National League Rookie Roundup: Pirates’ Paul Skenes Dazzles in MLB Debut

The 2023 No. 1 pick announced his big-league presence with authority in an electrifying debut. Plus, a breakdown of the top five NL rookies so far.
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Paul Skenes faces the Chicago Cubs in his MLB debut.
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Paul Skenes faces the Chicago Cubs in his MLB debut. / Michael Longo/For USA Today Network /

Welcome to the second edition of the Rookie Roundup, a weekly check-in on baseball’s best and most interesting first-year players. Last week, we broke down the top-five American League rookies of the season. Up next, it’s the National League’s turn in the spotlight.

Most MLB debuts are unremarkable. Pick a random game on TV any given night, and chances are you’ll see some anonymous player’s first game. The announcers will acknowledge the achievement, provide some brief background information, and the player’s first hit (or strikeout, if they’re a pitcher) will be commemorated by tossing the esteemed ball into the dugout. A veteran player might even jokingly pretend to throw the ball into the stands (or, sometimes, accidentally chuck the real thing).

When Paul Skenes—the No. 1 pick of the 2023 MLB draft—took the mound for his first Pittsburgh Pirates appearance on Saturday against the Chicago Cubs, he became the 23,198th MLB player of all time. And while the vast majority of those players’ premieres have long been forgotten, Skenes’s outing was the quintessential roller-coaster ride of a debut that both lived up to the considerable hype that preceded his arrival and hinted at untapped potential still to come.

Skenes arrived at the big leagues with more notoriety than other recent top picks. He spent one season at powerhouse LSU after transferring from the Air Force Academy. Skenes and the Tigers took the college baseball world by storm in 2023, with the right-hander striking out 209 batters in 19 games to help lead LSU to a national championship. He and college teammate Dylan Crews went first and second, respectively, in last July’s draft.

Listed at 6’6”, 235 pounds, Skenes is an imposing figure on the mound, and he throws like it. His first pitch of the game clocked in at 101 mph. He threw 84 pitches on the day, including 33 four-seam fastballs. Seventeen of them hit triple digits. His splitter topped out at 96 mph, and batters whiffed on seven out of 12 swings against it. Overall, Skenes generated 14 swinging strikes on 40 swings, good for a 35% whiff rate. For context, fellow Pirates rookie Jared Jones leads all pitchers with a 36.5% whiff rate.

The velocity is the selling point with Skenes, who became just the third pitcher to average 100 mph with the fastball in his big-league debut, joining Jacob deGrom and Hunter Greene. The offspeed stuff is not as dominant yet, but shows plenty of potential to come together and help the 21-year-old develop into a true ace.

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Paul Skenes
Skenes threw 17 pitches over 100 mph during his debut against the Cubs on Saturday. / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Skenes had his fair share of rookie moments. He walked two batters and hit another over his first two innings, then allowed a home run to Nico Hoerner in the third. He was pulled after allowing the first two hitters to reach safely in the fifth inning—which took a turn for the bizarre after his exit, as Pirates pitchers walked in an astounding six runs. Skenes gave up three runs in four innings with seven strikeouts, with Pittsburgh ultimately pulling out a wild 10–9 victory.

Skenes will continue to have his ups and downs, but after striking out 45 of the 105 Triple-A batters he faced this season with a 0.99 ERA, it’s clear he had no more to prove in the minor leagues. Wherever his rookie season takes him, it’s safe to say we won’t be forgetting his electrifying first outing any time soon.

National League Rookie Power Rankings

1. Shōta Imanaga, SP, Chicago Cubs

It was a different Japanese pitcher who drew most of the buzz this offseason (more on him in a moment), but Imanaga has clearly been the best rookie of the bunch. The 30-year-old—who signed with Chicago on a four-year, $53 million deal—began his Cubs career with three straight scoreless starts, and has not allowed more than two earned runs in any of his seven outings. Fastball command is Imanaga’s calling card: though his four-seamer sits at just 92 mph, hitters have a mere .140 batting average against it. He’s struck out 43 batters in 41 2/3 innings with just five walks allowed.

2. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Signed to the largest contract for a pitcher in MLB history, much was expected of Yamamoto. And after a disastrous debut against the San Diego Padres in South Korea in which he gave up five runs in just one inning, the 25-year-old has delivered on the hype. Since that first start, Yamamoto is 4–0 with a 1.76 ERA in seven starts. For a Dodgers team that has already used 10 different starting pitchers through 42 games, his reliability has been a huge asset.

3. Jared Jones, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates

Skenes has his work cut out for him to be the best rookie pitcher on his own team, as Jones has been outstanding. A 2020 second-round pick, Jones progressed steadily through PIttsburgh’s system and made the Opening Day roster this year. He’s dominated from the get-go, posting a 30.9% strikeout rate with only seven walks in 47 innings. Jones has only reached the 90-pitch mark twice in eight starts, though he’s been efficient, completing at least six innings five times. If he gets a longer leash as the season goes on, he’s primed for a special rookie campaign.

Chicago Cubs first baseman Michael Busch
Busch has thrived in his first season with the Cubs after being traded by the Dodgers. / Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

4. Michael Busch, 1B, Chicago Cubs

At 26, Busch is on the older side for rookies who didn’t begin their careers internationally. A former first-round pick by the Dodgers in 2019, he toiled in their deep minor league system, producing at every level yet buried on the depth chart. A subpar 2023 debut preceded a January trade to the Cubs in what was essentially a roster-clearing move for Los Angeles, but Busch has taken full advantage of his new opportunity. Strikeouts remain an issue and his defense is limited, but Busch makes strong enough contact to be a formidable middle-of-the-order bat. He leads all NL rookies in runs scored (21) and RBIs (20).

5. Andy Pages, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

Pages signed with the Dodgers out of Cuba in 2018 when he was just 18 years old, finally making his MLB debut on April 16. A free-swinging power hitter, he logged 76 plate appearances before drawing his first walk. Fortunately, his aggressive style has yielded plenty of production: through 23 games, he’s posted a .287/.330/.483 slash line with four homers. Pages had a 12.5% walk rate in the minors, so he has it in him to be more selective. Once his approach catches up with his quality of contact, the sky’s the limit on what type of hitter he can become.

Nick Selbe


Nick Selbe is a programming editor who also provides MLB and college sports coverage for Sports Illustrated. Nick, who has written about the MLB postseason and All-Star Game for SI, previously worked for MLB Advanced Media, Yahoo Sports and Bleacher Report. He graduated from USC in 2014.