Image credit: Jay Johnson (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The draft began with history Sunday night when LSU’s Paul Skenes and Dylan Crews went first and second overall, becoming the first teammates in MLB draft history to go back-to-back at the top of the draft. The fun continued for 68 more picks through the first two rounds of the draft.
From a college baseball perspective, here are some of the storylines that stood out Sunday evening.
1. LSU made draft history Sunday when Skenes and Crews went Nos. 1 and 2 overall, making them the first pair of college teammates to go back-to-back at the top of the draft. Previously, the closest any duo had come was Nos. 1 and 3, which had been done twice.
The distinction is yet another feather in LSU’s cap, coming on the heels of its seventh national championship last month, and the many honors the pair hauled in this season—Skenes was named Player of the Year and Crews won the Golden Spikes Award.
Coach Jay Johnson, who was a part of MLB Network’s draft coverage, had instant reaction from the desk to the historic feat.
“Can’t quantify it,” Johnson said on the broadcast. “If you want to be about development and you want to be about development for Major League Baseball, you’re seeing it tonight.”
The developmental stories of Crews and Skenes are different, in many respects. Crews was famous throughout his high school career and formally withdrew from the draft after his senior year of high school to play for LSU. Despite his fame and high ranking through much of his prep career, there were questions about his swing-and-miss after the 2019 showcase circuit. While he might have answered those questions if the 2020 season had not been interrupted by the pandemic, that was the knock on him out of high school.
At LSU, Crews worked hard to improve his plate discipline and eliminate some of that swing-and-miss. Johnson preaches the mental side of the game as much as anyone and the work Crews did on visualization and approach helped him make big advances in his plate discipline, to the point that he had a chase rate of 17% in 2023.
Skenes, meanwhile, spent two years at Air Force before transferring to LSU. He left the Academy due to the combination of military and MLB rules that would have made it difficult for him to remain at Air Force and pursue a baseball career at the highest level.
Skenes was a two-time All-American at Air Force as a two-way player—he was a catcher and righthander—but he hit another level at LSU. He stopped hitting to focus on pitching full-time for the first time in his career and became the best pitcher in the country. Under the tutelage of pitching coach Wes Johnson, he gained fastball velocity with the move, refined his command and improved an already strong changeup. Skenes also credited simply being able to get on a more normal schedule after the Academy’s demanding slate of academics and military training.
While they took different paths to LSU and to the top of the draft, Crews and Skenes will now be forever linked in both program and draft history.
2. Sunday night goes down as a massive win for LSU. In addition to Crews and Skenes, righthanders Ty Floyd (supplemental first round to the Reds) and Grant Taylor (second round to the White Sox) also were drafted, giving LSU four draft picks Sunday, the most of any team. Jay Johnson’s recruiting pitch based off the last month practically writes itself.
It also can be true, however, that it’s a little weird that teammates had never before gone first and second overall in nearly 60 years of the MLB draft. The NFL draft (which began in 1936) has had three instances of teammates going first and second, most recently in 2000 when Penn State’s Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington went 1-2. It’s happened in the NBA (its draft began in 1947) as Kentucky in 2012 saw Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist go 1-2. In the NHL, it happened just two years ago, as Michigan’s Owen Power and Matty Beniers went 1-2 and teammates Luke Hughes and Kent Johnson went fourth and fifth overall. In the WNBA, it’s happened four times since the draft began in 1997, most recently in 2020 when Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally went 1-2.
MLB’s unique draft setup—both high school and college players, no hard slotting, no players having to declare for the draft—helped keep a 1-2 punch from happening before Sunday. But, in this case, the Pirates and Nationals didn’t overthink it and selected the two best players in the draft.
3. The SEC and ACC far and away had the most players drafted Sunday, with the SEC edging the ACC, 13-12. The SEC had a commanding lead in first-round picks as well, with seven selections to the ACC’s three.
None of that is a surprise. But in an upset, the Big Ten came in third behind the SEC and ACC with five draft picks Sunday, including two first-rounders. The Big Ten had as many players drafted in the top 70 picks as the Pac-12 (four) and Big 12 (one) combined.
Maryland shortstop Matt Shaw, the conference’s player of the year, unsurprisingly led the way, going 13th overall to the Cubs. Nebraska shortstop Brice Mathews also went in the first round, as the Astros took him 28th overall. Nebraska second baseman Max Anderson, Michigan State shortstop Mitch Jebb and Rutgers outfielder Ryan Lasko all followed.
What does that mean for the Big Ten? Well, you can be sure that all 13 Big Ten coaches will have it in their recruiting pitch that you can get drafted—and highly—from the conference. I also think it’s notable that Shaw became the highest pick in program history and Jebb and Lasko were their program’s highest since Mark Mulder (1998) and Todd Frazier (2007), respectively.
Is this going to make anyone take Big Ten baseball more seriously? Realistically, probably not. The conference either needs to have days like this regularly or win more on the field to change the perception. But after a couple tough draft years for the conference—there wasn’t a Big Ten player drafted in the top 50 in either of the last two years—it goes down as a solid win.
4. The two college players I’m most intrigued by going into Monday are Duke shortstop Alex Mooney and Texas righthander Tanner Witt. It’s not surprising that neither was drafted Sunday—Mooney ranks No. 83 on the BA 500, Witt is No. 122—but it also wouldn’t have been surprising if a team had grabbed one or both.
The break between Day 1 and 2 is always an interesting time as teams reassess the board and signability. Both Mooney and Witt make for intriguing cases, Mooney because he’s a draft-eligible sophomore and Witt because he didn’t pitch until May 1 as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery. Both Duke and Texas this season made super regionals and have Omaha aspirations for 2024.
If Mooney or Witt were to return, they’d be All-American candidates and have the potential to play in the CWS. But they also on Monday may be offered a large amount of money to turn pro. Their decisions will weigh heavily on the 2024 season for the Blue Devils and Longhorns.
5. Arkansas and Vanderbilt tied for the most recruits drafted Sunday, as each saw four of its commits drafted. That doesn’t come as a surprise, as the Razorbacks and Commodores were Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2023 recruiting class rankings on Signing Day.
Vanderbilt saw its four highest-ranked players drafted—outfielder Max Clark (5), lefthander Thomas White (19), shortstop George Lombard Jr. (31) and lefthander Alexander Clemmey (49). The attention now moves to whether the Commodores can hold on to the rest of their class. If they do so, it would still be one of the stronger ones nationally.
Things weren’t so straightforward for Arkansas. The Razorbacks saw their top two commits drafted—infielders Aidan Miller (20) and Walker Martin (24)—in addition to shortstop Nazzan Zanetello (110) and outfielder Kendall George (114). On the flip side, Arkansas did get good news as lefthander Adam Hachman formally withdrew his name from the draft. He ranked No. 94 before that decision. With Hachman now firmly committed, if Arkansas retains the rest of its class, it would still be in the mix at the top of the recruiting class rankings. Monday will be a big day for the Razorbacks.
On Signing Day, UCLA ranked No. 3, behind Arkansas and Vanderbilt. And while the Razorbacks and Commodores were hit hard, the Bruins’ class did not have a player selected Sunday. UCLA also got good news over the weekend when infielder Roman Martin officially opted out of the draft. The Bruins in 2021 had the top-ranked recruiting class. The way things are trending, they could be putting together another top-ranked class.