HOUSTON — He was watching from his couch in November, just three miles from Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, when his friends and former team clinched the World Series. Mark Appel couldn't help but feel slightly bittersweet about it all.
Four years ago, everyone expected Appel to be on that field right alongside them. He was the hometown kid who was supposed to become the franchise cornerstone, whose mere selection in the MLB draft was top-shelf news in the Houston Chronicle sports section. Remember that 2014 Sports Illustrated piece predicting the Astros' 2017 World Series title? Open it up, and he's right there, wearing the orange and gold alongside World Series MVP-to-be George Springer and superstar shortstop-to-be Carlos Correa.
Appel was supposed to be the centerpiece of the rebuild, the Joel Embiid to the Astros' Process.
Instead, they did it without him.
In 2013, the Astros chose Appel with the No. 1 pick, one selection ahead of Chicago Cubs MVP third baseman Kris Bryant. They signed him to a $6.35 million bonus after his senior year, when he posted a 2.12 ERA, struck out 130 batters and walked just 23 in 106.1 innings. Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated called him "as risk-free a pitcher pick as has ever been made," while Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow deemed Appel "the most significant investment the Astros have made in their history in an amateur player," per Brian McTaggart of MLB.com.
Evaluators expected Appel to reach the big leagues quickly, perhaps within a season, given his experience as a collegiate pitcher. But five seasons in pro ball, a 5.06 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP later, he still hasn't made the major leagues and only got as high as Triple-A. The Astros traded him two years ago as one of five pieces headed to the Phillies for closer Ken Giles.
And now, Appel is leaving the game behind, he tells Bleacher Report, taking an "indefinite break" from professional baseball. Should he never return to baseball, he would become just the third No. 1 overall pick to never make the major leagues, along with Brien Taylor of the New York Yankees (1991) and Steve Chilcott of the New York Mets (1966).
"Maybe we should all get together and have a party," Appel says with a laugh in his Houston home. "I don't know what the future holds. I'm pursuing other things, but also trying to become a healthy human."
Appel is rehabbing shoulder inflammation that hampered his 2017 season, but he has battled injuries his whole pro career. He pitched through soreness during his first season amid expectations that came with being a No. 1 overall pick, which only further exacerbated the pain. In 2016, he underwent season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur, and this season, as he sat alone in his Florida hotel room rehabbing his latest injury, Appel began to ponder life beyond the game.
"I'm 26, I have a Stanford degree, I have many interests beyond baseball, which I still love, but I have a lot of things I care about," Appel says. "I enjoy challenging my mind. My last four years in baseball have challenged my mind."
But the long minor league bus rides, the isolation during midseason injury rehab, the time away from his family—it all started to wear him down. The game he once loved wasn't as fun as it used to be. He'd lost his place in it. The team he was destined to star on was cruising to 101 wins, and he was rehabbing yet another injury. Asking himself the same question, over and over again.
Is baseball what he is supposed to be doing with his life?
There are often two windows through which to view life: expectation and reality.
Mark Appel never expected things to go perfectly, but he did expect things to go well. Harold Reynolds said at the 2013 MLB draft that he could be in the big leagues in August, two months later, and Appel, not knowing the level of talent in pro ball, didn't see why that couldn't become reality. He was the NCAA National Pitcher of the Year. MLB.com rated him the No. 17 prospect in baseball before 2014. The Sports Illustrated Astros prediction issue included a "dispatch from the future" from when Houston would win the World Series, stating "Right-hander Mark Appel, the 2013 No. 1 pick who arrived in the big league rotation in '16, was a Cy Young contender." Appel expected that of himself, too.
The reality: "There was times when I was the worst pitcher on my team," Appel says. "In 2014, maybe the worst pitcher in professional baseball."
That season, he could never get right. Appel underwent a surprise appendectomy before the year and pitched only five innings in spring training. Then, he was sent to Single-A Lancaster, host of—as he learned from teammates—one of the best hitting environments in baseball because of the wind currents. On top of that, there was a piggybacking system, which stacked starters, making them pitch every four days. Appel couldn't adjust and accumulated a 9.74 ERA in 44.1 innings. He didn't understand what was happening. He ran, he worked out, he went to the gym and prepared as much as he could, but whenever his turn to pitch came, the results were awful.
