Paul Skenes wasn’t thinking about becoming a first overall Draft pick a year ago.
When Skenes transferred from Air Force Academy to LSU, one of the most difficult decisions of his life given his family’s military background, his goals were simple: improve every day, win a national championship and play baseball as long as possible. Any accomplishment was a byproduct of his end goals.
Two weeks ago, Skenes won a national championship. Given his numbers, it’s fair to say he improved on a daily basis. And after being selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, Skenes is set to play baseball for a long, long time.
“It means a lot to be the first overall pick,” Skenes said. “I’m just looking forward to what’s to come with playing baseball and hopefully winning a World Series or two in Pittsburgh.”
Skenes is regarded as the best college pitching prospect since Stephen Strasburg in 2009 -- the most-hyped college pitching prospect ever. The electric stuff Skenes showcased at LSU is reminiscent of Strasburg at San Diego State: Like Strasburg, Skenes has an overpowering triple-digit fastball and a wipeout breaking pitch, his slider.
“In getting to know Paul, what you understand is that from his background, you would anticipate discipline and work ethic and a service-oriented teammate -- all those things you sort of anticipate,” said general manager Ben Cherington. “But what you also learn about Paul as you get to know him is that he’s got this thirst for getting better. Not only willing, but wants to take on the challenge, whether that was going to Air Force Academy out of high school or transferring to the [Southeast Conference] for his draft year. Whatever’s next, he’s going to want it.”
The 6-foot-6 21-year-old just completed one of the most dominant college seasons of all time for the Tigers. Skenes went 12-2 with a 1.69 ERA and led all of NCAA Division 1 with 209 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings -- more than 50 strikeouts over the next-closest pitcher. He also led LSU to a Men's College World Series victory with a lights-out postseason that ended with him being named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. In four starts, Skenes allowed just four runs in 32 1/3 innings, a 1.11 ERA, and racked up 42 strikeouts.
Skenes is the first player to win a CWS title, be named Most Outstanding Player in the tournament and go No. 1 overall in the Draft in the same year.
For all the accolades and labels, Skenes is very unlikely to make his Major League debut this year.
Last week, Cherington was asked about how realistic it would be for this year’s first overall Draft pick to play in Pittsburgh this year. Cherington said such a move would be “pretty aggressive even for an advanced college player,” adding that the team wants to prioritize their first pick’s long-term future. That said, it’s very possible that Skenes has the opportunity to pitch for one of the Pirates’ affiliates once all the logistics have been finalized.
“I think my stuff is big league ready,” Skenes said. “But to be honest, not being in professional baseball yet … I think there's some stuff that I'm probably going to have to figure out along the way because I just haven't been exposed to professional baseball. With that said, my end goal is to be in the big leagues as long as possible and as soon as possible, so I'm going to do whatever it takes along the way to accomplish that goal.”
Skenes' fastball-slider combo grades out as top-of-the-charts. His explosive fastball, which averages 98 mph, frequently reaches 100-plus and tops out around 102, gets an 80 grade from MLB Pipeline, the highest on baseball's 20-80 scouting scale. His mid-to-upper 80s slider generates extreme swing-and-miss numbers and gets a 70 grade, making it a plus-plus pitch as well.
Skenes' incredible pitching talent is what rocketed him up Draft boards, but before he got to LSU, he was a two-way star. At Air Force, Skenes was both a pitcher and a slugging catcher, and he even won the 2022 John Olerud Award as the nation's top two-way player. Skenes was the only college player with both double-digit wins as a pitcher and double-digit home runs as a hitter.
Shohei Ohtani was an influence on a young Skenes, and the Southern California native was in the stands as a 15-year-old when Ohtani made his Angel Stadium pitching debut on April 8, 2018, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning against the A's.
Skenes, who hit .367/.453/.669 in two years at Air Force, recently expressed on Sunday Night Baseball his desire to pitch and hit. While Cherington said Skenes isn’t the type of person to bet against, he added that having Skenes hit “hasn’t been our focus.” Skenes intended to hit at LSU, too, but prioritized solely pitching to ensure he remained healthy the whole season.
“We know he’s had success as a hitter in the past,” Cherington said. “We just want to get with him, map out a progression and we’ll start there and see how it goes.”
Skenes also comes from the same high school, El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif., that produced a pair of current MLB superstars: All-Star third basemen Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman.
Along with Skenes, the Pirates selected shortstop Mitch Jebb out of Michigan State with the 42nd overall pick and prep right-hander Zander Meuth from Belleville East HS (Ill.) with the 67th overall pick.