batters.

(Top photo of Skenes in Indianapolis: Jeffrey Brown / Icon Sportswire via Associated Press)

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