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Comparing Skenes to past top pitching prospects

Valenzuela, Price, others also shined in brief Minor League stints
May 9, 2024

It remains to be seen what kind of big league career Paul Skenes will have, but now that it’s about to begin, we can try to put the build-up to his Major League debut in some historical context. There is no question that Skenes’ debut is the most highly anticipated

It remains to be seen what kind of big league career Paul Skenes will have, but now that it’s about to begin, we can try to put the build-up to his Major League debut in some historical context.

There is no question that Skenes’ debut is the most highly anticipated since Stephen Strasburg took the mound, against the Pirates, on June 8, 2010. Both No. 1 overall picks, both top pitching prospects, both made it to the highest level in a hurry ... there are so many similarities between the two.

It should be noted that even though people have been clamoring for Skenes to get the call, and people have complained that the Pirates have been waiting too long, Strasburg’s fast track to Washington spanned a total of 74 1/3 innings (55 1/3 in Double-A and Triple-A in 2010, preceded by 19 Arizona Fall League innings in 2009). Skenes’ total? Just 34 innings between his brief debut last year and his time in Triple-A this year.

Strasburg and Skenes aren’t the only pitching phenoms to overwhelm Minor League hitters in a brief climb to the big leagues. Scanning the arms who had similar hype over the past 50 or so years, a handful of pitchers stand out as having similar paths in terms of anticipation, speed of the climb, and domination in the Minors. We only considered pitchers who spent less than a full season in pro ball (so no Dwight Gooden or Jose Fernandez, for example), were starting pitchers right out of the gate (so no Chris Sale) and didn't go straight to the bigs.

Here are Skenes’ numbers:

12 GS, 34 IP, 55 K, 1.85 ERA

Let’s see how the Pirates phenom measures up against some who have come before him (pitchers are listed chronologically by MLB debut year):

1971: Burt Hooton, Cubs
12 GS, 102 IP, 135 K, 1.68 ERA
Hooton did things a little out of order, making a one-start big league debut after being taken No. 2 in the now de-funct June secondary phase, then going down to the Minors to make 12 starts before coming back up in September (and dominating). He was a three-time All-American who went 35-3 at Texas and had a 1.11 ERA over 97 IP in his final season with the Longhorns. He struck out 11.9 and walked just 1.7 with Triple-A Tacoma before coming back up and winning the first two of his 151 career victories, a decade and a half spent in the big leagues that resulted in 35.6 WAR.

1977: Floyd Bannister, Astros
6 GS, 43 IP, 53 K, 1.05 ERA
Bannister was the slam-dunk choice for No. 1 pick in the 1976 Draft after leading the NCAA in strikeouts two years in a row at Arizona State. He won 19 games and completed 17, a record, posting a 1.45 ERA over a whopping 186 innings in his Draft year. He tossed all 43 of his Minor League innings the summer after signing, allowing just 26 hits in that span. He made his big league debut on April 19, 1977 with the Astros and finished fourth in National League Rookie of the Year voting. He went on to spend 15 years in the big leagues and finished with 26.4 career bWAR.

1980: Fernando Valenzuela, Dodgers
28 GS, 198.0 IP, 180 K, 2.68 ERA
We had to mix in one international signee, didn’t we? Fernando-mania started when legendary scout Mike Brito signed the left-hander out of the Mexican League (He was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1979). Valenzuela got his feet wet in the California League that summer over three starts, then dominated over 174 IP in Double-A before getting the call in September of 1980. He won both the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards in 1981, was a six-time All-Star and finished with 41.5 WAR.

1984: Roger Clemens, Red Sox
17 GS, 127.2 IP, 145 K, 1.55 ERA
It’s a little hard to wrap your brain around the fact that Clemens was the 11th pitcher taken in the 1983 Draft, No. 19 overall. It didn’t take him long to show he was the best arm in the class, by far, making 11 starts after signing and posting a 1.33 ERA. He would make just seven more appearances (46 2/3 IP) in the Minors, with Triple-A Pawtucket (1.93 ERA) in 1984 before getting called up to make his debut in mid-May. He got Rookie of the Year votes for his efforts that season and won AL MVP and the first of his seven Cy Young Awards two years later.

1999: Jeff Weaver, Tigers
6 GS, 31 IP, 39 K, 1.74 ERA
Weaver could have signed as a second-round pick of the White Sox in 1997, but opted to head to Fresno State, where he led all Division I arms in strikeouts in 1998, ultimately landing No. 14 overall to the Tigers. After throwing 25 innings following his signing, he jumped to Double-A in 1999 and made just one start before getting the call. His April 14 debut is the earliest of this group and he would go on to spend parts of 11 years in the big leagues, finishing with a career WAR of 15.2.

2002: Mark Prior, Cubs
9 GS, 51 IP, 79 K, 2.29 ERA
Prior entered the Draft with the hype of being the “best college pitcher ever,” and many were shocked the Twins didn’t take him No. 1 overall, opting for Joe Mauer. Injuries ended up derailing his career, but he lived up to billing early, getting called up in late May and getting NL Rookie of the Year votes for his 19 starts in 2002. He was an All-Star in 2003, but only spent parts of the next three years in the big leagues, finishing with 16.6 WAR.

2005: Justin Verlander, Tigers
20 GS, 1.29 ERA, 118 2/3 IP, 136 K
After being the No. 2 pick in the 2004 Draft, Verlander made his pro debut with High-A Lakeland in 2005 and moved quickly to Double-A after 13 starts. He actually made his Major League debut after three starts with Erie, got sent down, started the Futures Game in Detroit, and made one more start with the big league club in late July. We’ve included his overall numbers in the Minors in 2005 to show just how impressive he was before winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, the start of a still-going Hall of Fame career (81.7 WAR).

2008: David Price, Rays
19 GS, 109.2 IP, 109 K, 2.30 ERA
The obvious top pick in the 2007 Draft after starring at Vanderbilt, Price pitched across three levels of the Rays’ Minor League system, making 19 starts before getting called up in late September to help out the big league bullpen in 2008, a stint that extended to 5 2/3 impressive relief innings in the postseason. He was in the rotation for good in 2009 and made the first of three straight All-Star appearances in 2010, wrapping up his career with 157 wins and 40.2 WAR.

2010: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
11 GS, 55.1 IP, 65 K, 1.30 ERA
The numbers above don’t include the 19 AFL innings he threw after he signed as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 Draft (He did strike out 10.3 per nine there, though.). The Strasburg watch was very similar to what we’re experiencing now with Skenes, and the Nationals’ right-hander responded by striking out 14 over seven innings in his big league debut in June of 2010. Perhaps his star faded faster than some hoped, but he did win 113 games and a World Series MVP, and he finished with 32.3 career WAR.