"I go out and pitch, and it's the same thing every time. I can't get an out," Appel says. "Walk. Hit. Walk. Hit. Then I'm out of the game. What just happened? Now it's like I have four days before I get my hopes up again, get excited, build that confidence, not caring what happened in the past. Then the same thing happens again."
He was having the worst season of his life—in a league of 20- and 21-year-olds. Ten starts in, on his 23rd birthday, Appel hit the mental reset button. He was scheduled to pitch the next day against the Visalia Rawhide, a chance to move past the 9.57 ERA he had posted as a 22-year-old.
Instead, he had the worst start of his life. Appel went 1.2 innings and allowed seven hits and seven runs while striking out two and walking one. He walked off the mound and watched the next inning before returning to the locker room, tears streaming down his face. He shut the door and screamed until his voice went hoarse. Across the locker room, about the distance from a pitching mound to home plate, he noticed a particle-board panel, and there was a baseball on the ground next to him. He picked it up and threw it across the locker room as hard as he could, 100 mph, aiming for the wood.
The ball broke through and hit the drywall behind it.
"That felt good," Appel thought. "I need to do more of that."
He grabbed a box of balls sitting above a locker. For 30 minutes, Appel threw 80 baseballs at the wall, cracking through the board and hitting the wall with a thud. When he was finished, he sat down, breathing heavily, grunting. Ten minutes after the noise ended, Appel's teammate, Josh Hader, walked out of the bathroom. He had heard the entire ordeal and was too scared to leave the stall. The pair laughed before Hader returned to the field and silence filled the room. Appel heard the crowd cheering outside, the air conditioner purring in the background.
After the game, Lancaster manager Rodney Linares assured Appel he would be fine, before disclosing he needed to pay for the repairs. The handyman quoted $600. It seemed like too much money for a simple repair, Appel thought. Instead, he figured he could repair it himself for a fraction of the cost.
So the next day, Appel visited Home Depot and picked up plywood, stain to match the wood and drywall mix. As he fixed the dents behind the destroyed plywood, Appel thought about one of his favorite Bible verses, Philippians 4:13. He recited the verse over and over again in his head. "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."
It's not unusual, of course, for an athlete to cite the passage while thanking God for their successes. But for Appel, it was about having the strength to endure struggle. Being the worst pitcher in professional baseball didn't mark the end of the world. Life would move on.
"I was in a place where I could enjoy my teammates' company, even if I wasn't playing well," Appel says. "Just enjoying that I do get to play baseball, being thankful for so many things God had provided. I think when you're caught up in the expectation and the pressure, you forget about it."
The next three seasons didn't go much better for Appel. He finished with ERAs of 4.37, 4.46 and 5.14 while tumbling down the prospect rankings. "Next year" is what he always heard. In 2014, 2015 would be the year he made his major league debut. In 2015, it was 2016. In 2016, it was 2017. Always one year away.
As he struggled, his friends—Springer, Correa, Jose Altuve, Lance McCullers Jr.—rose up to The Show and became stars while forming the core of a potential Astros dynasty. Meanwhile, on the North Side of Chicago, Bryant, whom many reported the Astros also considered at No. 1 in 2013, blossomed into one of the sport's biggest stars. Aaron Judge, chosen 31 spots behind Appel in 2013, became a 52-homer sensation. And Appel continued to grind away in the minors.
Sometimes Appel thinks about the what ifs. It's only natural when you watch your friends win the World Series. The Astros almost drafted him in 2012, when he declared as a junior, but Luhnow chose Correa instead, and Appel fell to the Pirates at No. 8 overall and returned to college instead of signing. He wonders what would have happened if the Astros selected Bryant and he went to the Cubs.
