LSU head coach: Paul Skenes is the “closest comparison since Stephen Strasburg”

The Washington Nationals franchise was in a dark and ominous place a year ago as Juan Soto was turning down record-breaking offers from the Nats — a team that was rumored to be sold imminently at the time. Also, the Nats had mostly middling prospects going into last season, but none, other than Cade Cavalli, were turning heads at a national level in a farm system that ranked last; they were at the bottom of MLB in the standings, and had a nebulous future via another road to being a championship team.

Skip ahead a few months from there to July of 2022, and with a blockbuster trade of Soto, the Nationals acquired five elite players for their farm system just weeks after the MLB draft added a Top-100 prospect in Elijah Green, and a Top-200 prospect in Jake Bennett. By August 1 of last year, there seemed to be a much clearer future looking through the clouds at the sunshine. And now in just 40 days and 40 nights, is the 2023 draft — and the Nats hold the coveted second pick overall in one of the deepest tops of a draft, ever. That’s a game changer.

The Nationals finished with an MLB worst 55-107 record for 2022, and that extreme level of tanking put the Nats in this position to be picking second in the draft — the first year ever with a draft lottery. And this season, the Nationals are managing to pull together wins, and even with blown saves and a mediocre bullpen, the Nationals find themselves just 5.0 games out of a wild-card spot. That’s a great sign because the Nats have their top two prospects, Robert Hassell III and James Wood from that Soto trade developing at the Double-A level, and getting closer to making it to Washington, D.C. This all points to better things to come for the Nats. Their second overall pick in the 2023 MLB draft should help improve the rebuilding process tremendously with a superstar caliber player who could be quick to the MLB roster.

As a result of a poor 2022 season, the Nationals had favorable odds of earning a top draft pick for the 2023 draft. So when the MLB draft lottery came around, many Nationals fans were anxious for the first overall pick. Well, they got the next best thing — the second overall selection. The Pittsburgh Pirates landed the first pick in the draft, which raises the question of who the Nationals should pick? There is a consensus about the top 3 college players in the draft, but no one knows where they go — but the obvious logic is crystal clear that the Nats will have a pick of every player except one: The player the Pirates choose. Those Top-3 college players are OF Dylan Crews, RHP Paul Skenes, and OF Wyatt Langford.

We had a chance to interview the top-two LSU prospects: outfielder Crews and ace Skenes, and we have a Langford interview set-up next month. Today, I will go in-depth to talk about Skenes and what he brings to the table.

Hard Facts

Name: Paul David Skenes

Position: Right-handed pitcher

School: LSU via the portal transfer from the Air Force Academy

Age: 21-years-old as of yesterday

Size: 6’6″, 247 lbs

Pitching metrics: Fastball: 98 mph T102/ Slider: 87-90 mph/ Changeup: 89-92 mph

Skenes is everything you want in a player and a leader. Even though he will only end up playing one season at Louisiana State University, he is on his way to breaking several records, including strikeouts, where he is currently second on the all-time list behind Ben McDonald, who recorded 202 strikeouts through 152.1 innings. In his lone season in the purple and yellow, Skenes has posted a 1.89 ERA through his 15 starts and has notched ten wins against two losses. In 90.1 innings this season, Skenes has struck out 167 batters while walking 17 and recorded a 0.786 WHIP. Maybe the only rub against him is the wear and tear from a long college season and plenty of 100+ pitch outings. Skenes says not to worry because he has a better nutritional program now, and the team knows how to get him ready for his next start. He feels he sometimes gets stronger as the game progresses.

Before he transferred to LSU, Skenes spent time in the Air Force Academy as their ace. Although he left the Academy, the lessons he learned were second to none. He became a leader in the clubhouse and had gained a sense of perspective. Before we talk about lessons learned in the Air Force, let’s go back five years and look at Skenes’s baseball career in high school. Skenes attended El Toro High School located in Lake Forest, California. El Toro has produced several MLB superstars, including Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman. The stands were filled in every game, and Skenes was a fan-favorite during his junior year. During his high school career, Skenes wasn’t only a pitcher; rather, he mostly played catcher and a little at third and other infield positions. Before his senior year, he rarely got the opportunity to start. So, how did a top high school prospect who threw a brain-freezing 95 mph fastball end up in the Air Force?

