Baseball’s Hot New Pitcher Has an Even Buzzier Girlfriend. His Team Just Might Screw This Up.

Paul Skenes’ blockbuster debut on Saturday had something for everyone.

Generalist baseball fans were excited because Skenes is one of the most tantalizing pitching prospects ever. Scouting industry veterans often liken him to Stephen Strasburg, who struck out 14 hitters in his major league debut with the Washington Nationals in 2010. Skenes throws a fastball that averages 100 mph, something no other starting pitcher can say. The first pick in the MLB draft last summer, he pitched 27 innings in Triple-A, where he posted a 0.99 ERA with 45 strikeouts and eight walks. Everyone loves heat, and Skenes has enough to warm a midsize house in winter.

We Pittsburgh Pirates fans were excited because we hope Skenes will be a savior for a moribund franchise. Yeah, he’ll likely only start his career in Pittsburgh before the Pirates fail to retain him for the back half of his prime. Yeah, he might get hurt, or he might be something less than a superstar. But Skenes represents limitless possibility. That’s why PNC Park was on fire on Saturday, as Skenes started his career with seven strikeouts and one run allowed in four innings before exiting with a high pitch count and two men on base. Then, in fitting fashion, the Pirates relievers who followed Skenes hit a batter and issued six bases-loaded walks in one inning, with an infield single mixed in, to blow a 6–1 lead and fall behind. (Welcome to the most pitiful franchise in sports, children. This is what you’ll be dealing with.) Blessedly for the Pirates, a late comeback win prevented the day from going down in ignominy.

Then there is Major League Baseball itself. The league was excited because Skenes is the less famous half of a power couple. His girlfriend is Olivia Dunne, the LSU gymnast who has some 13 million followers between TikTok and Instagram and has found herself at the center of pop culture breakthroughs, like her videotaped “Rizzing Up of Baby Gronk” in 2023. (If you don’t know, I’m sorry, but now you do.) Dunne is in loads of ads, in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, and everywhere else a major influencer would be. MLB, perpetually desperate to get more young people interested in a sport that used to be more popular, has already inserted itself into the comments on one of Dunne’s TikToks in a “How do you do, fellow kids?” way.

Skenes’ big-league debut gives every stakeholder something to be excited about. He is the perfect baseball prospect through every possible lens. But now he is less a prospect than a real-world player, and so Skenes has begun the work of serving baseball fans the world over, the Pirates, and the league. My prediction for Skenes’ career is that he will have variable degrees of success serving those three constituencies.

People who like baseball—who want the sport to be entertaining, who like watching young stars push a sport forward—will have a ball with Skenes. He is as big time as a young pitcher can be, and when he is on the mound, he is a cyborg. Across all of Triple-A this season, 41 pitchers touched 100 mph on the radar gun. The most 100-mph-plus pitches that any non-Skenes pitcher threw was 87. Then there was Skenes, who threw 175 of them. He held up that three-digit velocity on Saturday, confirming that he’s now the hardest-throwing major league starter too. Skenes struck out the first two hitters he faced and mostly flummoxed the Cubs over his four innings and change, though a few guys hit the ball hard against him, and one, Nico Hoerner, hit a home run.

Beyond Skenes’ flamethrowing, pitching connoisseurs like him for his devastating secondary pitches. He throws a 95-mph splitter/sinker hybrid and boasts a slider that moves like a Frisbee. That pitch, coming at a right-handed hitter, starts out looking as if it will hit the batter in the hip. Then it winds up on the outside corner, having broken 17 inches across the width of home plate:

We’ll see how it goes. Baseball fans like to say there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect (or TINSTAAPP, as the more online among them have acronymized it). But all the tools are in place for Skenes to be one of the most exciting pitchers in the league for many years. His upside is the Baseball Hall of Fame.

His potential, however, may not include making the Pirates good. In this sense, his debut was fitting, as he pitched well, then exited, only to watch his teammates fall apart. The team has made the playoffs three times in my lifetime, and I am 29. The owner is Robert Nutting, an incompetent cheapskate who disgraces Major League Baseball each day that he continues to own one of its clubs. If there is an organization capable of mishandling someone like Skenes, it’s this one. The Pirates started the season 9–2 but have fallen out of contention since then, as their offense has devolved into one of the bleakest spectacles in baseball. They are now 18–23. Like every other year, this is not their year.

But Skenes is so talented that even the Pirates’ cataclysmically bad player development, a laughingstock in baseball, may not be enough to ruin him. Even the worst organizations occasionally find a nut, and Skenes has such terrific arm talent and work ethic that gravity may win out over the Pirates’ ability to turn treasure into trash. Skenes will pair with another rookie starting pitcher, Jared Jones, who has posted a 2.68 ERA in his first eight big-league starts while flashing an electric pitch repertoire. Jones is 22. Skenes is 21. The Pirates will have them for between three and six more years before the club most likely trades them prior to free agency amid their primes. Together, they could be the genesis of a turnaround. But knowing this team all too well, I just wouldn’t bet on it. Skenes will be free entertainment for baseball fans, but only in the regular season.

Still, Major League Baseball’s suits won’t need the Pirates to make it to October in order to get some juice out of Skenes’ high-profile relationship. Dunne’s mastery of the influencer economy is hard to overstate. And she has made no effort to hide her relationship with Skenes from the world, which creates a nifty publicity opportunity for a league that needs non-AARP-aged fans like it needs water. Why is Dunne so famous? As Rebecca Schuman wrote for Slate in January 2023, it’s only sort of clear:

Dunne possesses the ineffable Gen Z kavorka that my decrepit brain cannot begin to understand: the seemingly arbitrary force that makes one conventionally attractive young woman in a crop top yanking at her long hair an international superstar and makes another near-identical individual toil in obscurity. Why is she TikTok royalty? Why is anyone? Nobody knows. But she is. Dunne’s got the magic.

Dunne is not Taylor Swift–famous, just as Skenes is not Travis Kelce–famous. But she is a pretty big deal to teenagers and kids addicted to their phones (in other words, all of them), and she is now baseball-adjacent. The league would be stupid to not angle for some of the sweet, sweet runoff engagement that comes from having a star player in a relationship with such a big brand. MLB’s official account made the first comment that appears under one of Dunne’s recent TikTok posts. Then the league posted its own video about Skenes’ promotion to the majors and headlined it on the platform, “LIVVY’S BF TO MAKE MLB DEBUT THIS SATURDAY!” Meanwhile, the Pirates’ TV broadcast scored an interview with Dunne in the third inning of Skenes’ debut. The team quickly hit back-to-back home runs, so maybe Dunne really does have the magic.

Where will all of this lead? In the long run, probably nowhere. Baseball does not have football’s magical powers to keep attracting new audiences forever. Justin Verlander is married to Kate Upton, and Joe DiMaggio was married to Marilyn Monroe a few decades before that, and yet baseball is still fighting a relevancy problem. Skenes’ throwing flames and appearing in viral videos is unlikely to stem the tide.

There may be reason to hope, though. For a few innings on Saturday, Skenes made the Pittsburgh Pirates the center of the baseball universe. If he can do that on a recurring basis, maybe he can personally alter the audience of the national pastime and save it from cultural decline.