28, Jun 2023
MLB Draft 2023: Three reasons why LSU ace Paul Skenes could be a risky No. 1 pick for the Pirates

On Monday, the LSU Tigers defeated the Florida Gators in dominant fashion to win the 2023 Men’s College World Series finals and secure the program’s seventh national championship (and first since 2009). The Tigers went 54-12 on the year, and fielded a roster that included possibly the No. 1 and 2 picks in the upcoming Major League Baseball amateur draft in outfielder Dylan Crews (this year’s Golden Spikes Award winner) and right-hander Paul Skenes.

CBS Sports recently ranked Crews as the best prospect in the draft class, noting that he’s held in high regard within the industry because of his well-rounded offensive skill set and his track record against top competition. Scenes’ impressive season (he struck out 48% of the batters he faced during conference play) has gained him enough support to inspire folks to ask: should the Pittsburgh Pirates instead draft him with the No. 1 pick? (Our own Dayn Perry found that even LSU fans seemed split on which player they’d select.)

It’s an interesting question, and one that the Pirates themselves have and will likely continue to debate between now and when they submit their pick on Sunday, July 9. For the sake of contributing to The Discourse, here’s our three-point argument against taking Scenes the No. 1 in this year’s class.

1. Attrition risk

If you’ve followed internet baseball analysis for any length of time, you’ve probably stumbled across the acronym “TINSTAAPP.” It stands for “There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.” While blanket declarations are often a bad idea, the point of TINSTAAPP is to remind folks of the differences in risk profiles between pitchers and hitters. The former group is far more likely than the latter to get injured and/or underperform than the latter. That doesn’t mean pitchers are without value, but it does mean that in situations where all else is equal, it’s usually wiser to take the hitter and find pitching elsewhere.

You might wonder if TINSTAAPP applies to the elite, or the kind of arms who would be selected No. 1. History suggests that it does — no matter how many times teams have tried to convince themselves otherwise. There’ve been 18 pitchers chosen first in the draft: of the 15 to sign and reach the majors, they’ve produced an average Wins Above Replacement total of 15.8 and a median of 12.8. For comparison, the position of players who signed and reached the majors have produced an average WAR of 23.5 and a median of 16.9.

That is, clearly, a shallow analysis that ignores a lot of pertinent factors and variables, but it’s a shallow analysis built upon the foundation of more comprehensive analyzes that spurred the creation of the acronym TINSTAAPP in the first place. We’re not saying that never works out, either: David Price, Stephen Strasburg, and Gerrit Cole are recent counterfactuals; we are saying that if all else is deemed equal, you should probably just take the hitter.

2. Rest of the class

Of course, you might argue that it’s not that straightforward in the capped-spending age. If Skenes is willing to sign for less money than Crews is, then the Pirates could use the savings to select better talent later in the draft. In other words, they could take the same portfolio approach they did in 2021, when they selected Henry Davis No.1 overall and then added three other top-50 talents using the savings from Davis’ fifth-ranked signing bonus.

We’ll consider that you cannot analyze a draft pick anymore without considering the financial component and the opportunity cost elsewhere in the class. We’ll also note that the argument rings are hollow in this particular class, where there are several other high-quality position players on the board, in outfielders Wyatt Langford, Walker Jenkins, and Max Clark.

Even if Skenes is willing to take less money than Crews, is he willing to do the same compared to those three? And, if so, are the (ostensibly reduced) savings worth the risk that comes with taking a pitcher? Without knowing exactly what number each player is looking for, it’s hard to attempt an answer.

In a vacuum, independent of these specific players and their specific asks, we’re inclined to believe that you should prioritize getting things right upfront when you have the No. 1 pick and then figuring out the rest of the draft later.

3. Fastball concerns

We’d be relieved if we ignored that evaluators had some concerns about Skenes’ game. The biggest involves the shape of his high-velocity four-seam fastball. Here’s what we wrote on the topic in our draft rankings::

Skenes is an imposing figure with upper-90s velocity and a strikeout rate of near 48% against SEC hitters. About 15 years ago, that would’ve been enough to land him higher on this list (and the belief is he might go as early as No. 2 overall, with several sources identifying him as the Nationals’ kind of pitcher). Those within the industry are convinced that ball-tracking data has improved their ability to evaluate pitches. Those advancements have made Skene a divisive figure, with scouts and analysts who spoke to CBS Sports expressing reservations about his fastball shape. The short version is that his four-seamer features minimal separation between its induced vertical break and its horizontal break, putting it in the “dead zone.” The fear is Skenes’ four-seamer will play down as a result, causing him to underperform draft night expectations. Consider Nathan Eovaldi, another big-armed right with minimal separation; prior to this year, the opponent had hit .300 or better against his fastball in three consecutive seasons. Scenes’ velocity may mitigate some of the effect, and it’s possible his employer will help him find a better shape, or will have him shift to his sinker (his current one features more run than Dustin May’s). Factor in the probabilistic analysis argument that arises whenever a pitcher is part of a class loaded with good hitters, and that’s why he’s lower than you might have expected, even if he still goes No. 2.

The modern players, and especially the modern pitchers, can improve in an instant these days. It’s certainly possible that Sknes finds a workaround and the above is forgotten as quickly as his average fastball reaches the plate.

There’s a reason those inside the industry who spoke to CBS Sports unanimously preferred Crews as the top player in this class, however, and it wasn’t because they were ignorant or otherwise unaware of Sknes’ game. They simply liked Crews more, and felt more confident in his chances of becoming a high-quality contributor. Scenes may prove them wrong in those assertions, but when it comes to the draft, all you can do is make the best decision possible with the information you have available to you at the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *