Paul Skenes Named Baseball America’s 2023 College Baseball Player Of The Year


Image credit: Paul Skenes (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)

Paul Skenes didn’t want to leave the Air Force Academy a year ago. 

He liked being a part of the team, which had won the Mountain West Conference Tournament in 2022 and reached the Austin Regional final, and he had long wanted to serve in the military. But a combination of MLB’s draft rules and the Air Force’s service requirements led him to transfer so that he could more freely pursue a baseball career.

That led him to Louisiana State, where he dominated the sport this season. Skenes finished the year 13-2, 1.69 with 209 strikeouts and 20 walks in 122.2 innings. He led the nation in strikeouts and had more than any college pitcher since Jered Weaver racked up 213 in 2004.

Skenes’ sensational season helped lead LSU to its first national championship since 2009 and he was named College World Series Most Outstanding Player after a standout performance in Omaha.

It also pushed him to the top of draft boards, and he’s expected to be the first pitcher taken this July—if not the first player drafted. College coaches and MLB evaluators both agree that they have not been a college pitcher like Skenes since at least Stephen Strasburg in 2009.

For those reasons and more, Skenes is the 2023 Baseball America College Player of the Year. He is just the second player in LSU program history to win the award, fittingly joining Ben McDonald, who won in 1989. McDonald is also the only player in program history to be drafted first overall.

Coming into the year, Skenes wasn’t quite sure what to expect at LSU. He was joining a team and a program with national championship expectations. He was a two-time All-American as a catcher/righthander at Air Force and he knew LSU would be different. 

The reality, especially the fans’ reception of him, has blown Skenes away.

“It was an awesome opportunity to come here in the first place,” he said. “I never thought I’d be receiving the love and all of that that I’ve gotten from the fans (during the postseason). It’s so cool.”

Skenes is listed at 6-foot-6, 247 pounds. His physicality stands out on the mound, as does his athleticism. Until this year, Skenes doubled as a catcher. As a freshman in 2021, he hit .410/.486/.697 with 10 home runs and went 1-1, 2.70 with 11 saves in 18 appearances on the mound. As a sophomore, he moved to the front of Air Force’s rotation and went 10-3, 2.73 with 96 strikeouts and 30 walks in 85.2 innings, while hitting .314/.412/.634 with 13 home runs.

At LSU, Skenes focused on pitching for the first time in his baseball career. The results were devastating. His fastball regularly crossed 100 mph. His slider became the best breaking ball in the country. His changeup, a pitch he rarely needed to throw, became a third plus offering. He pitched with above-average command and walked just 1.5 per nine innings, a mark that ranked 16th nationally and first among major-conference pitchers.

There is seemingly little Skenes can’t do on the diamond. LSU coach Jay Johnson is just as enamored of his ability off the field.

“Our team plays better because of him in terms of the physical performance, but we’d be here all night if I talked about the person,” Johnson said. “They don’t come around like that. (He’s an) A-plus human being and character. That’s why the talent ascends to the level that it has.”

Johnson is in his second year as head coach at LSU, but 14 years ago he was an assistant coach at San Diego. Across town, Strasburg was tormenting hitters at San Diego State. When Strasburg faced the Toreros in 2009, he struck out 18 batters in eight innings. Over the course of two years, he threw 16 innings against USD, struck out 25, and held the Toreros to four runs on 10 hits and two walks.

So Johnson has a good frame of reference when comparing Skenes and Strasburg.

“The Friday night (mentality). The 12 or 13 strikeouts per game. The three to four hits. The zero or one run up on the board. And being able to count on that at the level that we play at and the schedule that we play—maybe somebody’s done it before, but I haven’t really seen that,” Johnson said. “Stephen Strasburg is the only competitor as far as execution and talent and domination that I’ve seen do this.”

Other coaches have gone back a bit further, to Mark Prior, who in 2001 was College POY at Southern California. There’s a natural comparison to McDonald, who has a similarly big frame to Skenes and also starred at Alex Box Stadium.

No matter the reference point or how far back your personal history with college baseball takes you, the rarity of Skenes’ performance is clear. 

“It’s one thing to throw 98-100 (mph), but this guy is big and tall and loose, and he’s got some life to his fastball,” Texas A&M coach Jim Schlossnagle told reporters early this season. “He’s a real pitcher. He’s pitching in the wrong league, I’ll tell you that. He needs to be in the American or National league.”

Skenes was lightly recruited out of El Toro High in Lake Forest, Calif., in part because he didn’t pop until his senior year, which was cut short by the pandemic and by which time he was already committed to Air Force. 

But Skenes has long been a known quantity as a prospect. His All-America freshman year earned him a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and a brief stint in the Cape Cod League. He returned to the CNT in 2022 and entered the fall as one of the top prospects in the draft class.

Even from that starting point, Skenes has taken off as a prospect over the course of the school year. Some of that is attributable to his work with LSU pitching coach Wes Johnson, who came to Baton Rouge after four years as the Twins’ pitching coach. Some of it is because he has been able to focus on pitching and not split his time on hitting or catching. Some of it is simply because at LSU he is able to lead a more typical life for an elite baseball player, getting more time for sleep and recovery away from the intense academic and physical schedule at Air Force. 

All of it taken together has helped Skenes rise to the top of college baseball. More than anything, it has been his mentality that has helped him take off in Baton Rouge.

“Everything just goes back to execution,” Skenes said. “Working throughout the week in my bullpens, in my catch play to go out on Friday or Saturday night and execute. We know what the gameplan’s going to be, so obviously we’re working toward that. We’re also working toward what I did well and what I didn’t do well the last week. If you make it simple like that, it’s easy to go out there and have that consistent mindset.”

LSU came into this year with as much hype as any college baseball team in recent memory. Skenes’ breakout season helped drive that further as the season went on. His starts became must-see and he took on a greater role for the Tigers. 

Playing for one of the sport’s biggest programs, he has become one of the sport’s brightest stars, even while sharing the stage in Baton Rouge with All-America outfielder Dylan Crews.

It’s all made for a remarkable year. Last June, when Skenes began the transfer process, he wasn’t sure where he would end up. Now, after a season that will forever live in LSU history, it’s impossible to imagine it playing out any other way. 

Last 10 Winners

Year Player Pos College

2012 Mike Zunino C Florida
2013 Kris Bryant 3B San Diego
2014 A.J. Reed 1B/LHP Kentucky
2015 Andrew Benintendi OF Arkansas
2016 Kyle Lewis OF Mercer
2017 Brendan McKay LHP/1B Louisville
2018 Brady Singer RHP Florida
2019 Adley Rutschman C Oregon State
2021 Kumar Rocker RHP Vanderbilt
2022 Ivan Melendez 1B Texas

No College Player of the Year awarded in truncated 2020 season.

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