This is not how it was supposed to be, not for a number one overall draft pick. Certainly not for Mark Appel.
Appel was supposed to move quickly, to take his overpowering three-pitch mix,clean delivery and Stanford moxie and roll through the lower levels, possibly be in the majors after less than one full minor league season.
It’s why Houston drafted him with the first pick in last year’s draft. It’s why he was able to walk away when Pittsburgh wouldn’t give into his bonus demands after they selected him eighth overall in 2012.
But a year after he was drafted, Appel is not in Houston, or even on his way. Instead, nearly a year after being drafted, he is at what he described in an interview for MLB Network Radio last Sunday as the “low of lows.” That blunt, if bleak, assesmant came in the wake of a performance rarely seen from a first overall pick. Pitching for High-A Lancaster, Appel was lambasted for ten runs in just an inning and a third.
The outing raised Appel’s ERA to 11.93, partially because he has only managed to make five starts this season. And in those five starts, he’s thrown only 14.1 innings. This year has evidently not gone according to plan.
It’s somewhat surprising, too, because Appel was almost universally expected to move quickly through the minors.
Here are the scouting reports on Appel leading up to last year’s draft. From ESPN’s Keith Law: “polished… clearly the top talent in this year’s class.” From Nick Faleris of Baseball Prospectus: “it would be a surprise if he were not a fixture in his draft org’s rotation by mid-2014.” And from Minorleagueball’s Jonathan Sickels last August: “his talent was obvious….should be ready for Houston sometime next summer.”
And just look at the trajectory of other recent college starters taken first overall. Gerrit Cole, the number one pick from 2011, steamrolled through the minors with a 2.80 ERA in his first professional season and was called up less than halfway through his second. David Price, the first pick from 2007, was dominating as a closer in the playoffs by the end of his freshman campaign. And then of course there is Stephen Strasburg, although his is a rather unique case.
Sickels and Faleris anticipated an MLB promotion by the summer of 2014. That is now out of the question, and at this rate, Appel is looking more realistically at July or August of 2015
Certainly, though, Appel can be excused for part of his struggles. He’s been through more in his first spring than any first pick in recent memory.
Neither the Astros nor anyone else could have predicted that Appel would need an emergency appendectomy in January, just a month before pitchers and catchers were scheduled report. The result was an abbreviated spring training for Appel, but Houston sent Appel to High-A Lancaster to start the season anyway, thinking he had had enough time to prepare.
He hadn’t, at least not according to the stats. By the end of April, Appel sported a 6.23 ERA and had made it past the third inning but once in four starts.
Concerned, Houston put Appel back in extended spring training for a month. Last weekend’s shelling, what Appel described as the worst start of his life, was his return. At this point, the medical issues are far behind him and while in theory, he may just need time to regain a feel for pitching, that’s what he’s been doing all season. Astro’s GM Jeff Lunhow suggested that Appel’s poor April performance was a result of his accelerated spring training. Well, he had a whole month of extra spring training in May, only to came back to that crushing result. It’s still early, but the excuses are dwindling and the onus will be squarely on Appel going forward.
On the other hand, Appel described his experience this year as “humbling.” For a player who has had as much success and as little failure as he has, some adversity induced humility can be a good thing. It may make him better equipped than his peers to transition into the majors.
Top collegiate picks such as Kevin Gausman and Trevor Brauer, and even going back to Brian Matusz and Luke Hochevar, have all run into a wall in the majors despite cruising through the minors. Perhaps, just perhaps, pitching through struggles now can help prepare Appel to pitch against the game’s stiffest competition later. Just look at at Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, and Wade Miley, all of whom struggled in their final minor league campaigns, only to make the majors and put up rookie of the year level numbers the following season.
Appel, himself, agreed that his recent shortcomings could be beneficial in the long run: “You know I’m actually really gracious and really appreciative of this kind of desert time that I’m going through right now,” he told MLB Network Radio, “because I know it’ll make me that much better in the end.”