BATON ROUGE, La. – Paul Skenes stood on the mound, staring at his catcher, freshman Brady Neal. Maybe there were people in the crowd, 10,683 to be exact. Perhaps there was a batter. He faced 22 of them, according to the final box score. The junior righthander was locked in on his catcher like no one else was present.
Skenes grimaced and hurled the pitch with all he had. Fastball, 98 mph. It was as if he didn’t care there was a man with a bat was standing there. Then he did it again. Fastball, 97 mph. And he did it again and again. He would occasionally mix in a slider, a mid-80s sweeper, showcasing a new arrow in his quiver.
Paul Skenes was ready. Another fastball. Another strikeout. He was made for this moment.
That moment, well, it was opening day in Alex Box Stadium, a day Skenes later said he’d never forget as his first game as an LSU Tiger. Wearing purple and gold, he threw 98 pitches. Most of them were fastballs, and he exited the game after six innings with a dozen strikeouts and a zero in the run column. He won SEC Pitcher of the Week from the SEC office (and also from D1baseball.com’s SEC Extra). By anyone’s standards, it was a good day.
“Paul was outstanding tonight, and he showed why he’s the best pitcher in college baseball,” LSU head coach Jay Johnson said. “He is very detailed in his approach, and he executed his plan precisely.”
“He is a very focused and driven young man,” LSU pitching coach Wes Johnson said. “He is very routine oriented and has a plan every day he comes in, which is something you need to be successful. Paul is always looking to learn something that might be able to help him get better.”
Skenes possesses the ability to focus on the moment, blocking out distractions. Those traits would have made him a great F-15 fighter pilot had he remained at the Air Force Academy. Skenes transferred to LSU over the summer.
“He carries himself with poise and presence,” said Air Force coach Mike Kazlausky, who coached Skenes for two seasons. “His mentality is like none I have ever seen at our institution in regard to visual acuity and visualization that he had on every single pitch. It was incredible. None of the other kids think like that.”
Think about that statement for a minute. Coach Kaz isn’t comparing Skenes to the cast of the D1Baseball.com Christmas party. He’s comparing Skenes to Academy cadets. These are the best of the best.
“They just received a true warrior,” Kazlausky said of LSU. “From academics, athletics, and character perspectives, you are not going to meet another man that whole.
“I have no idea what the LSU culture is like, but I guarantee you it just got better.”
Coach Kaz relayed a story where two cadets didn’t meet the standard. Skenes immediately raced up the hill and confronted them.
“The type of kid that he is, he’s not looking to his right and looking to his left and say, ‘See, those kids weren’t doing it right,'” Kazlausky said. “He took it upon himself. That’s leadership."
As his coaches pointed out, Skenes understands plans. Sometimes, plans must change, and that’s why the bayou, instead of the Rockies, now surrounds him.
Two years earlier, the 6-foot-6 Skenes was a catcher, a relief pitcher, and a member of Air Force cadet squadron 9. Now, he’s one of the top pitching prospects in college baseball and the ace of the No. 1 team in the country.
At the top of the sport now, that wasn’t the case a few months earlier. At the Air Force Academy, Skenes was part of a huge underdog story. Unlike LSU, Air Force wasn’t a baseball powerhouse. Still, Skenes, Coach Kaz, and the Falcons made a run to the Mountain West Conference Tournament title last season, earning them an automatic bid as the No. 4 seed in the Austin Regional.
The Falcons exceeded expectations in Austin, going 2-2 en route to the Austin Regional final. The Falcons beat Dallas Baptist and Louisiana Tech but lost to host and eventual CWS squad Texas twice, in the opener and the final. Skenes took the mound in the opening game against the heavily favored Longhorns and took the loss.
The game didn’t go as he wanted, as he left the mound after four innings. But the experience prepared him for what would come next, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
“My last start at Air Force was against Texas in front of 8,000 fans or something like that,” Skenes said after LSU’s 10-0 win over Western Michigan last Friday. “It was a big game. I would say the comfort level of doing that was a lot higher today (at LSU). Obviously, there are a lot of a lot of people there, but you know the whole thing about you’d rather have them on your side rather than have them rooting against you. I think I was a lot more prepared for it today than then.”
He had an entire Baton Rouge crowd behind him, along with a star-studded roster that includes returning stars like Dylan Crews and Tre’ Morgan.
