Air Force Academy, LSU both huge in Skenes' rise to top Draft pick

July 9th, 2023

This story was originally published on June 30. We have updated it to reflect Paul Skenes being drafted No. 1 overall by the Pirates.

It’s a very short list of people with the drive, the determination and the maturity to matriculate at the U. S. Air Force Academy. Likewise, there are very few pitchers who have the ability and mindset to thrive as Friday night starters in the Southeastern Conference.

Oh, and players with both the ability to pitch and to hit at an all-conference level? Not many of those either.

When you find someone who fits all three descriptions, you may as well have found a unicorn. Meet Paul Skenes, LSU ace, 2023 Men’s College World Series Most Outstanding Player, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, and potentially the best college pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg.

Skenes regularly throws 100 miles per hour with a wipeout slider and an effective changeup, and he’s already had a set of life experiences that stand out as much as his talent. He’s previously played first base, designated hitter and catcher, but gave them up to focus on his burgeoning pitching career.

It has paid off. In 2023, Skenes was the best college pitcher in the country, and it wasn’t especially close. He set an all-time college record with 209 strikeouts, finished second in the nation with a 1.69 ERA, and posted a 12-2 record while walking only 20 batters in 122 2/3 innings. He earned MOP honors in Omaha despite not even appearing in the final series -- though he was available if needed in the final game.

Skenes pitched his first two seasons at Air Force before transferring to LSU (cadets are permitted to withdraw without penalty before the beginning of their junior year). He stood alongside his fellow cadets and made a solemn pledge. That pledge has stuck with him even after his transfer, and his time in Colorado Springs absolutely still informs who he is as a person, a player, and a teammate.

“The first day of basic training, you show up and you raise your right hand and you say that you're willing to die for the person next to you,” Skenes recalled. “And basically do whatever it takes to protect the Constitution and our country. Which is something that I don't think people realize while they're there, I realized the magnitude of that I think when I left the Air Force Academy when I came here and had to develop that bond again with the people on this team. And what I realized is that there's no team that I'm ever going to be on is going to have that bond ever again.”

You might think a young man with that kind of serious side wouldn’t necessarily be the best fit at a place like LSU, where “boisterous” is pretty much part of the brand. The Tigers aren’t exactly trash talkers, but they definitely know how to have fun, and being a baseball star at LSU brings a whole other level of fame and attention from playing any sport at Air Force. LSU plays the game with gusto. But it was no problem at all. Skenes stepped right in, not only as the Friday night starter (college’s equivalent of the Opening Day starter), but as one of the guys to boot.

“The cool thing about this program,” he said, “is they let us be who we are. Let us play to our personality and be who we are throughout the week. Which is a kind of the culture of LSU, but also our coaches and the players that we have on the team. That's just the dynamic that we have on the team, so we can be who we are, we can have our personalities out on the field, and that's cool.”

And, yes, he also absolutely got it done on the mound. It’s a huge transition from the Mountain West Conference -- where Air Force is successful, but not exactly contending for trips to the College World Series -- to the SEC West, where five-figure crowds are the norm and Omaha is the expectation. Skenes not only maintained his level, he got better.

“That's a generational talent right there,” said teammate Dylan Crews, the Golden Spikes Award winner and another top name in this year’s Draft pool.

Crews recalled facing Skenes when both were freshmen, and he’s glad to have the huge right-hander on his side now.

“I never thought that I'd be playing on the same team as him,” said Crews. “But, you know, it says a lot about him. He's a very professional player. I just I think he's built for those big moments.”

Now he’s ready for the next challenge, and it’s hard to imagine professional baseball will daunt him in the wake of everything he’s already accomplished.

“I think having this year of like -- almost as a buffer between Air Force and pro ball -- it's been really, really beneficial. … And granted, I don't know what pro ball is gonna be like. Obviously, it's a huge grind. It's another level, you know, from what I'm at here. But that lifestyle, I think I'm more accustomed to [it] now.”