When it comes to the No. 1 overall pick in the amateur draft, there’s usually a strong belief that the specific player—hitter or pitcher—will be able to reach the major leagues quickly and make an immediate impact for his drafting organization.
In 2013, the Houston Astros selected Stanford right-hander Mark Appel with the No. 1 pick, just one year after he turned down signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates as the No. 8 overall pick. As expected, the organization put the 22-year-old on the fast track to the major leagues, giving him a taste of a full-season level in his professional debut late last summer, with the goal of moving him up the minor league ladder at an accelerated pace.
However, Appel’s highly anticipated 2014 campaign hasn’t unfolded as expected, as he’s already dealt with numerous injuries and generally lacked consistency from start to start.
After the annual winter meetings in early December, Astros manager Bo Porter stated that Appel might make the team’s Opening Day roster if he were one of the team’s five best starters in major league camp (via the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drelich).
Unfortunately, Appel wouldn’t have the opportunity to prove himself during spring training, as he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy in late January. His recovery was slower than expected and kept him from making his Grapefruit League debut until March 26.
With no chance of cracking the Astros’ Opening Day roster, Appel was assigned to High-A Lancaster in the California League, where the organization employs a piggyback rotation in which starters work every fourth day rather than the once-a-week outings he had grown accustomed to at Stanford.
His highly anticipated first full professional campaign began ominously, as Appel allowed three runs on six hits and lasted only 2.1 innings in his season debut. Meanwhile, the right-hander’s fastball, which normally registers in the 94-98 mph range, was gunned at 89-91 mph in the outing (via Ron Shah of Baseball Prospectus).
Appel showed slight improvement over his next two starts, posting a 10-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio over eight total innings, but still yielded five earned runs on eight hits (two home runs) during that span. The 22-year-old had his next turn in the rotation skipped as a result.
However, the additional rest didn’t help the Appel get back on track as hoped. His struggles continued in his April 23 start, as he allowed three runs on six hits and was chased from the game after only 2.1 frames.
After posting a 6.23 ERA and allowing 17 hits in 13 innings during the first month of the season, Appel was sent back to extended spring training to work through his issues. At the time, general manager Jeff Luhnow noted (via Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle) that the right-hander’s stuff “wasn’t as crisp as it normally was” during his stay at Lancaster.
Luhnow also spoke with Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports about the organization’s decision:
It was really my fault. I made a decision to send him out to Lancaster to have him try and build up there, to try to catch up for the time he missed in Florida. He ended up pitching twice on a four-day cycle and then he skipped a start and pitched on an eight-day cycle. It wasn't like he was in the tandem for a month and couldn't handle it.
I happened to be there last week. I watched his start. I talked to him afterward. You could just tell he was not in the flow of pro ball, irrespective of five-day, four-day, six-day. He hasn't gotten conditioned to throwing and resting, throwing and resting, the way you need to get conditioned in order to be in a five-man rotation, much less a four-man.
Appel spent the next month pitching in extended spring training games at the organization’s facility in Florida. He was reportedly sitting at 95 mph with his fastball (while hitting 98 mph) in his final start.
Yet the right-hander’s return to Lancaster on May 31 was an absolute disaster, as he was shelled for 10 runs on 10 hits (three home runs) in just 1.1 innings.
According to J.J. Cooper of Baseball America:
Appel’s outing in late May was one of the worst by a top college draftee this century. Arguably, it was the worst. Baseball America looked at every minor league start by a college pitcher—in their first two pro seasons—picked in the top three picks in the 21st century. Judged by game score [-5], Appel’s ranked dead last.
Appel’s struggles carried over into June despite receiving additional rest between starts, as he finished the month with a 6.92 ERA in 13 innings over three outings. He allowed 17 hits during that span, including two home runs, while recording eight strikeouts against two walks.
Meanwhile, it was more of the same in Appel’s latest start on July 4, as he allowed three runs on five hits (one home run) in five innings while striking out three batters and walking a pair.
Overall, Appel has pitched to an 8.91 ERA in nine starts this season, with 26 strikeouts and nine walks in 32.1 innings. Meanwhile, the 49 hits he’s allowed during that span (eight of which left the ballpark) translates to a .355 opponents’ batting average.
Furthermore, Appel specifically has struggled with runners on base this season, with a 15.00 ERA and .368 opponents’ batting average in 18 innings. When the bases are empty, he owns an excellent 1.26 ERA in 14.1 innings, though opposing hitters are still batting .343 against him in those scenarios.
So, what’s to make of the former No. 1 overall pick’s struggles so early in his career?
While Appel’s appendectomy during the offseason obviously set him back, it doesn’t account for his poor showing this season at Lancaster. The same goes for his ability to adjust to the hitter-friendly California League and the Astros’ piggyback rotation in the low minors.
We shouldn’t have to search for silver linings in his starts or have to justify his performances with thoughts such as “at least he completed five innings” and “at least he gave up only three runs.”
When I ranked Appel as the sport’s No. 25 prospect headed into the season, I noted in his write-up that “while his arsenal ranks as one of the more advanced and polished among pitching prospects, Appel’s approach and feel for sequencing may need to be adjusted as he climbs the ladder.” Basically, I was skeptical of his ability to make a smooth transition to professional baseball after four seasons at Stanford, including junior and senior campaigns in which he was unchallenged by opposing hitters.
I hope that is likely the best explanation given Appel’s hittability and overall shaky performance this season. If not, then I worry that the right-hander might be suffering from an undisclosed injury, which, in turn, could affect the trajectory of his still-promising career.
The good news is that Appel is still young and he has plenty of time to turn things around and emerge as Houston’s ace.