Please Give Us Paul Skenes Now, Before His Elbow Kerplodes

Howitzer-armed Pirates phenom pitcher Paul Skenes allowed his first professional home run Sunday, during the fifth inning of his 12th official appearance since wrapping up his prolific college career. Skenes threw a heater over the outside of the plate on a full count, and batter Will Robertson clobbered it to straightaway center, where it eventually landed 421 feet from home plate, in bushy shrubs along the base of the batter’s eye, between grassy berms of picnicking home fans. The game was being played at Victory Field in Indianapolis, which you will note is not a major-league stadium. No, the Pittsburgh Pirates are not going Athletics Mode; Skenes, the most electrifying pitcher with a fully intact ulnar collateral ligament anywhere on the planet, is indefinitely stuck at Triple-A, putting titanic stresses on his golden throwing arm for games that, by the reckoning of any honest baseball fan, do not count for shit.

By any credible standard of performance, Skenes has mastered the highest levels of the minor leagues. Robertson was Skenes’s second-to-last batter of the Sunday outing; the two runs Skenes allowed in the start raised his earned-run average on the season to a preposterous 0.99. The lightning-strike what-the-hell-just-happened quality of Robertson’s home run—try to think of the last time a pitcher got front-page attention on ESPN’s website for allowing an otherwise meaningless dinger—serves to highlight just how completely impossible it is for batters to make good contact against Skenes: The 21-year-old hurler has recorded an incredible 45 strikeouts in 27 innings this year, and allowed just 25 total base-runners. In 34 innings of professional baseball across parts of two seasons, Skenes has allowed five total extra-base hits. His fastball Sunday averaged 99.3 miles per hour, per MiLB tracking, and topped out at 101; his so-called “splinker,” a combination of a splitter and sinker that Skenes might well have invented, averaged an impossible 95 miles per hour.

Skenes, projected to be an ace-level starter in the majors, also has averaged fewer than three innings per appearance in his brief but spectacular professional career. Some of this is by design: Skenes was a catcher and then a two-way player for a couple of seasons at Air Force Academy before transferring to LSU, so he came somewhat late in his career to full-time pitching. Sunday was, in fact, the first time in his life that Skenes started a game on the mound on fewer than five days of rest, suggesting that it is perhaps not a coincidence that he allowed his first professional homer. The Pirates can make a defensible case for building his workload somewhat cautiously: The threat of elbow kerplosion from reckless overuse seems real, if only because pitchers’ elbows are kerploding left and right nowadays. Basically no level of caution can be deemed unreasonable.

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But there is also the very real threat of elbow kerplosion from just how incredibly hard Skenes hucks that dang baseball. To me, a simple blogger and general ignoramus, this seems like a much more urgent concern. (I am supported in this by Defector Pirates watcher and Skenes appreciator Sean Kuhn, who considers the extreme chucking to be a more significant injury risk, and who is growing “an awful mustache” in solidarity with Pittsburgh’s prized prospect.) Skenes talks as if his eye-popping velocity comes easily enough—”Just being strong and moving efficiently,” he explained in April to Sam Dykstra of MLB.com, as if he is the first person to ever be strong and move efficiently—but that doesn’t mean it’s not wearing out his tender arm meat.

Consider Sunday: Skenes’s fastball averaged 100.3 miles per hour in the first inning, when he threw it eight times. By the third inning, the four-seamer had lost a full mile-per-hour of velocity; the six he threw in the fifth inning averaged just a tick over 98. Four of the five pitch types he threw Sunday lost at least one mile per hour in average velocity from the first inning of use to the last (the fifth, Skenes’s curveball, was thrown just twice). Skenes was pulled after 66 total pitches, which would be a lot for a middle-reliever but is right on schedule for a starter working for his 14th out of an appearance. The drop in velocity hints at the possibility of some level of arm fatigue, which, again, is not what you want in an ace who has thrown a reasonable number of pitches while working on a normal pitching schedule.

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Skenes has worked beyond the fifth inning of a start just once in his 12 pro appearances. In his final start of April, Skenes made it through six pristine innings on 75 pitches, of which 53 were strikes. His arm appeared to hold up better in that outing: Skenes’s final two fastballs were clocked at 101 and 100.9 miles per hour, the hardest he’d thrown that day since the second inning and the only consecutive triple-digit heaters he’d chucked since the first. Maybe he was emptying the tank a la Max Scherzer, which is a very cool thing to do so long as you, like Scherzer, have elbow ligaments that are made of flubber. To me this is terrifying: Skenes is considered a generational talent, and I cannot stand the idea of him blowing out his elbow in an April contest against the Buffalo Bisons, before he has made even one single start in the majors.

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Given the recent spate of elbow detonations around baseball, it’s hard to believe that Skenes will not at some point require the dreaded Tommy John surgery, or possibly several. All I ask is that this major-league-ready phenom be allowed to spend at least a few innings doing pyrotechnics against a major-league lineup before that grim and seemingly inevitable day. Give him a big Stephen Strasburg-type home debut, grab up the national spotlight, and let Skenes terrorize the hitters of, say, the Chicago Cubs, who happen to be visiting Pittsburgh over the coming weekend, in time for Skenes’s next scheduled start. Fans had a flash of hope when LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, who is dating Skenes, posted an image of a Skenes Pirates jersey on social media; this was dashed by Pirates manager Derek Shelton, who insisted the team has not even discussed “in any form or fashion” bringing the big righty up to the majors.

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Only the Pirates’ decision-makers can say for sure why Skenes remains in the minors, and all they’re saying for now is that he’s not ready. Pirates general manager Ben Cherington acknowledged Sunday that even Skenes might not be able to grasp why he is still facing the lovable bozos of the International League. “I’m sure there are moments when he thinks to himself, ‘why am I here,’” Cherington recently told Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan. I have the same question! Skenes has learned all that he can possibly learn about how his stuff plays against the best hitters of minor-league baseball. If he needs some seasoning before he’s ready to throw six innings every fifth day, that’s fine! For now he can be an opener! Or, if you must, please bring him up for a big showy primetime debut and then return him to Indianapolis, for whatever refinements we are expected to believe can be made against manifestly overmatched minor-league hitters. Please let us watch him now, before the ravages of his profession and/or the calculations of responsible stewardship reduce him from this devouring monster into something that burns even a little bit less brightly.

Once you have accepted that at some point this man’s elbow is going to burst like a water balloon and require surgical reconstruction and lengthy rehabilitation, it becomes harder to forgive an organizational approach that increases the risk of that happening before he is allowed to play in a game that counts, and without any particularly convincing benefit. Give us Skenes! WE DEMAND SKENES!

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