The stars should be aligning for Stanford right-hander Mark Appel. Appel has so many factors going in his favor as the 2012 MLB Draft and the Houston Astros’ decision about who to take first overall approaches. He’s a 6’5″, 215 right-hander who may have a little projection remaining. He hits the high-90′s with his four-seam fastball and the low to mid-90′s with his two-seamer with dynamic movement. And his secondary pitches are impressive as well: he has a dominating slider and a changeup that has made huge strides. Appel has the repertoire of a first overall pick. And Appel was actually born in Houston, so the Astros are technically his hometown team. Yet one month before the draft, there’s still a debate whether Appel is worthy of the first overall pick.
Appel has been inconsistent with his pitches. He has experienced troubles commanding his four-seamer, and his slider has flattened out at times. His changeup has made progress but still has not become a completely dependable pitch for him. The fluctuations in Appel’s arsenal have manifested itself in Appel’s stats this season and in years past.
In 2011, Appel went 6-6 with 16 starts for Stanford, including two complete games, with a 3.02 ERA, 86 strikeouts (7.0 K/9), 29 walks (2.4 BB/9), and 2 homers allowed (0.2 HR/9) in 110.1 IP. He also hit 8 batters, 0.7 per 9 innings, and you can add that to his BB/9. Appel’s FIP was a nice 2.88. But what was so alarming was the low strikeout rate despite his great stuff and also the fact that he allowed 114 hits in his 110.1 innings, another measure of the fact that he could not dominate hitters. Thus far in 2012, Appel has gone 7-1 with a 2.72 ERA, 85 strikeouts (8.9 K/9), 20 walks (2.1 BB/9), and 2 homers allowed (0.2 HR/9) in 11 starts, including 3 complete games, and 86 IP. Appel has allowed 72 hits, a nice 7.5 H/9, but he also has hit 8 batters, which would raise his BB/9 to 2.8. And even though Appel has upped his strikeout rate, people are still worried about it. Appel hasn’t exactly dominated the way a number one overall pick should. Look at this table of the stats in their senior season of the last five first overall picks who were college pitchers along with Appel.
Appel doesn’t compare to favorably to these players other than Hochevar, who we know has been mostly a bust in the major leagues, and if you add in hit-by-pitches, Appel’s strikeout to walk and HBP ratio is 3.04, not far from Hochevar. Why can’t Appel dominate the way his stuff dictates that he should?
Appel has pitched much better in 2012 compared to 2011 in terms of ERA and peripherals, with the spike in strikeout rate standing out the most. But he still hasn’t made the type of strides that he has the ability to make. One thing to pick up on is that Appel has allowed 2 homers thus far in 2012 after allowing 2 in all of 2011. But that is misleading. Appel allowed 26 extra-base hits in 2011 (20 doubles) compared to just 16 in 2012. In other terms, Appel allowed 2.1 extra-base hits per 9 innings in 2011 and just 1.67 in 2012 (Stanford’s team average is 2). But in terms of percentage of hits for extra-bases, Appel’s mark has remained just about the same for both years (22.8% in 2011, 22.2% in 2012). Appel has allowed hits at a much lower rate in 2012 compared to 2011, but when he has made mistakes, they have been punished just about as often. What is going on here?
Mark Appel is not a Stephen Strasburg who is renowned for his command and control. Strasburg walked just 1.6 batters per 9 innings in his senior season at San Diego State and he has walked 1.8 per 9 in his 23 big league starts. Appel, in sharp contrast, has struggled with command the past couple of seasons. But there’s such a thing as being effectively wild. Appel isn’t nibbling and the corners anymore. He understands that he has to challenge hitters and that he has the stuff to blow it by them consistently. Appel has struggled through a lack of command of his four-seam fastball at times, especially at higher velocities. But the reason for that is not sloppy mechanics or trouble repeating his delivery- it’s because of it’s outstanding late bite. Mark Appel is not a guy who is going to beat you every time by dotting the corners with an unhittable pitch like Strasburg. He’s going to be telling you “here it is, hit it.” Good luck to hitters attempting to do that. And if Appel can get better command of his four-seam fastball that touches triple digits in velocity, the strikeouts will come and come in bunches. There is a lot of risk involved in Appel compared to Strasburg or Gerrit Cole because of his command issues. But the ability to be a dominant ace in the major leagues remains firmly in Appel’s grasp.