CLEARWATER, Fla. — Mark Appel knows all too well the answer to this baseball brainteaser: “Who was the lone player taken before 2015 National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant in the 2013 MLB draft?”
Appel was that No. 1 overall pick, chosen by his hometown Houston Astros out of Stanford. Thirty-three months after being selected ahead of Bryant and everyone else in that draft, he has yet to throw a major league pitch.
His stat page on Baseball-Reference.com reads like an atlas of minor league flyover country—Tri-City, Lancaster, Quad Cities, Salt River, Corpus Christi and Fresno.
He has a 5.12 ERA in 253 minor league innings across four time zones.
All of it—the status and hype given to a top pick, the $6.35 million signing bonus, the pressure of being taken by the team you supported as a kid, the assumption of surefire stardom—has been equally a "blessing and a burden" for Appel.
"Not many people can identify with you, especially when things don't go well. It's hard to describe what that feeling is like. You have these ridiculous expectations. And I don't want my expectations dependent on what some team paid for me,” Appel told Bleacher Report.
“I look back and think, That was a dream. That didn't happen. It’s difficult to believe sometimes. You see how far you had to come just to get to that point, especially in times of struggle, and it shows how hard you can still go knowing you can accomplish your goals and dreams with hard work and effort.”
Appel was traded with four other pitchers (including Vincent Velasquez and Brett Oberholtzer) from Houston to Philadelphia for closer Ken Giles and shortstop Jonathan Arauz on December 12.
General manager Jeff Luhnow once called drafting and signing Appel “the most significant investment the Astros have made in their history in an amateur player” and added "we believe it's going to be a long-term relationship."
Fast-forward to this offseason, and Luhnow was explaining his rationale in dealing Appel to the Houston Chronicle’s Evan Drellich. “When you draft a player high in the draft, you expect him to contribute in the big leagues, and he hasn’t done that yet because he hasn’t had a chance … There’s no question that he has value, otherwise we wouldn’t be acquiring Ken Giles in return for him.”
Any dream of Appel playing for his hometown team as its premier prospect had been—somewhat mercifully—extinguished with that deal.
“It hurt being traded, for sure,” he said. “It felt like I let the Astros down and myself down. I had made so many friendships there, too. It was sad leaving some of those guys.”
It was the latest starting point in a pro baseball career that has been marked by anything but consistency.
"I've experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” he said. “Are you kidding me? If you told me just a year after being the No. 1 pick overall, I’d be sitting in High-A in the California League with a 10.80 ERA halfway through the season, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Appel's voice and demeanor lack any trace of anger. He is relaxed and resolute when discussing his past and future.
His selection came just one year after the Indianapolis Colts used the No. 1 overall NFL pick on fellow Stanford Cardinal Andrew Luck in 2012.
Appel shared a few physics classes with Luck on Stanford's campus. They both get paid to throw objects right-handed to a teammate with accuracy.
That’s where their professional similarities end. Luck is already a star. Appel just wants to earn his shot.
He begins 2016 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. At 6'5" and 220 pounds, he has the physical tools to be fiercely dominant. His fastball tops out in the upper 90s, and he flashes a plus slider and a changeup.
Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs recently wrote of Appel: “The problem is a general lack of feel, consistency and true command that makes his fastball too straight and hittable, the shape and location of his slider too unreliable and his changeup too straight."
In his first spring camp, Appel was recovering from an appendectomy. He threw just one inning. Last year, he was able to pitch routinely but was limited in building a pitch count.
Since he arrived at Philadelphia Phillies camp six weeks ago, his focus has been on physical conditioning, pitching stamina, baseball intelligence and emotional calm.
His goal is to build up to “more of a normal pitch count” of at least 90 to 100. When he’s not pitching and working out, he’s at home playing the guitar (Christian and country music), or rewatching the entire series run of the The Office on Netflix.
“I feel really good this spring. I got good work in at the big league camp. Hopefully, I showed them a little of what’s to come,” Appel said.
While that may sound neither glamorous nor encouraging to Phillies fans, he finds a reliable pattern is what he’s always craved. Even when he didn’t realize it.
“It’s all about building that routine. We want to be able to take a running start when the season starts.”
Appel threw four innings with the big-league Phillies this spring (1 ER, 4 BBs, 3 Ks) before officially being designated to the minor league camp. An unsteady performance against the New York Yankees was countered with a solid outing in Fort Myers against the Minnesota Twins.
What is to come of Appel remains merely an educated guess, but the Phillies are in no hurry to find out.
Philadelphia pitching coach Bob McClure is a former major leaguer who played parts of 19 seasons with seven different teams. “The way he throws, it kind of reminds me of [Mark] Prior. I’m talking about the shape of his pitches. He’s a big kid. He’s a horse,” McClure said.
