March 20, 2023: Mark Appel’s Phillies story has come to an end.
The team announced that it released the 31-year-old right-hander, who was one of baseball’s best stories last year when he became the oldest first overall Draft pick in baseball history to make his Major League debut -- at 30 years, 349 days old. Appel had an 11.12 ERA in six Grapefruit League appearances this spring, allowing 10 hits, seven runs, three home runs and six walks in just 5 2/3 innings. He struck out five.
“He wasn’t going to make this club, and basically we didn’t have a spot in Triple-A for him,”
Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “The timing was right because there’s still 10 days left in Spring Training where he’s got an opportunity to reach out and get a job if he wants it. Being the guy he is and the true professional that he is, we wanted to take care of him as best as we could.”
Appel left the clubhouse before it opened to reporters. But he might have had an inkling that his time with the Phillies was coming to an end. He posted a lengthy thread on Twitter that began: “Opening Day is around the corner. Pitchers are almost ready. Position players are locked in. Fans share the optimism a new season brings. But this isn't just another season. This is likely my last.”
The Astros selected Appel with the top pick in the 2013 MLB Draft. He struggled. He battled injuries. Houston traded him to Philadelphia in '15. The Phillies designated him for assignment in '17. He quit baseball in '18. He knew then that he might never return. But a few months later he had surgery on his right shoulder in case he changed his mind.
Appel returned in 2021, but he struggled with Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He came back for another year, this time as a reliever. He was 5-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 19 appearances with the IronPigs at the time of his callup. He made his big league debut on June 29, 2022, pitching a scoreless inning against the Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
Appel had a 1.74 ERA in six appearances with the Phillies.
“It’s never been a straight line for me,” Appel said after his debut. “Even in that whole process, I was lost. I felt like there were times when I was hopeless, that this dream would never happen. So yeah, I was choking back tears.” (T Zolecki - MLB.com - March 20, 2023)
|Birth City:||Houston, TX|
|Draft:||Astros #1 - 2013 - Out of Stanford Univ.|
Appel's family moved from Houston to the San Francisco suburb of San Ramon when Appel was 12.
“We went to a private Christian school in Houston and then I come out here and go to a public school in California,” he said. “I started hearing things and seeing things that I wasn’t used to.”
Appel's father, Patrick, works as a lawyer for the Chevron Corporation. Patrick and Appel's mother, Sondra, lived in Beijing for a time.
- Mark played baseball and basketball at Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif., and didn’t get much work on arguably one of the state’s most talent-rich pitching staffs ever.
He is among six pitchers from a 2009 staff who went on to pitch at four-year schools, including Christian Jones (Oregon), Steven Swift (Washington), and Drew Bradshaw (San Jose State). Appel pitched just 31 innings his senior year, going 4-0, 0.90 with four saves in nine appearances (five starts). He struck out 45 batters and allowed six walks, and closed out his prep career with 24 straight shutout innings.
In 2009, he chose to honor a Stanford commitment after the Tigers selected him in the 15th round of the draft.
Mark's major: management, science and engineering.
Appel pitched for Yarmouth-Dennis in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2011. He had a 2.48 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 29 innings.
A number of his family members attended Rice University, including his uncle, John Casbarian, who is the Dean of the Architecture school.
In 2012, the Pirates chose Appel with their first round pick of the draft—the 8th player chosen overall.
But Mark did not sign with the Pirates, passing up their offer of $3.8 million.
"Our final offer exceeded the available bonus pool money and was essentially up to the last dollar we could offer prior to falling into the second tier penalty which would have resulted in the loss of a first round draft selection. While, as we have shown in past years, we are willing to be aggressive with our financial offer, we simply did not feel it was in the best interest of the organization to forfeit our first round selection in the 2013 amateur draft," Pirates G.M. Neal Huntington said in a release.
"Selecting Mark was a calculated risk, as we knew he would be a difficult sign. As an organization, we need to continue to take these types of calculated risks. While we would've preferred to add Mark to the group of talented prospects in our system, we wish Mark, and his family, nothing but success in the future."
Appel gets high marks for character and aptitude.
"My focus is just on the next game. I think a lot of that goes with my faith. I know that whatever happens in the future is out of my control. All I can worry about is going out there just trying to do my best, and the results will take care of themselves," Mark said.
And late in March 2013, Appel completed his degree in management, science and engineering. And from the mound, he went 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA for Stanford. Mark set the all-time Stanford career strikeout record with 372.
