Pirates phenom Paul Skenes still has 'steps he needs to take' after comically dominant start to season

Skenes has struck out 27 in 12 2/3 scoreless innings in Triple-A this season

No other player has dominated any level of professional baseball this season like Pittsburgh Pirates phenom Paul Skenes has dominated Triple-A.

Through four starts, the first overall pick of the 2023 MLB Draft has struck out 27 with five hits allowed in 12 2/3 innings. His ERA is 0. He has faced 47 batters total, which bears out to a 57.4% strikeout rate. According to Baseball America's Carlos Collazo, Skenes is averaging 100.2 mph on his fastball, higher than every starter in MLB.

That sounds and looks like a pitcher who is more than MLB ready, right?


Well, in reality, it's more complicated than that, at least according to the Pirates. As manager Derek Shelton explained Friday, the day after Skenes struck out eight in 3 1/3 innings (on 65 pitches):

"I think the thing we have to continue to focus on is — when he gets here, efficiency is going to be important, too. We have to get him built up. He's doing a good job of that. There's a plan in place. I know sometimes people want to expedite that plan. I understand that, that's human nature, but we just feel there's steps he needs to take before we ultimately make a decision."

Shelton is essentially saying that as good as Skenes has been, the Pirates want to stretch him out to pitch full games and make him more efficient with his pitches. As Shelton also noted, though, it's not like Skenes has needed an incredible amount of pitches to get through a few innings.

Here are all four starts Skenes has made this season, with innings, pitches and, just for fun, strikeouts:

March 30 vs. Louisville: 3 innings, 46 pitches, 5 strikeouts

April 5 vs. Memphis: 3 innings, 44 pitches, 6 strikeouts

April 12 vs. Toledo: 3 1/3 innings, 55 pitches, 8 strikeouts

April 18 vs. St. Paul: 3 1/3 innings, 65 pitches, 8 strikeouts

Those numbers add up to 210 pitches, 16.6 pitches per inning and 4.5 pitches per batter faced. MLB pitchers entered Friday averaging 16.7 pitches per inning and 3.9 pitches per batter faced (recall that Skenes has struck out 57.4% of batters, while the MLB league-wide number is 22.6%).

Skenes might need a pitch or two more to get out the average MLB hitter than he does in Triple-A, but it's not like his inefficiency with pitches has stood out so far. If anything, it's remarkable that batters are seeing only 4.5 pitches per plate appearance when 57.4% of at-bats involve at least three strikes.

Nonetheless, the Pirates have set their plan, and it apparently involves Skenes ramping up early in the season and likely making his debut after a month of so. What goes unsaid in all of this is that the Pirates will conveniently gain a year of control of Skenes if he makes his debut after a certain date.

MLB tried to curtail that strategy with bonus draft picks awarded when players win Rookie of the Year after making their team's Opening Day roster as a top prospect, but a) winning Rookie of the Year is never a lock and b) sometimes a single year of one guy is worth more than a draft pick at the end of the first round.

Assuming nothing goes wrong, we'll likely see Skenes at the end of April or in early May. The hype around him has been building since he started obliterating the SEC with triple-digit heat and nasty secondary stuff while at LSU, and he coeeuld s a Stephen Strasburg-esque reception when he finally reaches an MLB mound.