McClure doesn’t want Appel to be the next Mark Prior. He wants him to be the first Mark Appel.
“We want him to be himself. You’re a No. 1 pick out of Stanford. Just have fun and be you. There’s no rules,” McClure said. “When you try and put [pitchers] in a box, you stop creativity and stop growth. There are certain things pitchers get boxed up in. Finding who you are shouldn’t be one of them.”
With Houston, Appel said he found himself expending time and effort working on certain pitches and situations, rather than being allowed to improve his overall performance.
“For example, you might spend an entire bullpen session working on a changeup, or a situational pitch, or a certain grip, instead of just throwing a regular bullpen,” Appel said.
Finding a nuanced spot for Appel won’t be a problem with the Phillies. They lost 99 games last season and are a consensus pick to finish far behind the New York Mets and Washington Nationals in the NL East.
Where Appel may have once been hurried to reach the majors in Houston, the clock has slowed significantly in Philadelphia. He also no longer carries the burden of being his hometown team’s No. 1 overall pick.
“I saw some No. 1s in the minor leagues when I was in Kansas City. I’ve seen other teams with them. It’s a hard burden,” McClure said. “Not everyone can live with it and perform up to the expectations of everyone else. Now, I’ve never been a No. 1 pick, but the hardest part [for any pitcher] is trying not to live up to what everyone else thinks you should be. Forget what everyone else expects. It doesn’t matter. What do you see your progression being?”
The tumultuous nature of Appel’s journey to the majors has reinforced his Christian faith, which he shares openly whenever the opportunity arises, including daily on his Twitter feed.
"Christianity is my identity. I have learned the secret of being content in all situations. It's not all about throwing strikes, or throwing 100 miles per hour, or hitting 500-foot home runs. It’s about being content in any and every circumstance,” he said.
“I learned through the lowest of lows that I wasn’t content. I don’t need a 2.00 ERA, and a 4-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And I don’t need to be in the big leagues at 22 in order to be content. As much as I love it, as much as I work hard at it, as much as I want to be successful at it, baseball is not my identity. I don't ever want it to be my identity. There are too many highs and too many lows and it will tear me up.”
Appel knows that expressing his faith, especially on social media, leaves himself open to criticism and cynicism. He has also found it offers support to many.
“A lot of people have a misconception of faith for a Christian athlete. Fans look at athletes who have been gifted by God, or worked very hard, guys like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. People think their sole purpose is to play baseball, and everything they do should be focused on baseball, or that their religion and faith should become a means for being better at baseball. That’s not right,” he said.
The limits of Appel’s faith, patience and maturity reached zero hour on July 16, 2014. It was one day after his 23rd birthday.
After being hammered for seven runs in less than two innings for Single-A Lancaster (Calif.), just a month-and-a-half after yielding 10 runs in 1.1 innings, Appel stormed into his team’s clubhouse.
Through tears of sadness and anger, he fired more than 50 baseballs into a three-quarter-inch particleboard wall next to his locker.
All the baseball doubts one could imagine flowed through him in a rage.
The wall was decimated. The experience was “therapeutic.”
If there would ever be a "bottom" in terms of his baseball career, he decided at that moment this would be it.
Appel faced a $500 fine, but he chose to repair the wall himself—with the caveat he would indeed pay the fine if the repair work wasn’t sufficient. The next day, after a couple of trips to Home Depot, he worked on the repair for about four hours.
He matched up the grains in the new high-grade oak plywood with those in the remaining walls and stained it all to near-perfection.
He likens the repaired wall to a healed soul.
“That was one moment that was so profound. It taught me a lot about my life. It was a turning point,” he said, of both the incident and sharing it on his blog. “I’m glad I did it. Players who are experiencing struggle tell me that they’ve read the blog and found it encouraging.”
McClure believes the final, finished version of Appel has yet to be created. “He’s got a lot of competitiveness in him that hasn’t gotten out yet because he was trying to please. He’ll evolve into whatever pitcher he can be. We just have to allow him to do it. We have to allow him room for failure, or to go backwards if necessary.”
And nearly three years after being drafted, he is finally at peace.
"The Bible talks about working with all your heart for the Lord and not for men. If you're working for the Lord every time you step on the field ... I think the fans and the Phillies will be OK with the effort you give."
Appel needed a fresh start. He can still become the star everyone thought he'd be.
The only pitcher ever taken No. 1 overall not to make the big leagues was Yankees 1991 pick Brien Taylor, whose rotator cuff was destroyed in a barroom fight.
The Phillies hope to stop him from being the second.
All quotes were obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report, unless otherwise specified.