June 6, 2013: The Astros chose Appel in the first round of the draft. He was the first overall pick in the 2013 draft.
On being drafted by the Astros: Appel grew up in Houston before moving to California when he was 12 years old and frequently attended Astros games at the Astrodome as a youth. His father, Patrick Appel, is a lawyer for Chevron and lives in Houston when he's not traveling.
"It's a kid's dream to go first in the draft and be selected by your hometown team," Luhnow said. "It doesn't get any better than that, and it's a great opportunity for us."
Mark then signed with the Astros on June 19, 2013, via scout Brian Byrne.
Appel said he has a lot of great memories of his time in Houston.
"I do remember going to a few games in the Astrodome," he said. "I even remember when Minute Maid Park opened and how great of a ballpark that is.
"I remember playing Little League baseball at Post Oak Little League and the great summers I had with a bunch of great friends. The friendships and memories I created while I was in Houston were great, and still even when I'm back to visit family, new memories have been created every single time." (Brian McTaggart / MLB.com - 6/06/13)
June 19, 2013: Several of Mark Appel's former teammates from his days in the Post Oak Little League in Houston were at Minute Maid Park to greet him after he signed his first pro contract with the Astros. The Astros signed Mark for $6.35 million, about $1.5 million less than the assigned slot value of $7.8 million
"I think he was happy to see all of us as we were to see him," said Jay Magness, who was a pitcher and third baseman on the Post Oak team. Appel was a 12-year-old pitcher on the team, but moved to California a year later, which cost him a chance to play for Astros manager Bo Porter. The Texas Hawkeyes, a travel team started by Porter following his playing career, featured several players from the Post Oak team.
"We had a great Little League team," Appel said. "It means a lot they're actually out there. It's been a few years since we've seen each other with our busy schedules, high school and college and all that stuff. It's exciting that they're here."
Catcher/pitcher Jimmy Burke (from that team) said Appel is the same down-to-earth kid he was as a 12-year-old. "It's not like he's a big shot," he said. "He deserves this."
When Mark and his brother, John, were kids growing up in Houston, they would attend Astros and Rockets games and pretend they were playing for one of the hometown teams for which they cheered.
"The fact that one of us actually made it is surreal," John said. Mark Appel has some work to do before he steps onto the field at Minute Maid Park as a member of the Astros.
The Appel family grew up on the west side of Houston and relocated to California when Mark was 12 years old, but grandparents, aunts and uncles all remained in the Bayou City and were at the press conference to introduce Appel when he signed, turning pro in June, 2013.
"It's one of the proudest moments I've ever had," said Appel's paternal grandmother, Carolyn Caldwell. "But I'm proud of all my grandkids -- I need to say that."
Caldwell recalls how a young Mark had a poster of former Astros legend Nolan Ryan on his wall while the family lived in California. He was nicknamed "Tex" when he arrived in California and has stayed true to his Texas roots and his family.
Appel's mother, Sondra Appel, said she didn't know how tight the family bond was until she and husband, Patrick, a lawyer for Chevron, went off to live in China a few years ago and, "we didn't realize until we were living in Beijing for a year and a half how much we miss family," she said. "It's great to be back together again."
Carolyn Caldwell never doubted her grandson's decision not to sign with the Pirates. "I'm not sure he saw it as a risk," she said. "I really think he saw it as the course of events and he planned to improve and get that degree, and I was glad he made that decision."
To John Appel, Mark will always be his little brother. John, who lives in California, is about 2 1/2 years older than Mark and probably a few inches taller.
"He was a little bit annoying [as a kid]," John said with a smile. "We were pretty close and then got closer in high school and college. He was always there, always funny, always the guy joking around. It was a fun childhood." A childhood full of dreams that could soon be fulfilled.
"It's one of the proudest moments of our lives," grandfather Tom Caldwell said. "We're just so thrilled to have him back here in Houston and playing for a team he loved so much as a little boy."
Appel's maternal grandmother, Jackie Haynes, was also in attendance for the press conference. (McTaggert - mlb.com - 6/19/13)
The Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Appel as the 3rd-best prospect in the Astros' organization in the spring ot 2014. They had him at #2 in the winter before 2015 spring camps opened.
He missed the book in 2016, but was dealt to the Phillies and was their #20 prospect in the spring of 2017.
Mark has a smile on his face every day. He has a strong work ethic, reads the Bible every day and you can see that he lives it. He is just an humble guy who is devoted to God.