Well, his high school senior year took place in 2020, so many colleges didn’t see the young pitcher take the mound, and recruiting was put on-hold due to COVID. Although the pitcher only recorded one start, he was the team’s shut-down closer, along with one of their starting catchers. Since Skenes was mostly developed in his junior year, his fastball was already in the mid-90s in most outings. Skenes wanted to pursue professional baseball, but it was a challenge since he would have to do that without getting enlisted to serve, so he had to transfer from the Air Force before his junior year. Playing with the Air Force Falcons, Skenes would record ten wins through 15 starts and throw 85.2 innings while posting a 2.73 ERA. He would also tally 182 plate appearances while registering 48 hits, 19 doubles, and 13 homers. He slashed .314/.412/.634/.1.046

The 6-foot-6, 247-pounder was a dual threat before he arrived in Baton Rouge, but head coach Jay Johnson wanted to maximize his MLB potential and transition him to a PO. So, before discussing what makes Skenes an elite college pitching prospect, we have to look at the less-recognized things. Every pitching start, you can catch the right-hander wearing a t-shirt with one of his teammates’ faces before he puts on his jersey. He started the tradition that has helped shape the love and trust inside the LSU clubhouse. Skenes has said he will continue the tradition throughout the postseason. When I asked more about how the tradition started, he had a detailed response.

“I was like looking online for my teammate’s jerseys one day, and I found a shirt with [Cade Beloso‘s] face on it, and I just bought it, and it sat in my room for a few weeks, and I’m like, screw it, I’m gonna wear it to the field and warm-up with it,” Skenes told me. “So I just decided I would wear someone’s face on my shirt every week from then on, and so it’s cool because you can see the reaction because that’s really what it’s all about. It’s just about the camaraderie and the team. And if you can make someone else’s day, and I don’t know, it’s pretty cool.”

So, who’s making all these shirts for Skenes to wear to his starts? One of the student team manager’s mom has a company that makes these t-shirts, and she would send Skene’s shirts weekly. Skenes would go on talking for a few minutes on the tradition and how a little thing like that can lead towards having good and positive events with the team.

“I think the amount of love and the deepness of our relationships that we have in a locker room is really cool,” Skenes continued. “This is something that I had at the Air Force, and that I’ve been pleasantly surprised at since I’ve been here [at LSU] because I truly love everyone in the locker room. And it’s something that I’m blessed to be a part of and want to keep as long as I can.”

Skenes is a world-class leader on campus and in the clubhouse, but he also has the mentality and physique to shine on the mound at an MLB level. Although the percentage that Skenes becomes a two-way player in the majors is rather nil, it’s worth noting he was the only NCAA Division I player to record 10+ wins and 10+ home runs in 2022.

Teammate and potential number one pick, Dylan Crews, was also interviewed by us, and he talked about Skenes’s leadership ability without even being asked about it. The two have quite the history together dating back to their times in USA Baseball as teammates. In college, Crews got a homer off of Skenes back in 2021 when LSU played Air Force. Skenes was the team’s starting catcher, and finished the game as the closer. When Crews faced him he took him deep in the 9th inning to make it a one-run game — but Skenes held on for the save and a win for Air Force. Most recently, they faced each other in scrimmages in fall-ball as LSU teammates. The next time they face each other — seems likely to be as opposing players for the Nats and Pirates. Let that sink in for a minute.

“He’s one of those guys that you’re gonna get what you’re gonna get out of him every day, you know, the way he prepares himself and the way he goes about himself,” Crews said. “There’s a true leader on this team. And, you know, he’s getting the younger guys and the other guys on board. And they’re listening, and they’re watching how he prepares and does this thing going out. And, preparing for his starts and, his approaches to the game.”

Talking with LSU head coach Johnson about Skenes, there were quite a few things that stood out, but one was above the rest. Stephen Strasburg was a heck of a college pitching prospect, and most have the World Series champion at the top of their all-time college pitcher’s list in the draft era. Throughout the spring, some MLB writers, columnists, and reporters have discussed the similarities between Skenes and Strasburg. So, I had to ask coach Johnson who was at the University of San Diego when Stras was at San Diego State if he believes the two pitchers are similar, and his answer would be jaw-dropping.

“Nobody knows how good a college pitcher Stephen Strasburg was than me. We lost to him a lot over three years when I was at the University of San Diego. I remember one game in particular in 2009 he strikes-out 18 [of our players]. He threw, like 120 pitches, and he threw a [breaking pitch] like 87 pitches of the 120 I mean, it was just remarkable. And it was so firm that it looked like a fastball and it was just impossible to lay-off of. And we [hoped we] could get him out of the game. And he just buckled down and then we couldn’t do anything going forward.

“And for me, [Stephen Strasburg] is the best college pitcher I’ve ever seen, you know, until I saw Paul do what Paul did this year. So I think it’s probably the most accurate comparison you can make regarding that [comparison].”

