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Top of the Order: Pirates Go Paul-In

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Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

After an interminable wait for Pittsburgh fans (read: under 10 months), the Pirates on Wednesday finally announced they were calling up top pitching prospect Paul Skenes to make his major league debut on Saturday at PNC Park against the Cubs.

The 2023 first overall draft pick rocketed to the majors after just 12 minor league starts and a mere 34 innings. After the organization limited him to only five starts and 6 2/3 innings across three minor league levels last year, Skenes began this season at Triple-A Indianapolis and absolutely dominated hitters. Over seven starts (27 1/3 innings), the 6’6” righty posted a 0.99 ERA and struck out 42.9% of the batters he faced while walking just 7.6% of them.

In many ways, how Skenes pitches on Saturday is the least of the Pirates’ concerns when it comes to their prized prospect. The real puzzle will be managing his workload. Skenes has never thrown more than 75 pitches in a professional game, and his final Triple-A start was his first on just four days of rest, having been eased into a traditional rotation schedule after pitching just once a week at Louisiana State.

Skenes’ situation somewhat parallels that of Pittsburgh’s other stud rookie starter Jared Jones, who’s pitched on regular rest just once this year — a start wherein he was limited to 59 pitches (50 strikes!) in five scoreless innings. We should expect the Pirates to be just as or even more cautious with Skenes when it comes to load management.

The arrival of Skenes also means that Pittsburgh will need veterans Mitch Keller and Martín Pérez to handle more innings when they start to ease the burden on the bullpen, which will almost definitely be covering at least three innings when Skenes pitches. Determining how to piece everything together will be another logistical challenge for the Pirates.

All that said, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. After all, those are problems for the Pirates to figure out, not us. Instead, our job is simple: sit back and enjoy the debut.

Chris Sale Looks Vintage Against His Old Team

Braves lefty Chris Sale got to catch up with his old Red Sox teammates on Wednesday, though it wasn’t exactly a pleasant day for Boston. Sale turned in his best start yet since he was traded to Atlanta over the winter, with six scoreless innings and 10 strikeouts.

The seven-time All-Star topped out at 97.2 mph and averaged 94.8 mph on his fastball, up 0.6 mph from his average in his other six starts. His slider was particularly filthy, with the Red Sox offering at 18 of them with 13 whiffs.

Perhaps it’s still too soon to declare Sale all the way, but he is pitching better than he has in years. Over his last four starts, he is 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 32 strikeouts across 25 innings; twice in that span he’s completed seven innings. Overall on the season, Sale is 5-1 (42 2/3 innings) with a 2.95 ERA, a 2.64 FIP, a 30.6% strikeout rate, a 4.7% walk rate, and 1.2 WAR. Yeah, that’ll play.

The Yankees’ Big Boys Are Finally Bopping

Although they lost to the Astros on Thursday, 4-3, to snap a five-game winning streak, the Yankees still got an absolutely massive home run from Aaron Judge, emblematic of why they’ve been playing so well over the past week: their offense has finally come alive.

The most encouraging part of Wednesday’s win — the last of the streak — was that Judge, Juan Soto, and Giancarlo Stanton all homered in the same game for the first time since New York traded for Soto in the offseason. Soto has been better than ever this year, but Judge and Stanton struggled for the first month of the season. Over the last week, though, the two sluggers have started mashing again. Judge hit .500/.591/1.096 (346 wRC+, and no, there are no typos there!) during the five-game winning streak, clubbing two homers and four doubles. Meanwhile, Stanton clobbered two massive home runs in the series against Houston. The first one, off Justin Verlander on Tuesday, was clocked at 118.8 mph off the bat; the next night he one-upped himself, with a 119.9 mph missile — the hardest hit ball in the majors this season.

The one core Yankees hitter who still hasn’t turned things around is Gleyber Torres. He hit .176/.300/.176 with a 54 wRC+ during the streak, before going 1-for-3 with a walk in Thursday’s game. On the season, his final one before free agency, Torres is batting .215/.301/.264 with just one home run, after he hit 25 homers last season, and his 71 wRC+ is a far cry from last year’s mark of 123.

Craig Kimbrel’s Honeymoon Period Is Over

Nobody can really replace Félix Bautista, but Craig Kimbrel was doing his darnedest when Ben Clemens checked in on him on April 16. I won’t call this a Clemens Curse (patent pending) because Kimbrel had three more scoreless appearances after the article was published, but he’s come crashing down since then.

Perhaps owing in part to a back injury that forced him to leave the game on April 28 and then sit out until May 3, Kimbrel has been scored upon in five of his last six appearances. In that time, he’s walked eight of the 23 batters he’s faced, and he’s also given up two homers. When I’ve watched him, he’s falling into the mechanical failure that’s ailed him every year since 2019: He’s yanking his fastball off to the side instead of getting under it and letting it ride at the top of the zone, which he did so successfully in his first 10 outings of the season.

Baltimore needs Kimbrel to figure it out, and figure it out quickly. For whatever reason, he is not someone who’s had much success doing anything but closing, so rearranging the bullpen could make the volatile righty functionally useless. As the O’s eye their second straight division title, they’ll be monitoring the bullpen closely and surely won’t be afraid to upgrade it come July.

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