The New LSU, Part 2: Paul Skenes Is on a New Heading

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t really see the first pitch of LSU’s season. I was watching on TV, but the ball just sort of teleported from Paul Skenes’ right hand to Brady Neal’s glove. Maybe it was a trick of the lighting or a glitch in the stream. Or maybe it’s the fact that the enormous 20-year-old decided to start off his season with a 99 mph fastball.

Skenes looks like what he is: the Friday night starter for the no. 1 team in the country and a likely first-round draft pick. Not only is he one of the country’s top pitching prospects, but he can handle the bat as well, hitting .367/.453/.669 with 24 homers in 100 combined games over his first two collegiate seasons. He’s not what basketball types like to call a unicorn. Most college seasons feature some elite two-way player, a Brendan McKay or a Danny Hultzen or the like, trying to pitch and slug a blue-blood program to the national title and himself into the top 10 picks in the draft.

What makes Skenes unusual is how recently he started seriously considering baseball a real career opportunity. At 6-foot-6 and 247 pounds, he might look like he was born to throw 99 mph for a living. But this time last year, he was committed to quite a different vocation.

Skenes actually played the first game of his college career at LSU’s Alex Box Stadium. On February 20, 2021, he batted cleanup, started at first base, and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. He went 0-for-4 again the next day after starting at catcher, but switched equipment for the ninth inning to record a save. The thing is, he did all of that in an Air Force Academy uniform.

It’s unusual, but not unprecedented, for a service academy to produce a legitimate pro prospect, with Phillies minor leaguer Noah Song, currently on active duty in the Navy, being the most recent example. Skenes quickly emerged as one of the top players in the Mountain West Conference. As a freshman, he hit .410/.486/.697 and picked up 11 saves in 18 relief appearances. That summer, he was selected for the collegiate national team for the first time. But despite that success, and national awards notice, he didn’t yet think of baseball as a viable career option until well into his sophomore season.

“I don’t think there was a specific moment where it clicked,” Skenes says. “But last year it became real that I could play this game at a professional level, and I could play it for a while.”

Once that realization sank in, Skenes had to act quickly. Service academy cadets (or midshipmen) can transfer out through the end of their second year. After the start of classes their junior year, cadets are obliged to finish school and then serve in the military, barring a waiver from the Department of Defense; as Song can attest, such a waiver is difficult to get.

Skenes put a bow on his Air Force tenure with a highly successful sophomore campaign: .314/.412/.634 in 182 plate appearances as a hitter, 10-3 with a 2.73 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 85 2/3 innings as a pitcher, which was good enough to win the John Olerud Award as the country’s top two-way player. Air Force won the Mountain West conference tournament and earned its first NCAA tournament berth in 53 years, after which Skenes disenrolled from the academy and entered the NCAA transfer portal.

“I’ve always said going to the academy was the easiest decision of my life and leaving was the hardest,” Skenes says. “The quality of people there, the character there, it’s tough to walk away from. Because you know that wherever you go, it’s not going to be the same. Even in the active-duty military it’s not the same as the academy.”

Skenes and the Falcons traveled to Austin, Texas, the first week of June 2022 for their NCAA Tournament regional. The Texas Longhorns, on the first leg of their trip to Omaha, beat up on Air Force in the opener. Skenes started and left the game in the fifth inning with the bases loaded and Texas leading 3-2. All three of those runners scored, and the Longhorns ultimately won 11-3. Air Force fought back through the losers’ bracket, beating Dallas Baptist and Louisiana Tech to force a rematch, but Texas prevailed again.

Air Force’s season ended on Sunday, June 5. Two days later, Skenes entered the transfer portal. A month after that, he traveled to Haarlem, The Netherlands, with Team USA, making one start on July 12 in a 10-0 win over the Dutch national team. Less than two weeks after Team USA’s last game in Europe, Skenes announced that he had committed to LSU.

It made for a pretty hectic summer for Skenes, who’d taken his time mulling his options during his high school recruitment process.

“Over the transfer portal, it was a month and a half, two months max to make my decision to move out to where I’m gonna spend my [junior] year,” he says. “I’ve known a lot of people who went into the transfer portal and knew exactly what they wanted. I wasn’t one of those people. So I had to figure that out while I was in the transfer portal and talking to coaches.”

Skenes considered LSU, having befriended Dylan Crews and Tre’ Morgan while playing for the collegiate national team.

“Both of them just have a lot of character. It’s obvious when you talk to them and spend time with them. I figured that there were probably people like them in this program, and the coaches have to foster an environment like that,” he says. “We got Coach Wes Johnson this summer. On my visit just talking to him for a half-hour or something like that, I knew it was an opportunity unlike any other to work with him. So it came down to the people.”

The transfer portal and the relatively new one-time transfer rule has been a huge step forward in terms of player empowerment in college sports. It reduced the amount of power coaches have over athletes, who now have the freedom to seek out the best environment for themselves in terms of culture, fit, or playing time, without interrupting their careers. Moreover, that new state of affairs is forcing coaches to adapt or risk not only losing future recruits but current roster players en masse.