Skenes transferred to LSU as part of the heralded transfer class that included Tommy White, Christian Little, and Ben Nippolt. His story was a little different because if he didn’t transfer after his sophomore season, his professional aspirations were unclear.
Paul Skenes the Cadet/D1Baseball.com
Had Skenes stayed at Air Force through his junior season, he would have been locked into graduating from the Air Force before beginning any sort of professional baseball career. There was a precedent to follow as Minnesota Twins pitcher Griffin Jax was drafted in the third round as a junior in 2016 and did not play baseball as a senior. Jax deferred to the Air Force reserve after graduation and was able to play minor league baseball, eventually reaching the major league Twins in 2021.
The rules had changed in the time between Jax and Skenes, and Coach Kaz detailed it below.
Skenes’ situation would have been different than Jax’s. Skenes could have been drafted after his junior year and, like Jax, he would have to return for his senior year to graduate. Skenes, upon graduation, would have had to defer his commissioning of becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in the USAF. Meaning he would not have been an officer in the Air Force. He would have been able to play pro sports until he called it quits or the Department of Defense decided the media value was not being obtained.
Jax, drafted after his junior year, went to school his senior year, was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, and participated in the World Class Athlete Program – designed to train in the minor league organization with hopes of becoming a member of the USA Olympic baseball team. Jax served two years in active duty and applied for an exception to the policy under “Palace Chase.” The exception was granted, allowing him to play baseball for the Twins, and he traded his final three years of Active Duty service for six years of Reserve Duty.
Skenes was on that path after two incredible seasons in Colorado Springs. As a freshman catcher, he hit .410/.486/.697 with 11 home runs, 43 RBIs, and 49 runs, which led the team in all three. He also served as the Falcons’ closer, totaling 11 saves.
“We knew what we had right away,” Kazlausky said. “He was our best catcher on the team. He was our best hitter on the team. And he was our closer. He would catch twice a weekend. If we didn’t close him in game one or two, he would be long relief in game three. We beat LSU that year. He caught eight innings and then came in and closed, throwing 97 mph. We also beat Arizona. He caught eight innings and closed them out. They had him at 100 mph.”
Then last season as a sophomore, Skenes batted .314/.391/.552 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs. He would start on the mound on Friday, DH on Saturday, and often catch on Sunday. He finished the season on the mound as the AFA ace with a 10-3 record, a 2.76 ERA, and 96 strikeouts in 85.2 innings. The Falcons were 12-3 in games Skenes started and 20-26 in the other games. That kind of season won him the John Olerud Award as the best two-way player in the country.
“He is one of the greatest athletes to ever attend our school,” Coach Kaz said. “I wish there was something from the Department of Defense and United State Air Force to make eligible for him to remain at our school and play pro baseball as well. It just wasn’t able to work out."
Skenes holding an American flag/D1Baseball.com
Then the summer came, he stamped his passport in the transfer portal and wound up at LSU.
And who can blame him? At Alex Box Stadium, he plays in front of raucous crowds that understand the game against some of the best competition in the country. Every day he practices with some of the best players in the country with a chance to win championships. He would have a chance to pitch in a regional with the large crowd cheering for him instead of against him as he faced last season. He could play for a head coach with an Omaha pedigree focused on building something great. And he could play for a major league pitching coach who understands what a player needs to do to reach the next level.
Fine-Tuning The Arsenal
Skenes arrived at LSU as a hard thrower. He, obviously, can still throw hard. His first pitch on opening day was 99 mph. His final pitch was 98 mph. Velocity isn’t an issue. He quickly admits his stuff has improved since coming to LSU and working with pitching coach Wes Johnson, who joined LSU this summer after a stint as the Minnesota Twins’ pitching coach.
“The consistency has improved,” Skenes said. “The stuff in general, it’s a different slider this year than I was doing last year. I started throwing the two-seam as well but didn’t throw it a ton today. The changeup I threw once today, and I just missed with it with a changeup I’ve been throwing forever. But literally just knowing what makes each pitch good and where to start it. And then the velo has increased and the consistency of the velo has increased, which makes it a lot easier to pitch. So that’s in a nutshell that’s pretty much what we’ve done in the past six months.”
Wes Johnson met Skenes on his official visit shortly after coming to LSU from the Twins.
“The first thing I noticed was we need to get him to move a little better from a sequencing standpoint,” Wes Johnson said. “He obviously had a strong arm and was a big-bodied kid. He needed to clean up the way he moved. If you are going to be a starter in the big leagues, you’ve got to be an efficient mover. You’ve got to be able to recover because you get the ball every five days. He started moving better, and he did stuff over the winter break. Everyone likes to think there’s a magic bullet or whatever, but there’s not. It takes time.
