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'We should be enthusiastic': Very impressive first appearances by Paul Skenes, Jared Jones show great potential for Pirates

Before Jared Jones made his major league debut Saturday, he got motivated by watching a minor league game.

Before Jared Jones made his debut in the major leagues on Saturday, he found motivation by watching a minor league game.

Jones witnessed Paul Skenes throwing over 100 mph on twelve fastballs and striking out five of the nine batters he faced in a flawless three innings against Louisville in his first game for Triple-A Indianapolis.

“I was watching it in here,” Jones said on SportsNet Pittsburgh’s postgame show from the visiting clubhouse at Miami’s loanDepot park. “He was getting outs. It was good stuff.”

Then Jones did something even more exceptional, achieving 10 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings in a 9-3 victory over the Miami Marlins, earning his first major league win and creating some history in the process.

It was the most strikeouts by a Pirates pitcher in his debut since knuckleballer Tim Wakefield against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 31, 1992, and fell one shy of the franchise record of 11 by Nick Maddox (1907) and Dick Hall (1955). It’s a feat no MLB pitcher has accomplished in his debut since Milwaukee’s Freddy Peralta had 13 in May 2018.

Afterward, Jones said he planned to give Skenes a friendly tease about doubling his impact.

“I’m probably going to go text him, say, ‘Hey, I got more strikeouts than you today,’” Jones said, with a sly smile. “I obviously threw 2 2/3 more innings, but I’ll give it to him.”

The performances on the same day by the Pirates’ top two pitching prospects – both are ranked in baseball’s top-100 prospects – are a positive sign for their future. It’s not hard to imagine the Pirates pairing Skenes and Jones in a starting rotation with All-Star right-hander Mitch Keller for years to come, perhaps soon.

Of course, the Pirates know from past experience to manage expectations over a stunning debut. Nick Kingham retired the first 20 batters he faced and had nine strikeouts in seven innings in his first major league start on April 29, 2018, only to be traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for cash considerations in June 2019.

The opposite is true for Keller. He allowed eight earned runs on 10 hits in 2 2⁄3 innings in his Triple-A debut in July 2018, then surrendered six runs, including a grand slam, in his debut on Memorial Day in May 2019. Keller has developed into a staff ace who set a franchise record for strikeouts by a right-hander last season and signed a five-year, $77 million contract extension in February.

Nonetheless, Jones had the Pirates excited.

“We should be enthusiastic, but it’s also just one start,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said of Jones. “The excitement is, this is a guy we drafted, this is a guy we developed. We’ve talk about organizationally we’re going to have to build our depth from within, and I think that this is one of the guys that’s a part of that.”

Skenes, obviously, is the most prominent. The Pirates count six pitchers among their top 10 prospects as ranked by MLB Pipeline, with Skenes at No. 1 and Jones at No. 3, followed by lefty Anthony Solometo at No. 4 and righties Bubba Chandler, Thomas Harrington and Braxton Ashcraft at Nos. 5-7.

Jones, 22, is barely older than the 21-year-old Skenes. They grew up close together in Southern California and both were selected by the Pirates, Jones in the 2020 second round from La Mirada (Calif.) High School and Skenes as the No. 1 overall pick last July after leading LSU to the College World Series championship.

Both are right-handed power pitchers, even though they are very different in size: Skenes is a towering figure at 6-foot-6 ½, 250 pounds, while Jones is 6-1, 190. Both displayed a full range of pitches that includes a four-seam fastball and slider along with a changeup and curveball, with Skenes also using a hybrid splitter-sinker in his pitch mix.

Skenes reached 101.2 mph and averaged 100 mph on 21 four-seamers, while Jones was just a bit lower. He peaked at 99.9 mph on the radar gun and averaged 97.1 on 38 four-seamers. Jones caused 22 whiffs, the most in a major league debut since pitch-tracking started in 2008, with 26 swings and 11 misses on his four-seamer and 17 swings and 10 misses on 41 sliders, according to Statcast.

“I threw a lot of fastballs and sliders today. Executing those in the spots they needed to be, that was huge,” Jones said. “It’s my bread and butter, my two safest pitches when I need a strike.”

Jones also was slightly more effective in throwing 69.7% of his pitches for strikes (62 of 89) compared to Skenes’ 63% (29 of 46), despite pitching almost three more innings and doing so against better competition.

Shelton pointed out that Jones is "a pretty even-keeled kid" and demonstrated that by staying composed throughout the game. Even after Jones gave up two runs in the fourth inning, he got a strikeout looking to end that frame and another one swinging to start a 1-2-3 fifth.

“To be able to calm his nerves in his first major league start and go out against a good lineup and execute pitches,” Shelton said, “he was very impressive.”

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