I put that proposition to Skenes, who might be the single greatest beneficiary of the modern transfer system in college baseball right now. Still, one of the country’s top transfer athletes was personally ambivalent about the current state of affairs.

“Prior to the year the transfer rule came in, I would still be at Air Force and pretty much just hoping that a team would pick me up in the next two years. Now it’s a lot more straightforward for me,” he says. “But I can also see the side of, you know, not finishing what you set out to do and having a commitment to people. That’s tough for me to think about, even though I am a product of the transfer portal, obviously.”

And he’s worried about the global competitive implications of a transfer trend he himself exemplifies.

“I think it’s been a very good move for my career to come here,” he says, “but a lot of the mid-majors — teams like Air Force and teams that Air Force is going to compete with — it’s going to affect them a lot. Being there and seeing the quality of people there, the coaches, it’s tough for me to think about that. Because they’re just going to get destroyed when a guy has a good year and then goes to an SEC school, much like I did. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about it, and I’m still trying to figure that out.”

As wild as last summer was for Skenes, the next six months offer little respite. He’ll play out his junior year at LSU, ideally culminating in a trip to the College World Series in mid-June and a first-round selection at the MLB Draft a month later. Skenes is only now settling into his new home.

“I would say the first month or so was a little bit of [a whirlwind],” he says. “When I came in here, I talked to Coach Johnson and he basically said, ‘You’re coming in here for a reason. Don’t be afraid to be you. Don’t be afraid to lead. Don’t be afraid to create a new culture here that’s going to help us win a lot of games.”

He says it took about a month to adjust to the rhythm of life at LSU compared to the jam-packed schedule of an Air Force Academy cadet, but he bonded with his teammates quickly. And Skenes says the team’s stars are pushing each other to get better. One day, he joked that he wouldn’t let Crews leave the baseball facility after him, resulting in the two and a few teammates staying to work out until after 10:30 at night.

“You can see on the field, that’s a product of how hard he works,” Skenes says of Crews, “but he had four other dudes with him, making them better. They’re not all gonna start, but they’re getting better because they’re working out with him, and that’s how it’s been for me.”

Skenes says he’s also been learning from his roommates, fellow pitchers Thatcher Hurd and Bryce Collins.

“Both of them can spin the ball, and they have a great understanding of pitching,” he says. “Basically, how to make their ball move to get swings and misses… Bryce was straight over the top; Thatcher’s somewhere between Bryce and me, the three-quarters guy, and [I’ve been] listening to them about how they spin the ball and basically make their sliders go left.”

He also says pitching coach Wes Johnson’s data-driven approach has already paid dividends.

“He’s the best communicator I’ve ever been around,” Skenes says. “Just being able to come up with cues for me and communicate what I need to do very concisely has been very cool. He’s helped me learn how to think on the mound, at the plate, in life, just learning how to think about issues that I have on or off the field, and how to make myself better. That’s the biggest thing, I think — he’s been coaching me to coach myself.”

Johnson called Skenes “an extreme competitor, extremely organized.” He said Skenes arrived on campus with a routine he was already comfortable with, so Johnson has worked with him to make his delivery more consistent and changed his slider grip.

“He already had a really good fastball, obviously, and changeup,” Johnson says. “I want his four-seamer to have a little more carry, I want his two-seamer to stay where it’s at. And then just getting the changeup to sink more consistently, even though it’s a true change, because he can do it at times.”

Skenes says his biggest improvement since arriving at LSU has been his slider.

“That was a fairly quick project to figure out the grip, the cues, and make it move, but to put it where I want it’s been a pretty long process,” he says. “That’s been really cool to watch, looking at where I’m at right now versus where I was in the fall with the command of it, manipulating it to sweep more or have more depth. That’s been, I would say, the biggest development I’ve had.”

The one thing Skenes isn’t quite as happy with: “Obviously, I’m not catching anymore,” he says. “But it’s cool… I never had any problems, there weren’t any hip problems. I just always caught when I grew up, and I loved it, to be honest. But I understand that I have other things I want to accomplish, and catching probably isn’t in the cards.”

Last Friday against Western Michigan was the world’s first extended look at Skenes under Johnson’s tutelage and in an LSU uniform. He didn’t disappoint. He threw consistently in the upper 90s — made it look easy, in fact, like a giant skipping a stone across a lake — and his mid-80s slider was capable of some truly sickening horizontal action. Broncos hitters barely stood a chance: Skenes went six scoreless innings on 98 pitches, allowing three hits and a walk while striking out 12.

The nature and speed of LSU’s rebuild, and the star power currently on display in Baton Rouge, will put the team under a microscope unlike anything else in college baseball this season. And every Friday night, Skenes will be the object of that focus.

Toward the end of our conversation, as I asked about specific adjustments to his game, or whether he wanted to play both ways in the pros, Skenes began to fall back on one sentence a few times: “I want to play this game as long as I can.”

The wild ride of the past eight months — tearing up his previous career goals, transferring, moving across the country, late-night workouts, giving up catching — has all been in service of that goal.

“I want to be a big leaguer, and play there as long as I can,” he says. “And whatever it takes to get there, I’m going to do that.”

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Can’t wait to see Mr. Skenes this year great article