Skenes led the Tigers to victory in the Men’s College World Series, but he is not without controversy.
The LSU Tigers won the 2023 Men’s College World Series finals and the program’s sixth national championship (and first since 2009) on Monday with a convincing victory against the Florida Gators. The Tigers finished the season 54-12, and their roster featured outfielder Dylan Crews, the Golden Spikes Award winner this year, and right-hander Paul Skenes, who may be selected Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2018 Major League Baseball amateur draft.
A recent ranking by the noted that Crews is highly regarded in the business due to his well-rounded offensive skill set and his record against elite competition. He was ranked as the greatest prospect in the draft class. Skenes has had such a strong season—he struck out 48% of the hitters he faced during conference play—that some people are asking whether the Pittsburgh Pirates should have selected him with the first overall pick instead. (Our own Dayn Perry discovered that even LSU supporters are undecided about which athlete they would pick.)
It’s a fascinating query, and the Pirates themselves have debated it and probably will do so until they make their selection on Sunday, July 9. Here is our three-point justification for not awarding Skenes the top spot in the class of this year, in the interest of adding to The Discourse.
1. Attrition risk
If you’ve spent any time following baseball analysis on the internet, you’ve probably heard of the abbreviation “TINSTAAPP.” The phrase means “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.” The purpose of TINSTAAPP is to remind people of the variations in risk profiles between pitchers and hitters, even though broad generalizations are frequently a terrible idea. Injury and/or underperformance are much more likely to occur in the former group than the latter. Although it doesn’t imply that pitchers have no worth, it does imply that, when all other factors are equal, it is typically savvier to select the hitter and look for pitching elsewhere.
Paul Skenes….New Single Season SEC Record Holder for Strikeouts. pic.twitter.com/Zv7ejgmzfN
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 22, 2023
You might be curious as to whether TINSTAAPP is applicable to the elite or the kind of weapons that would be chosen No. 1. Despite how many times teams have attempted to persuade themselves to the contrary, history suggests that it does. 18 pitchers were selected first overall in the draft; of the 15 who signed and made it to the major leagues, their average and median Wins Above Replacement totals were 15.8 and 12.8 respectively. Position players that signed and made it to the majors have generated an average WAR of 23.5 and a median of 16.9, for comparison.
That is undoubtedly a superficial analysis that misses many important features and variables, but it is a shallow analysis built on the foundation of deeper, more thorough investigations that were the initial inspiration for the TINSTAAPP acronym. David Price, Stephen Strasburg, and Gerrit Cole are recent counterfactuals, so we’re not claiming it never works out; rather, we’re saying that if everything else is equal, you should probably just choose the hitter.
2. Rest of the class
Of course, you may counter that in the era of spending caps, it’s not really that simple. The Pirates might use the money they save to select better players later in the draft if Skenes is prepared to sign for less money than Crews is. In other words, they might use the same strategy as their 2021 portfolio, when they chose Henry Davis as their top pick overall and added three other top-50 players with the money they had saved from Davis’ fifth-ranked signing bonus.
We’ll admit you can’t evaluate a draft pick these days without taking the financial aspect and the opportunity cost elsewhere in the class into account. Additionally, the outfielders Wyatt Langford, Walker Jenkins, and Max Clark are three other excellent position players in this class that make the argument seem hollow.
Paul Skenes, Disgusting 88mph Changeup followed by a 99mph Heater.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 23, 2023
Skenes may be willing to accept less money than Crews, but does he have the same level of willingness as those three? If so, are the (ostensibly reduced) savings worth the risk involved in taking a pitcher, and if so, by how much? It’s challenging to try to provide a response without knowing the precise number that each player is looking for.
We’re inclined to think that you should put the emphasis on getting things right up front when you have the No. 1 selection and then figure out the rest of the draft after, in a vacuum, independent of these particular players and their particular requests.
3. Fastball concerns
We would be negligent if we failed to acknowledge that Skenes’ performance had some critics. The most notable is the design of his lightning-fast four-seam fastball. What we said about it in our draft rankings is as follows:
With a velocity in the upper 90s and a strikeout rate of close to 48% versus SEC hitters, Skenes is a commanding presence. That would have been enough to move him up this ranking about 15 years ago (and it’s thought he might move as high as No. 2 overall, with numerous sources describing him as the Nationals’ kind of pitcher). Industry professionals are persuaded that their ability to assess pitches has increased as a result of ball-tracking data.
Skenes has become polarizing as a result of these improvements, with scouts and analysts who commented having concerns about the shape of his fastball. The short version is that his four-seamer is in the “dead zone” since there is little space between its induced vertical break and its horizontal break. Skenes might so underperform expectations from draft night if his four-seamer performs worse than expected. Take into account Nathan Eovaldi, a similar big-armed righty with little separation; prior to this year, opponents had hit. In three straight seasons, his fastball has been rated at 300 or higher. Given his speed and the fact that his present shape has more run than Dustin May’s, it’s possible that Skenes’ employer may help him discover a better shape or ask him to switch to it. He is ranked lower than you may have anticipated, even if he still finishes at No. 2, when you take into account the probability analysis argument that arises whenever a pitcher is a member of a class that features a lot of talented hitters.
These days, players, and pitchers in particular, may instantly get better. It’s possible that Skenes comes up with a solution and the aforementioned is forgotten as quickly as his typical fastball gets to the plate.
But there’s a reason why everyone in the business who spoke, thought Crews was the best player in this class, and it wasn’t because they didn’t know anything about Skenes’ skill. Simply put, they liked Crews better and had more faith that he would develop into a valuable contributor. Skenes might disprove those claims, but you can only make the best choice you can with the knowledge you have at the time when it comes to the draft.