2014: Appel had a season that not only tested his prowess as one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, but also his faith in his own abilities as well.
On top of everything else (appendectomy, nagging injuries, etc.), when word spread that Appel was receiving his promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi, there was anonymous criticism of the move from within the Astros clubhouse.
It was almost Murphy’s Law for the Houston native who grew up in California, of what could go wrong did, and when you’re the top overall pick it only compounds the pressure to succeed.
“Yes, there are high expectations for the kid, absolutely because he’s 1-1 (first round, first pick) and that makes a difference,” said Hooks pitching coach Doug Brocail, himself a former major league pitcher who battled injuries. “But you know you got to hope that the kid learned from what happened. Obviously setting down and talking to him, you understand he was pretty frustrated. Why wouldn’t he be?”
But through all the frustration, the injuries and setbacks, Appel leaned on his faith. He was trying to find his way as a professional pitcher, getting used to the Astros piggy-back system of using two starting pitchers and trying to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him.
“I definitely felt like I was spinning my wheels week after week, outing after outing, and wasn’t getting the results I wanted … in fact I wasn’t getting results I thought were even OK. They were just flat out bad, no other way to describe it,” Appel said. “It was a trust, though, that when we are going through these tough times that God will be able to bring us out of it. I was in a hole so deep there was nothing I could do to get out of it. God was the one that pulled me out.”
“The numbers speak for themselves, they are what they are,” Brocail said.
Brocail told Appel that he wasn’t going to focus much on mechanics, saying he’s going to pitch every fifth day, which is what will happen at the Major League level. Plus, Brociul added that he wanted Appel to do what worked well and clear all the stuff out that didn’t work well, and most importantly just go out and compete and win.
“First thing he did was smile,” Brocail said. “I knew then I have a competitor. I also know what he’s gone through and there has to be some self-doubt, and I don’t want self-doubt to turn into a pity party. And I don’t think it’s going to. He’s got a long way to go, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to be a guy that’s going to fight working. And that’s a good thing.”
“As players we all set high expectations for ourselves and we want to be able to succeed as much as possible but sometimes that just doesn’t happen,” Appel said. “It’s a tough game. It’s simple but it’s still hard to play. It’s a kid’s game. I think humility is something that God uses to remind you of who you are and to remind you of how far you’ve come, and honestly to put your focus back on him, at least that’s the way I see it.
“The less you think of yourself, the more you are able to accomplish, I feel like.” (Len Hayward /Aug. 2014)
Soon after pitchers and catchers reported to Osceola County Stadium, big league manager A.J. Hinch gave fellow Stanford graduate Mark Appel a bit of homework. A few days later, Hinch asked 2012 first overall pick Carlos Correa to collaborate with Appel, the 2013 draft’s top overall pick.
Correa, the Astros’ No. 1 prospect, has been tasked with helping the club’s top pitching prospect interview the other 60 players in camp so they can give a presentation to the entire club about their teammates before Grapefruit League games start.
“It’s awesome,” Appel said. “It’s something that I would have liked to do even if I wasn’t tasked with trying to get information to make a presentation. I’m a big relationships guy. I think it’s really good to get to know your teammates on a personal level. It kind of gives me an excuse to do it. It’s fun.”
Appel has scribbled notes in a small notebook while going locker to locker interviewing teammates before and after workouts. And Mark has helped by interviewing Latino players in Spanish.
Appel was named to the U.S. roster of the 2015 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game.
January 16, 2016: The Phillies held their annual education seminar for top prospects. The eight players in town spent the week participating in programs designed to help their transition to the Major Leagues. They heard about life in the Majors — the do's, the don’ts and the expectations — from Roy Halladay and a host of Phillies officials. Over the years, they listened to presentations from Larry Bowa and Bernie Parent about what it means to play in a sports-mad city like Philadelphia. The players were slated to get a taste of that by taking in a 76ers game.
During the week, time is devoted to player-media relations. One of the lessons the young players hear pertains to dealing with controversy, issues or news of an unpleasant or unwelcomed nature. Fires have a better chance of being extinguished with quick action, so the players are encouraged to deal with such matters head on.
Mark Appel did just that during a media availability at Citizens Bank Park. Whispers that maybe he’s just a little too nice to succeed in the rugged world of big-league baseball have dogged the 24-year-old right-hander as he struggled to reach the potential that made him the first overall pick in the 2013 draft. He addressed those whispers — and more — calmly, astutely and with a smile on his face.
