It’s less than two week away from the beginning of the NCAA baseball season, and one of the best players in college baseball will be putting on his cleats for the Air Force Falcons.
I enjoy following the Falcon baseball team, but information about the players and overall outlook for the team is sketchy at best, and I don’t scour the internet for news like I do for the football team. Last year, the Falcons opened their season against perennial college baseball powerhouse LSU. In the second game of the series, the Falcons pulled off the upset, winning 6-5, so I pulled up the box score to check out what happened. I noticed the Falcons had a freshman player that had started at catcher, and then had taken off the “tools of ignorance” to take the mound as a relief pitcher in the bottom of the ninth with a two run lead. He allowed a home run to Perfect Game National Freshman of the Year Dylan Crews but shut down three other batters, striking out 2 to notch the save.
The player’s name was Paul Skenes, and he went on to have one of the best seasons ever by a Falcon, both as a batter and as a pitcher.
As a batter, Skenes led the team with a batting average of .410, 11 homeruns, a slugging average of .697, and tied for the lead in RBIs with 43. As a pitcher he was used strictly in late inning relief, and led the team with an ERA of 2.70, a WHIP of 1.09, a perfect 11 saves in 11 opportunities, and a batting average allowed of .208.
Post season awards were plentiful for Skenes. He was named Freshman of the Year by the Mountain West (he somehow lost out on Player of the Year). Several sources named him First Team All-American. He was invited to play for the US Collegiate National Team. He was invited to play in the prestigious Cape Cod League over the summer. He’s been named as first team preseason All-American for 2022 by Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game USA.
Scouting sites have listed him as a likely high round draft choice for Major League Baseball. Pitching is always in demand, and the scouts see him mostly as a pitching prospect. Skenes came out of high school with a fastball in the low nineties, but in his first year with the Falcons, his fastball was regularly in the mid nineties, sometimes in the upper nineties.
The interest from the pros leads to the question about Skene’s future at Air Force. In 2016, Griffin Jax had a breakout pitching year for the Falcons as a junior. The Minnesota Twins selected Jax in the draft and signed Jax to a contract. As a junior, Jax was committed to finishing his four years at the Academy and receiving his commission in the Air Force. The rules now allow an Air Force athlete to request a deferral to his service and become a Reserve officer, working his time out in the Reserves. Jax ended last season as the fifth starter for the Twins.
Skene’s status is different because he is now in his sophomore year. He would be able to leave the academy at the end of this year without a commitment. In recent interviews, Skene’s has voiced a desire to stay, but it’s possible that the allure of playing baseball in the big leagues could draw him out early. On the other hand, the grind of the minor leagues and the uncertainty of a baseball career might convince Skenes to stay and ensure a nice future. He seems to be a good fit for the military lifestyle. The MLB rules of the draft do not allow Skenes to be drafted this year unless he withdraws from the Academy. He may be drafted at the end of his junior year, and if he signs a contract, he would not be eligible to play for the Falcons as he finishes his senior year.
Last season, Skenes ended up playing a lot as the designated hitter, as the Falcons have a second All-Mountain West player at catcher, Braydon Altorfer. Altorfer hit .333 last year with 9 homeruns and 43 RBIs. He will be back this year as a senior, so we should see Skenes at DH again.
The prognosis for the Falcons largely depends on upgrading their starting pitching. They lose their top starter, John Burns, from last year, when they were a middle of the road Mountain West team.