How Paul Skenes was shaped by Colorado and the Air Force Academy

Before becoming a star for LSU, Paul Skenes spent three years at the Air Force Academy, which helped him grow into the pitcher he is today.

Paul Skenes of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch in the third inning of his major league debut during the game against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.
PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 11: Paul Skenes #30 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch in the third inning of his major league debut during the game against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park on May 11, 2024 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

DENVER — Paul Skenes has quickly made a name for himself in the world of Major League Baseball.

Even before he burst onto the scene as the No. 1 pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, the name Paul Skenes carried weight in the Centennial State.

Skenes is a unicorn. Which is saying something during this time in which every team is encouraging velocity in order to breed their own mythical creatures. In a world in which velocity has become everything, Skenes has that. And a lot more. 

He owns the fastest pitch (101.9 mph) by a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher since data tracking began in 2008. Skenes has already thrown the most pitches of 100.0-plus mph in franchise history. His 60 in six starts is more than the previous record of 33 set by Gerrit Cole during his 127 starts over five seasons with the club.

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Skenes is an outlier even when compared to his peers in 2024. His nine pitches at 101.0-plus mph are more than any other starter this season. Seven of the top 10 hardest thrown pitches by a starter are owned by him.

His talents are not just because of his propensity to light up a radar gun — or high-speed cameras in the case of all 30 MLB ballparks these days — but his ability to effectively command four pitches and keep hitters uncomfortable. Each of his four-seamer, splinker, slider and curveball have a whiff percentage of 26.7% or higher. A fifth pitch, changeup, is at 20%, but has only been thrown 19 times.

Take his second big league start as a great example about the effectiveness of his arsenal.

Skenes carried a no-hitter through six innings on the road and struck out 11 against the Chicago Cubs. He also recorded a strikeout for the first seven batters of the game, becoming only the third rookie ever to accomplish the feat.

In the 1,017 games the Pirates had played at Wrigley Field, no one had ever struck out 11 in a game. Until Skenes showed up.

Before he was striking out 46 in his first six career starts as the top pitching prospect in the sport, Paul Skenes was doing special things on big stages.

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Go back 11 months when he was pitching for LSU and starring in the 2023 College World Series. He went 1-0 with a 1.15 ERA during his two starts in Omaha as the Tigers secured their seventh National Championship. Skenes was named the College World Series Most Outstanding Player to go along with winning the Dick Howser Award for college player of the year.

He was the first overall pick by the Pirates soon after, signing for $9.2 million, the largest bonus ever handed out in the MLB Draft. 

Before all of that, Skenes’ odyssey to become one of the best players in the world started at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

“Colorado’s unlike anywhere else that I’ve ever been for a number of reasons,” Skenes said on Friday. “This has been an awesome, huge part of my life. I know we’re gonna come back here every single year and I’m looking forward to the trip.”

The Academy Is…

Skenes spoke at length with Denver media in the visiting dugout of Coors Field before the Pirates three-game series against the Rockies. A large group of beat reporters and television crews — including some who got to know Skenes when he called Colorado home — surrounded the phenom and peppered him with questions.

“There have been a lot of really great lessons that have come from the Air Force Academy that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” he said. “A big part of me wishes that I could have graduated from there and be doing what I’m doing right now, but it’s not super compatible in a lot of ways.”

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After three years of playing varsity baseball at El Toro (CA) High School, Skenes enrolled at AFA with aspirations of becoming a fighter pilot. He majored in military strategic studies and starred for the Falcons on the diamond as a two-way player.

In 2022, he earned the 2022 John Olerud Award as the nation’s best two-way player while both pitching and catching for the Falcons.

The owner of 24 Division I home runs, Skenes said he’ll occasionally swing a bat during the offseason. However, it’s the catching that he misses most. The coaches at The Academy have their catchers memorize scouting reports and call pitches. It was a leadership opportunity that positively impacted his abilities on the mound.

Skenes is third player from Air Force to reach the Majors and just the second pitcher following Griffin Jax of the Minnesota Twins, who visited Pittsburgh for a series last weekend.

“it was cool to be able to meet (Jax) and then I saw (AFA head coach Mike Kazlausky) this morning,” Skenes said. “So definitely a full circle thing in a couple of days over the last couple of weeks.”

Growing up in Lake Forest (CA)– a town that has produced four big leaguers, including All-Star Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman — Skenes grew up rooting for the Los Angeles Angels. Getting to facing Shohei Ohtani earlier this month, someone who inspired Skenes to pursue life as a two-way player, was a major moment for the 22-year-old.

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In less than two years since leaving the Academy, he’s accomplished tons and been a part of a lot, too.

“I think there are probably those moments (of reflection) every day,” he said. “We’re getting chartered flights, staying in nice hotels and I got these guys as my teammates. So I think you’re forced to have those moments every day. At the end of the day, you gotta go out there and pitch and do your job and try to do that well and so that kind of snaps me out of it pretty quickly.”

Coors Connections

Another big reflective moment that he’s placed aside his debut and facing Ohtani is suiting up beside a player he recently rooted for at Coors Field when the made the hour drive up from Colorado Springs.

“We would always get the tickets up top there and then just work our way down,” Skenes said, gesturing to the Rockpile. “Cool thing is I’m playing with one of the folks that I was watching on the field in Connor Joe.”

Joe, who spent the same summers in Colorado as Skenes from 2021-22, had nothing but words of praise for the rookie who made his debut last month at age-21.

“I didn’t even know that in spring training,” Joe said of Skenes’ age. “I found that out like a week after he got called up. It surprised me because I would have never guessed that. The way he carries himself in the clubhouse, about his work. He’s a pro and thinking that he’s 10 years younger than me and to think about where I was when I was 21 — I wasn’t ready to be in a big league clubhouse with grown men. That’s what’s really impressive about Paul’s how he carries himself as an athlete.”

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A veteran catcher of 13 big league seasons, Yasmani Grandal also identified Skenes’ preparation as a secret to his success.”

“It’s pretty impressive to see him going through the daily routine and what he does in between starts,” Grandal said. “We already know what he’s got on the mound and the ability that he has when he’s on the mound, but I think the work in between starts allows them to get to the point where he’s at right now.”

Rocky Mountain Heights

Skenes won’t be pitching in Denver on Father’s Day as previously expected. His parents were going to make the trip for the start, but thought otherwise once the decision was made to save Skenes for a divisional matchup against the Cincinnati Reds beginning on Monday.

Pitching a mile above sea level wasn’t really going to be a problem for the top pitching prospect in baseball. Two years ago, Skenes threw eight innings of one-run ball at Falcon Field against Mountain West rival San Jose State. He had a 2.73 ERA that season, but an even lower 1.90 ERA in Colorado Springs. Do that 60 miles north in Denver and you’ll have just about every franchise record in the books.

“I want to say the third game in that series, we gave up about 30 runs on Senior Day. Which is funny to think about. I mean it is Colorado,” Skenes quipped.

When asked if he had been looking forward to face the challenge of pitching at altitude, Skenes was not short on confidence.

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“I pitched at 7,200 feet for two years, so it can’t be harder than that. That’s how I see it,” he said.

Forever AFA

Skenes still views himself as an ambassador for the Air Force Academy. Both on and off the field.

For every strikeout he records this season, he has pledged to donate $100 to the Gary Sinise Foundation to support our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need. He even received support from ESPN’s Pat McAfee to match Skenes’ donation at the end of the season. 

“Anything that I can do or any of us can do to bring eyes and ears to the Air Force Academy is good, especially with how much that it affected me, so I want to keep that going as long as I can,” said Skenes. “The tough part is, for me, I get labeled as an LSU guy because obviously I got drafted out of there. But I’m just as much Air Force guy as an LSU guy.”

Returning to Colorado was an emotional experience, according to Skenes. The memories, the relationship and the lessons he learned there. All of that thanks to The Academy.

“You can’t get worse there,” he said. “The only thing that can happen from being at the Air Force Academy is you get better just because of the people that are surrounding you.”

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