“I take it as a compliment,” he said. “I am a nice guy.”
As with all No. 1 picks, big things were expected from Appel. But after three minor-league seasons, he had a 5.12 ERA and a 1.439 WHIP in 54 games, all but one of which have been starts. He often has not thrown enough strikes and when he has they've been hit. He split time between Double A and Triple A and had a 4.37 ERA and a 1.413 WHIP in 25 starts.
It’s pretty safe to say the Astros didn’t think it was ever going to click for Appel. That’s why he was included in the trade. The Phillies, as director of player development Joe Jordan said, are hoping “we can crack the code and get him where he needs to be.”
Appel stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 220 pounds. Classic pitcher’s build. He has dominant stuff. So, why has he struggled so much?
There are lots of theories and theories lead to labels. Appel took those head on.
“It’s part of the territory,” he said. “I try to not even pay attention to any label that someone gives me. It even started before I was in pro ball. I went back to school for my senior year. I was labeled greedy. I get picked one-one. I’m labeled high expectations. Then I struggled in the minors and now I get labeled a bust. Now I’m traded to the Phillies. I mean, it’s just one thing after another. At the end of the day, [you] just look in the mirror and know that you did everything you could to accomplish your goals each and every day.”
Appel is a devout Christian. And, yes, he’s a very nice guy.
“I don’t think being nice is a sign of weakness,” he said. “If anything, it can be seen as a sign of strength. Knowing that you don’t have to come off as this fake tough guy to try to gain respect from your teammates or the opponent. What matters to me is what happens in between the lines. I think the ‘nice’ persona can be a misconception because I don’t show emotion. I don’t throw my glove. I’ve had a couple times when I have shown emotion, but I try to contain it and keep it to myself. Because at the end of the day, I want to be accountable to my coaches and my teammates and the organization. And also the fans.
“I don’t show emotion on the mound, but I have a fire deep inside of me that is a competitor, that is basically somebody who looks at the guy in the box and says, ‘I’m better than you and I want to show it.’ I have that competitive edge, absolutely. I don’t think I would have been able to be a starter in high school, got to college and end up being a three-year starter and come out the first overall pick if I didn’t have it. There have been some struggles in the minors where I think a lot of guys would have been extremely discouraged to the point of wanting to give up. It’s hard to explain exactly how I felt and what was going through my mind when I had a 10.00 ERA in the California League. But one thing I always try to do is be resilient and keep moving forward.”
Appel’s faith travels with him as he moves forward and he does not apologize for that even if some in the rough, tough, competitive, tobacco spit-stained world of big-league baseball believe that stuff is best left at the door.
“I don’t think it’s too fair,” Appel said. “I don’t think your faith necessarily defines your competitiveness. I’d like to say it fuels my competitiveness.”
He mentioned three-time NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, a Christian.
“It’s hard to find a more competitive guy than him,” Appel said.
Appel said he has no hard feelings toward the Astros. He understands the business of the game.
“I’ve seen Mark throw and I've read the scouting reports,” Jordan said. “His stuff is the same he’s always had. He’s got an opportunity — new eyes, new philosophy, new support system, just a new organization. I just want to see him throw, and as with anyone else, I’ve got some really good pitching coaches, coordinators and instructors. We’re going to get him over the hump.”
Appel is confident he will get over the hump and earn himself the label he wants most — consistent major-league pitcher.
“I know I definitely have the ability to be a consistent, dominant pitcher,” he said. “And that’s really what I’m working toward and honestly where I believe I’ll be. I think I’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. I’ve had games here and there where I’ve felt just really good. And so remembering those games and building off them, to make that the norm, because I know that can be the norm.” (Jim Salisbury - 1/16/2016)
Appel has not been able to put away hitters with the regularity that his stuff or reputation would suggest. He has been slapped with a label as lacking in toughness.
“He’s a nice kid,’’ the scout said. “Honestly, you’d want him to marry your daughter. He’s that respectful. I think he’s too nice, personally.’’
Appel hears this observation a lot. He is a devout Christian who routinely shares expressions of his faith on social media, and that contributes to the perception that he’ll accept whatever happens on the field as part of God’s plan.
But as Appel is quick to point out, Clayton Kershaw is a Christian, and it hasn’t prevented him from winning three Cy Youngs and a Most Valuable Player award.