“He’s really good,” the pitching coach continued. “He has to continue to develop his command and consistency. His changeup is really good, and we only threw it twice Friday night. He needs to continue to throw all three pitches in the strike zone. Being able to go to that changeup a little more would be nice, which is something you’ll see from us moving forward with him. The sky’s the limit. He gets it because he is so mature from a mental standpoint. That’s what you see from the guys that make it to the big leagues.”
The big righthander dominated at times, resulting in a dozen strikeouts. Skenes pledged $10 for every strikeout to Folds of Honor, a nonprofit organization that provides educational scholarships to the spouses and children of military and first responders who have died or been disabled. The charity is $120 richer after last Friday. One would expect that total to grow mightily as the season progresses.
As Skenes alluded to, he also changed his slider, which got him a little excited as he described it.
“The slider was really good,” Skenes said. “To be honest, I wished I had thrown it a little bit more. I think all except for maybe one or two were executed. One of them to the guy to the guy that had the double down the line. To be honest, I put it right where I wanted to put that ball. Maybe he was cheating to it or just caught it on barrel, whatever it was, but in my opinion, he was beat on that pitch and just got lucky a little bit. So that pitch was executed. And I think all the other sliders were too. I only threw one changeup. The slider was how I wanted it to be today. Especially with it being cold, making it tough to spin the ball.”
That comment reinforced something Coach Kaz mentioned about Skenes and also something my wife, an addiction counselor, constantly reinforces to anyone within earshot. “Be where your hands are,” meaning focus on the moment and control the controllable. Everything else, whether it be future issues or what others may do, is not where your focus should be.
Most of us focus on the result. The batter got a double off him. However, Skenes was focused on his performance. Did he execute to his standard? It’s a high standard. If met, that’s the result he’s chasing. He thinks, Did I throw my slider at optimum performance? As opposed to thinking, Did I get the batter out? Both are important, but Skenes can only control one part of the situation. That maturity is rare for a 20-year-old. Heck, it’s rare for a 50-year-old.
That slider version is a completely different one than he used at Air Force, moving from a vertical break to a horizontal one.
Photo credit: Beau Brune
“It’s a sweeper as opposed to the gyro slider that I threw last year,” Skenes said. “I didn’t really know how to pitch with it last year. Didn’t really know what a gyro slider was, to be honest, but they are completely different pitches. I don’t know what it was breaking today, but it felt like it was sweeping for sure. I’m throwing it a lot more to lefties. I hardly threw it all to lefties last year, honestly. It was like the sixth start or so last year before I threw a slider to a lefty last year. I threw a number of them today. It’s a being able to throw to both sides in the know where to start it. It’s obviously a work in progress. But I think we’re in a good spot with that.”
“I use a lot of technology as everybody does now,” Wes Johnson explained. “I didn’t like the way he was gripping (the slider). We had a few guys with the Twins where he put the split-grip slider in. So, we split his grip. With his slot, the way his hand works, it made sense to do it. The grip doesn’t work for everybody. He was able to pick it up. He has such a really good two-seam. It runs horizontal. You can create a pretty good spread with a good sweeping slider. That’s what we put it in.”
As Skenes fielded question after question in the postgame interview scrum, I thought to myself, he pauses and composes his thoughts before each answer. This is a deliberate, cerebral guy.
“I don’t know what my velo was today,” Skenes said. “All I know is what my eyes saw and the misses were smaller today than they had been in the last couple weeks. Obviously, the adrenaline was flowing. Now especially, it’s really easy to just go after guys and make them hit it. That was the approach today, but probably to a lesser extent throughout the season, but that’s certainly gonna be the approach."
“He knows he’s better than you and he just dominates,” LSU freshman DH Jared Jones said. “It’s scary. And I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Last season, Skenes was a catcher and cadet. This season, he’s a Tiger with Omaha aspirations and, if the improvement continues, a big league future. And then, after that, Coach Kaz said not to be surprised if he serves his country again.
Coach Kaz spoke about his former player with reverence often reserved for someone’s passing. However, in this case, Skenes just moved 1135 miles southeast.
“He is a better person than he is a baseball player,” Kazlausky said. “And that’s what you need to write because that truly hits home with me."
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