"Things are absolutely different," Appel says. "I don't know if I'm four-and-a-half years later wanting to step away from the game, but I'm sure it has to be different. I never go to Lancaster, and that was an introduction to pro ball in the worst way possible. ... If they choose me over Correa, do the Astros win a World Series?"
Appel doesn't dwell long on the hypotheticals, but he has begun to tell others of his struggles and journey. On a Wednesday during the World Series, Appel shared his testimony with the Sam Houston State baseball team. As a room full of pro baseball hopefuls stared back at him, Appel talked about how even as his major league dreams drained away, he remained hopeful.
"Do I want to be in the World Series? Do I want to be the guy? I thought three years ago, I thought I would be pitching Friday night, and I wouldn't be here," Appel told the team. "That was the expectation, the goal and the dream. God does things for reasons we sometimes can't understand and won't understand for years down the road or maybe never in this lifetime."
Given his status as the third player selected No. 1 overall not to make the majors, Appel freely accepts the label of biggest MLB bust of all time.
"It depends on how you define it, but I probably am," Appel says. "I had high expectations. I didn't live up to those for a number of reasons. If you want to call me the biggest draft bust, you can call it that. ... If I never get to the big leagues, will it be a disappointment? Yes and no. That was a goal and a dream I had at one point, but that's with stipulations that I'm healthy, I'm happy and doing something I love. If I get to the big leagues, what's so great about the big leagues if you're in an isolated place, you're hurt and you're emotionally unhappy? How much is that worth to you?"
Mark's brother, John, says he would not be surprised if a year from now, Mark feels the desire to come back to the game. Some scouts have suggested Appel become a reliever, following in the footsteps of former starters like Andrew Miller, Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar, who found success out of the bullpen.
For now, Appel is looking for an internship, potentially in private equity and business, and he's planning on applying to business school at Rice, Texas, Texas A&M, Stanford, Harvard, Penn, Northwestern and University of Chicago. He's excited to play Settlers of Catan or one of his 30 other board games with John, with whom he shares a one-floor home. He wants to turn the garage into a media room. And he's ready to just live in his house instead of renting it out on Airbnb, as he did last season.
It's time for him to set new goals and dreams.
"I'm a guy who loves a game, who had expectations, goals and dreams and then has had everything tumbling, and then everything was unmet," Appel says. "Would I have loved to be pitching in the World Series? Absolutely. Some people have real struggles. I played baseball. I thought I was going to be great, and I wasn't."
On a Saturday evening, Mark and John meet their dad, Pat, at Southwell's Hamburger Grill. Neon green lights line the joint, and a large American flag hangs over the water jug and condiments. Old photos are scattered across the wall as top-40 pop plays in the background. In a booth across the restaurant from the Appels sits a kid wearing a blue Astros cap and an orange Altuve shirsey, one that a few years before could have easily read "Appel."
As he chews his bacon cheeseburger, Mark begins to ponder his plans for March through October, time he's never had off before.
"I can go to weddings now. I can spend time with my family. I can look for an internship. Literally nothing is on my radar because nothing has ever been on my radar for life things, entertainment things, because I knew what I was doing," Mark says. "It didn't matter what other people were doing."
"It's a little weird to have control over your own life, isn't it?" Pat asks Mark.
"Yeah," Mark says.
After dinner, Mark drives his white Ford F-150 to a local bar to watch the Boston Celtics-Golden State Warriors game with John. As he zips down the Katy Freeway, past a large sign reading "We [Heart] Houston Astros," he talks about the future and the past, the expectations never meeting reality. The Phillies sent him their spring training welcome packet a few weeks back, before he talked with the team about his intention of taking a break from baseball. He hasn't ruled out coming back one day, but that's a decision for down the road and a day that may never come. He loves the possibilities of travel, the prospect of going back to school and the idea that he can go around the country and watch his friends play baseball. He loves his reality.
"Sometimes you wonder what would happen if one thing changed, how different your life would be," Appel says. "It makes me realize there's great intention [in] everything that's gotten you to where you are. But sometimes, you end up exactly where you're supposed to be."