“I don’t show emotion when I’m on the mound. But I have a fire deep inside me as a competitor, where I basically look at the guy in the box and say, ‘I’m better than you and I’m going to show it.’ Do I have that competitive edge? Absolutely.’’ (Jerry Crasnick - Baseball America - 2/12/2016)
As of June, 2017, it had been four years since the Houston Astros, Appel's hometown team, picked the Stanford alumnus No. 1 overall -- leaving the Chicago Cubs to swoop in and take University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant with the second pick. While Bryant has a World Series ring, a National League MVP trophy, a Rookie of the Year award and a growing endorsement portfolio, Appel is in Triple-A working on fastball command and learning the value of patience at age 25.
"Possibly it's just naiveté when I was younger, but when you get drafted, you think you're going to have this perfect career," Appel said. "You think, 'Big leagues by 22 or 23, then free agency by 29.' I'm such a planner and analyzer. I was like, 'OK, this is the course I'm setting for myself.' Obviously, that hasn't happened, so there's kind of a redefinition of what success looks like."
Two scouts who follow the Phillies' system told ESPN.com that they think Appel might benefit from a move to the bullpen, where it would be easier for him to harness his delivery in short bursts rather than increments of five or six innings. Andrew Miller, Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar are among the first-round picks who found success as relievers after stalling as starters, so that's one potential option.
"He's a big, physical guy, and he's got a decent arm, but he really struggles with command," an AL scout said. "He's not able to repeat his delivery, and I think that's one of the more significant sources to his issues. He struggles to do anything with any shred of consistency, and that has kind of a ripple effect on his performance, stuff and ability to command a baseball.
"Maybe the stuff plays up as a bullpen guy, and he doesn't have to command it as much. I think at some point, he will get an opportunity somewhere to pitch in the big leagues, but I don't necessarily know if he's going to establish himself as a mainstay on anybody's roster. I hope I'm wrong."
At the moment, the Phillies' player development people continue to focus on getting Appel right as a starter. They understand the burden he has lugged around as a former top pick on a deliberate developmental track, and one of their objectives is to free his mind so his body will follow.
"We want him to be a major league starter," Phillies farm director Joe Jordan said. "That's our goal. It doesn't have to be top of the rotation. He just needs to be one of five. As he has success, where he fits in the rotation can be defined later.
"Mark is a smart guy who's probably overthought things way too much, which isn't totally uncommon. But I believe now more than ever that he has a handle on where he's at, and we have a handle on what he needs from us and where we need to direct him. I think we're on an uptick. Good things are starting to happen." (Jerry Crasnick - ESPN - 6/14/2017)
March 27, 2021: Mark announced that that he would be attempting a comeback.
Spring Training 2021: Mark has no expectations, other than improvement. He left baseball in January 2018, following five seasons' worth of struggles in the Minor Leagues with the Astros and Phillies. He suffered from injuries and the burdens of expectations after Houston made him the first-overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft. Baseball stopped being fun along the way and Appel knew he did not want to pitch through the pain in his right shoulder any more. But only months after he walked away, he found himself thinking about coming back.
Appel, 29, is coming back. He is in Clearwater, Fla., where he plans to resume his baseball career. And maybe, if things break right, he might finally make the big leagues. Appel is one of only three first-overall picks in baseball history not to make the big leagues (not including active minor leaguers). Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991) and Steven Chilcott (Mets, 1966) are the others. “I would say that ate at me while I was playing much more than it’s ever eaten at me since then,” Appel said. “I’ve made peace with who I am, what’s happened in my life, what’s happened in my career. I still have a lot of joy about where I’m going and what I’m doing. I'm here because I'm playing for the love of the game.” Appel watched his good friend, Stephen Piscotty, play for the A’s at Minute Maid Park in Houston in the summer of 2018. Appel was not sure how he would feel going to a baseball game, but he enjoyed it. Then, he started thinking about getting healthy.
Appel had not been healthy for a long time. The Astros lost faith in him. They dealt him to the Phillies in December 2015. Appel fared no better with the Phillies, pushing himself through elbow and shoulder pain so he could live up to the hype. He had bone-spur surgery in 2016 and suffered from right-shoulder inflammation in ‘17. He continued to feel shoulder pain leading into Spring Training in ‘18. He had no desire to pitch through it or go through a lengthy rehab. So he left.