This season, Skenes’ fastball has touched triple digits at 102 mph, and his slider has improved tremendously under pitching coach Wes Johnson, and it was Johnson who was a key part of getting Skenes to LSU. Keep in mind, Johnson was a pitching coach with the Minnesota Twins a year ago. What an addition to LSU’s coaching staff. Under his tutelage, Skenes showed marked improvement and shot up the rankings on draft boards. His stats backed it up. The ace’s changeup still needs to be more consistent, but if he can solidify his changeup, his three-pitch arsenal will be elite. He does throw the 4-seam and 2-seam fastball so maybe that is a four pitch arsenal. His arm slot is kind of like Max Scherzer coming at you slightly below a 3/4 arm angle that really makes it difficult on right-handed batters with impressive movement. Some have even said his slider sometimes looks like a sweeper that is all the rage in baseball now, and he can throw the curveball. In fact a spiked curveball was a pitch he abandoned. Skenes told us that he has plans for his future arsenal. He is extremely cerebral and will be Scherzian in continually tweaking his grips and pitch types.

“Skenes’ mental makeup from a military background is off the charts,” McDonald told us as he is an SEC broadcaster along with a MASN analyst for Orioles games. “He will outwork everyone. Two hours before the game he is prepping. This is a dude who will not fail. It just is not in his makeup. This is why he is going to be so successful.”

To hear McDonald, a 1-of-1 draft pick by the Orioles in 1989 out of LSU, who knows how the MLB game can swallow you up, and he thinks that Skenes will be able to handle it. What Skenes has done in a year of the shrinking strike zone makes it so remarkable from McDonald’s point-of-view. A conference where average ERAs are over 5.00+, and Skenes bucked the trend.

“Skenes added five miles per hour to his fastball, and dominated in the SEC with a hitter’s strike zone,” McDonald continued.

“I saw Skenes pitch seven times and the numbers he’s put up is phenomenal. The SEC is averaging over a 5.00 team ERA in a very offensive time. Most home runs ever hit. A smaller strike zone. Too offensive in my opinion. I’m disappointed in the NCAA. Now it’s no longer fair. I hope it changes.”

“More so in the SEC, they were grading the umpires and what was always a strikes for 100 years is not that way anymore. It’s like a Double-A strike zone. That’s what makes what Paul Skenes is doing more remarkable.”

For McDonald, he knows the history of pitchers being chosen 1-of-1 like himself, Strasburg, and Andy Benes. As McDonald told us, there is enough history to show position players chosen in the Top-3 picks have outperformed pitchers chosen in those spots on average. But keep in mind that none of this matters to the Nats if Pittsburgh picks Skenes. If Rizzo’s desire is Skenes over anyone else, only the Pirates can change what happens. Although the Pirates once selected Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick, according to various mock drafts and some “unnamed” MLB execs, the Pirates are leaning towards taking a position player, which would give the Nationals the option to choose Skenes with the second overall selection. Time will tell on this and don’t believe what everyone says. Pirates GM Ben Cherington holds the first pick and that is all that matters.

LSU coach Johnson had high praise for his two players and went into detail when I asked him about the leadership abilities of both prospects and what it means to have the top two players in the draft p lay baseball at LSU.

“When you’re talking about those players [Dylan Crews and Paul Skenes], in all likelihood, are going to be drafted first and second. I think that shows a lot of development. I mean, Dylan is a better player today than he was as a freshman; Paul came out of the transfer portal and chose us over any school in the country because he believed he could develop to be the best that he could be,” Johnson said. “In my opinion, you’re looking at the best position player in college baseball, the most prepared position player to go have success in professional baseball with Dylan, and you’re looking at the best pitcher and the most prepared pitcher to have success in professional baseball. And both of those guys are calling LSU. Home. So it’s a really big deal.”

“As far as draft noise and all of that like, I mean, you got a chance to talk to those guys today (when you interviewed them earlier). And when they speak, they’re just totally about the right things. They know what’s ahead of them. They got a great life and a great career ahead of them. And, you know, their gifts and their abilities are there right here right now. They’re at their best and now they can impact their team and their teammates, and that’s all I’ve seen from them and it’s why they’ve performed all year the way that they have and I don’t anticipate that changing just knowing those guys as well as I do.”

If general manager Mike Rizzo of the Nationals picks Skenes or Crews or changes course and goes for Wyatt Langford of University of Florida, and any one of them has the ability to move quickly throughout the Nationals system, that just shortens the time of the rebuild. Last year the Nationals swung for the fences with a risky pick in high school outfielder Elijah Green. So, the Nationals think high upside, and some Nationals fans have pointed out their interest in drafting Langford. Skenes would probably be on the same timeline as Nats pitcher Cade Cavalli or maybe even quicker like Strasburg, and could see himself in the Nationals rotation in mid-2024.

“I try not to look at those [mock draft rankings], and I think as long as I keep doing what I’m supposed to be doing over the new few weeks, everything will just land as it should,” Skenes said to me about going to Washington or Pittsburgh at the top of the draft.

Discussion question: If the draft was tomorrow and the Pirates took Crews with the first overall pick, would you feel comfortable with Skenes being selected at two?

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