Every year, the sports card hobby is wrapped in anticipation of the progress and projected debut of the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft.
This year, the needle is jumping with a bit more bounce.
Paul Skenes, the first overall pick selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates, is already considered the best power pitching prospect in the last ten years. He has a 100+ mph fastball and a devastating slider. Pitching for the LSU Tigers, he was almost unhittable in the SEC, which is the best conference in college baseball. He then led his team to a College World Series title.
In 19 starts, he was 12-2 with a 1.69 ERA and struck out 15.3 batters per nine innings. He was both the NCAA Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year, and ended his collegiate career by winning the College World Series MVP Award. He punched out 203 batters, which broke Ben McDonald’s records for most strikeout in a season at both LSU and in the SEC.
That, alone, would grab the hobby’s attention. But what really has collectors and the entire industry drooling is what he can do at the plate.
“I want to hit, but I definitely think I’m a pitcher first,” Skenes said in an ESPN video shortly after being announced as the first overall pick.
John Olerud Award
Skenes played at Air Force before transferring to LSU for his junior year. In 2022 as a sophomore, Skenes won the John Olerud Award as the top two-way player in college baseball. Offensively, he hit .314/.412/.634 with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs. As a pitcher, Skenes went 10-3 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 15 starts. What was especially impressive was that the 6’6.5”, 260-pound Skenes was the team’s catcher when he did not pitch. Being one of the best pitchers in the country is not a usual way for a catcher to spend his day off.
Skenes has said that the reason he improved so much as a pitcher in 2023 was that he was exclusively a pitcher, and that he did not have the physical demands of being a position player at the same time. But there is a big difference between being a DH on a non-pitching day and being a catcher, the most tolling position in baseball.
During his career at Air Force, Skenes played in 99 games and hit .367 with 125 hits, 24 home runs and 81 RBIs. He hit 31 doubles.
While he was drafted as a pitcher and being a pitcher is his top priority, Skenes is intrigued with what Shohei Ohtani is doing this year on the mound and at the plate. On a Sunday Night Baseball telecast last month, he was asked by Michael Kay and Alex Rodriguez if he would like to hit on top of being a pitcher.
“Absolutely,” Skenes replied. “Obviously, I didn’t hit this past year, but I’ve hit. I was actually a primary hitter coming into college and then I just started pitching my senior year of high school and it kind of blossomed into what it is now. But I’m 6-foot-7 and I’ve caught my whole life. I don’t know how that totally works. But yeah, I’ve hit my whole life and obviously started pitching the last few years. I’ve done both for the past few years and want to continue to do both as long as I can.”
That was the moment when every baseball card collector in the country who was watching put down their slice of pizza or half eaten cheese steak sandwich on got on eBay to look for some of Skenes’ earliest cards.
Skenes is very realistic about what it would take to be a two-way player in the Major Leagues. He talked about it in a July 10 interview with the Pittsburgh Gazette.
“It’s possible to be elite both ways, but it takes a lot of time, energy and effort to do so,” Skenes said. “Just how my body works, having long limbs, having so much rotation in my hips, it was very taxing on my body to do both, especially right-handed.
“Going into the preseason, I was planning on hitting and pitching, but quickly the priority became making sure I was 100% healthy on the mound to put us in position to win every Friday night. That was the mindset, and it worked out. We won a national championship.”
In the same article, Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington did not rule out the possibility of allowing Skenes to hit.
“I guess what I would say about Paul is it doesn’t seem like one should bet against him,” Cherington said. “It hasn’t been our focus. I think we want to hopefully get Paul into the organization and get a sense of where he’s at.
“He’s obviously made incredible strides as a pitcher. We believe there’s more to come there. We know he’s had success as a hitter in the past. We just want to get with him, map out a progression, and we’ll start there and see how it goes.”
Skenes signed a contract and was given a $9.2 million signing bonus. Cherington said the 21-year-old draft pick will begin his pro career in the Florida Complex League. He has already thrown 122.2 innings this year, so the Pirates are being careful as they get him ready for the next level. Indications are that Skenes will make his Major League debut sometime in 2024. When that time comes, his MLB debut may lead to the most sought after Topps Now card in the history of the program.
Paul Skenes Baseball Cards
One thing that scares collectors are the comparisons with Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals pitcher is more known for being injured and shut down at various times than he is for being the 2019 World Series MVP.
There are similarities between them. They are both big power pitchers with hard fastballs, deceptive breaking balls and solid but underused change-ups. They both have a three-quarter arm delivery tunnel. What makes Strasburg injury-prone, according to some analysts, is how much of Strasbrug’s delivery and movement is behind him. Skenes has a different delivery style. He has a compact pitching motion and keeps everything in front of him. That, plus the built up arm strength from being a catcher for many years, is expected to reduce the likelihood of him having the same kind if injury issues.
If Strasburg did not have the injury problems, he would easily be the most sought after pitcher in the hobby. After the 2019 World Series, he signed a seven-year, $245 million contract. Over the last four years, he has only eight starts and one win. His once red hot rookie cards have tanked.
Skenes got his first baseball cards in 2019. He is included in the 2019 Leaf Perfect Game National Showcase set with a base card and numerous serial-numbered autograph parallels. He also appeared in Panini’s USA Baseball Stars & Stripes product including a Kaboom insert, two base carsds and a slew of serial-numbered variations. He also has cards in the 2023 Onyx Vintage product with a base card and various parallels and signatures.
Several of his cards have already brought $500 or more on eBay, where over $90,000 worth of Skenes cards in all have sold over the last few months.
Skenes is expected to have his first Bowman card in 2024. His official rookie card will be out after he makes his MLB debut.