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The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Simple proves smart for LSU's Skenes in record year

169 days ago
Joe Menzer | SEC Network
Photo: Hillary Scheinuk/Associated Press

OMAHA, Nebraska -- A young, aspiring journalist was called upon to deliver the last question to Paul Skenes in LSU's post-game press conference after a win over Tennessee in the Men's College World Series in June.

The young man kept it simple for the Tigers' star pitcher.

"What advice would you give to kids facing a pitcher like you?" he asked.

Skenes kept his answer simple, too.

"Oh, man. Be ready for the fastball. I don't know what else to say," Skenes replied.

And yet, like much of what Skenes does on the mound, there was some deception involved in his reply. Skenes had just made a masterful start in which, sure, he threw 46 fastballs that topped 100 miles per hour. But the real secret to his success as he moved to within three strikeouts of setting the all-time single-season Southeastern Conference record actually was his changeup.

After pitching coach Wes Johnson noticed the Tennessee batters sitting on fastballs in the first inning, Johnson actually began imploring Skenes to throw more off-speed pitches as the game wore on. Skenes admitted afterward that despite all the 100 mph fastballs, he believed the changeup was his most effective pitch on the night.

"I was able to execute it to both sides (of the plate). I found it a little bit more as the game went on," he said. "That's a pitch I haven't had to use a ton this year. But going out there, we saw what their plan was a little bit and decided to use the changeup a little bit more than I have, and it worked out."

Everything seems to have worked out quite nicely for Skenes at LSU, where he transferred this year after spending the previous two years as a two-way star at Air Force. You might say Skenes was Florida's Jac Caglianone between Caglianone became the two-way stud that he is.

It was not unusual for the 6-foot-6 Skenes, over the course of a three-game weekend series, to catch one game, bat as designated hitter or play first base and bat in the second, and pitch the third.

As a freshman, he started all 48 games for the Falcons and served as the team's closer. He was the only player in Division I baseball to reach double digits in home runs and saves, earning 11 of each while compiling a batting average of .410 in the competitive Mountain West conference. As a sophomore in 2022, he played in 51 of 52 games, batting .314 with 13 homers and starting 15 games as a pitcher, going 10-3 with a 2.73 ERA while striking out 96 in 85.2 innings.

Then he entered the transfer portal and found LSU, or rather the school and Skenes found each other. Coach Jay Johnson admitted the plan initially was to have Skenes continue to hit as well as pitch, which is how Skenes envisioned life with his new team at first as well.

But for Skenes to reach his full potential as a pitcher, Jay Johnson and Wes Johnson (who is not related to Jay and already has been hired as head coach for Georgia, beginning next season) rather quickly devised a different plan and sold Skenes on it.

"I think there's a lot of value in simplicity, I think, and he's a great two-way player," Jay Johnson said. "This dude was launching home runs in fall baseball. I mean, as impressive as it gets. He definitely could make an impact. Had I just made him a position player, he would have 20 home runs right now and potentially be hitting fifth or sixth for our team.

"Well, we had a really deliberate plan on the pitching side of it. We got him started right when he got to campus with Coach Wes Johnson to develop his slider. There were some things that we needed to do. So we started to do that early. We shut him down earlier in the fall to give him more ramp-up time for the season. Then it wasn't intentional, but I think kind of removing the two-way player thing, I started to see his ability to recover physically better. You're minimizing the rotations because the rotation of a pitching delivery, rotation of a hitting swing -- he is right-handed in both -- it's very similar."

Soon Skenes not only had developed a better slider, but he had added considerable speed to his fastball. Suddenly a fastball that had usually topped out around 95 mph at Air Force was zinging across the plate at 100 mph or more.

"I feel like last year he was catching. He was swinging a bat. He was running the bases. He was potentially playing first base at times," Jay Johnson said. "Then, also, you know, going six or seven innings in a league that's not very easy to pitch in. I know that firsthand.

"I think kind of the simplicity of it, and then you take someone that is so driven, that says so disciplined, and get them on track with one thing. What does Friday to Friday look like? Then he has absolutely mastered that. When you are talking about recovery, when you are talking about development, velocity improvement, improving his secondary pitches, he has been able to go all-in on those things."

It obviously has worked out brilliantly. Simple is smart.

By mixing his three improved pitches - the fastball with more zip, the slider with more bite, and the changeup that is even more dynamic when paired with the other two - Skenes put together one of the greatest pitching seasons in SEC history. He ultimately finished the season with a 12-2 record and a SEC record 209 strikeouts in just 122.2 innings -- breaking the record previously owned by SEC baseball analyst Ben McDonald, who needed 152.1 innings to strike out his 202 in 1989 while pitching at LSU.

"When you keep it simple, it allows you to succeed in whatever the atmosphere may be," Skenes said.