It’s always interesting to note when a No. 1 draft pick makes his major league debut. But when Mark Appel took to the mound for the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night, it wasn’t the usual story of a phenom starting a career with hopes of years of greatness to come.
Appel will be 31 in two weeks. And for three seasons, he was completely out of baseball, his promising big league career seemingly over before it started.
A good high school player from Northern California, Appel grew quickly at Stanford, becoming the NCAA’s top pitcher. We talked about him as a generational talent capable of transforming a franchise.
Slated to go No. 1 in the 2012 draft, his contract demands scared off some teams, and he fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates at No. 8. Rather than signing for significantly less than he thought he was worth, he chose to return to college and had yet another stellar season for the Cardinal.
The following year, everything seemed to line up. The team he grew up for, the Houston Astros, took him with the first overall pick and gave him a $6 million signing bonus. He looked like an unmissable prospect, and there was speculation that he could be in the majors by the end of this season.
The 2022 MLB season
“Relax, okay? Don’t try to hit everyone. Withdrawals are boring! Besides that, they are fascists. Throw balls on the ground, it’s more democratic.
- An outlier who wants to fit in: She tried her hand at college softball, but Kelsie Whitmore is in her place: playing professional baseball on Staten Island.
- An ace searches for a new title: Dave Stewart has been a star player, coach, agent and executive. To truly change baseball, he wants to own a team.
- Look good, feel good, play good. Smell good?: For many players, a heavy dose of cologne or women’s perfume is the most unlikely performance enhancer.
- Throwing King: Tom House has spent his life helping superstars become even better. With a new app, he wants to fix young pitchers before they develop bad habits.
Instead, it took another nine agonizing years.
Safe leads usually go through minors, but Appel struggled. He consistently put up four, five, or even higher ERAs, and struggled with injuries. A trade to the Phillies at the end of 2015 didn’t help matters, and he faced a serious shoulder injury in 2017. The following year, aged 26 – “physically, mentally, emotionally drained and spiritually”, as he would later say. – he walked away from the game. He underwent shoulder surgery later that year.
After three full seasons away from baseball, Appel began a comeback with the Phillies in 2021. His first year back in the minors was rocky, and in a Twitter thread last September, he opened up about his rocky road back, acknowledging he’s been called “the biggest bust in MLB history.” He said he struggled with depression and in 2014 “after a series of terrible games I broke down and destroyed a locker room wall”.
This spring, things finally came together with Lehigh Valley’s AAA-class IronPigs. He started the season 5-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 19 relief appearances. That was enough to earn him his first summons, which came on Saturday.
After a few days of waiting, with Philadelphia playing close games, Appel entered the ninth inning Wednesday with the team trailing by three runs. He allowed a hit in a scoreless inning, delivering a poor lead ranging from 94 to 97 miles per hour.
“I feel like I have a renewed arsenal this year,” he said on MLB TV after the game. “I made some mechanical modifications. I kind of changed the grip on the fastball, changed the arm movement and I think at the start of the season I’m like, ‘Shoot, I throw hard enough and the ball kind of moves. ‘
He added: “I knew I was going to have fun this year regardless of the results so to have an opportunity like this is way above what I could have imagined when I showed up at spring training.”
Although draft picks in baseball carry more uncertainty than those in some other sports, the No. 1 overall picks usually make the majors. Many, like Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones, have become superstars. And in recent years, Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole and Carlos Correa have more than justified their selections at No. 1.
Going back to the creation of the draft in 1965, there are only four No. 1 overall picks left who have never played in the big leagues: Steve Chilcott (a catcher picked by the Mets in 1966); Brien Taylor (pitcher, Yankees, 1991), Brady Aiken (pitcher, Astros, 2014) and Henry Davis, a receiver in the Pirates system, who was drafted last year and should be operational soon enough.
“I came into this year knowing that every day could be my last,” Appel said after Wednesday’s game. “Truly, I was at a point where I was still trying to figure out what my role was – reliever, starter – do I still have the ability in me to make good numbers, things like that.
“So if every day is going to be my last, I’m going to enjoy it. And I really enjoyed tonight.