The time away changed Appel’s perspective. He had right shoulder surgery in October 2018. He started throwing again. He visited Driveline outside Seattle. There were some rumblings that he might make a comeback, but he needed more time. In November 2020, Appel finally called Phillies assistant general manager Ned Rice. They agreed to talk again in January. Appel’s desire to pitch did not fade. “I know I wouldn’t be able to be here if I hadn't been able to have a good signing bonus,” Appel said, referring to the $6.35 million he received from Houston. “Because going 3 1/2 years without much of a salary and doing all the rehab and investing money in your health, a lot of guys don't have that luxury. I feel really thankful that I’m even able to be here. Because it is something that I love. And it is something that I'm doing because I love it. And I'm thankful that I'm able to do it. I don't take that for granted.”
“I see the 2021 season as a win for me, if I’m able to play, if I’m able to be intentional and focus, and not necessarily focus on trying to recover and trying to stay healthy -- that survival mode,” Appel said. “Even if I don’t make it to the big leagues this year, that’s kind of how I’m approaching it. Now, could I make it to the big leagues, if things are going great? Obviously, once you're back in the system anything can happen. But I’m not [thinking this season will only be a] success, if I’m in Triple-A or I’m in the big leagues. I want to feel like I’m getting better again. It’s been a long time since I've felt that.” (Zolecki - mlb.com - 3/29/2021)
When he stepped away from baseball: "I don't know what the future holds. I'm pursuing other things, but also trying to become a healthy human," Appel told Bleacher Report. "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. I enjoy challenging my mind. My last four years in baseball have challenged my mind.
"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 told Bleacher Report. "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."
June 24, 2022: For Mark Appel, it has been the longest of waits. But a little more than nine years after the Astros made him the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, he finally made it. He is a big leaguer.
Appel will join the Phillies Petco Park. The Phillies called up Appel from Triple-A Lehigh Valley because right-hander Connor Brogdon is on the COVID-19 injured list. It is a loss for the Phillies because Brogdon has elevated himself into a setup role. But it is a long-answered prayer for Appel.
Before Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson announced Appel’s arrival, Appel was one of only three first-overall picks in baseball history not to make the big leagues (not including more recent picks who remain active Minor Leaguers). Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991) and Steven Chilcott (Mets, 1966) were the others.
“I would say that ate at me while I was playing much more than it’s ever eaten at me since then,” Appel said in March 2021. “I’ve made peace with who I am, what’s happened in my life, what’s happened in my career. I still have a lot of joy about where I’m going and what I’m doing.”
Appel left baseball in January 2018, following five seasons' worth of struggles in the Minor Leagues with the Astros and Phillies. He suffered from injuries and the burdens of lofty expectations after Houston made him the first overall pick in ’13. Baseball was not fun anymore. He suffered from right shoulder pain. He did not want to pitch through it anymore.
But only months after he walked away, he found himself thinking about coming back. Appel came back last year. He went a combined 3-6 with a 6.06 ERA in 23 appearances (15 starts) last season with Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The Phillies made him a full-time reliever this year. He thrived.
Appel, 30, went 5-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 19 appearances in Triple-A, striking out 24 and walking eight in 28 innings.
“I know I wouldn’t be able to be here if I hadn't been able to have a good signing bonus,” Appel said last March, referring to the $6.35 million he received from Houston. “Because going 3 1/2 years without much of a salary and doing all the rehab and investing money in your health, a lot of guys don't have that luxury. “I feel really thankful that I’m even able to be here. Because it is something that I love. And it is something that I'm doing because I love it. And I'm thankful that I'm able to do it. I don't take that for granted.”
Appel had a 6.91 ERA in his first full season in professional baseball in 2014. He had a 4.37 ERA in 25 starts between Double-A and Triple-A in ’15. The Astros lost faith in him. They dealt him to the Phillies in December 2015 in a multiplayer trade for Ken Giles. Appel struggled with the Phillies, too. He pitched through elbow and shoulder pain. He had a 5.01 ERA in two seasons with Lehigh Valley. He had bone-spur surgery in 2016 and suffered from right shoulder inflammation in ’17. He continued to feel shoulder pain leading into Spring Training in 2018. He couldn’t do it anymore. So he left.
But Appel had right shoulder surgery in October 2018. He started throwing again. He visited Driveline outside Seattle. There were rumblings that he might make a comeback, but he needed more time. In November 2020, Appel called Phillies assistant GM Ned Rice. They agreed to talk again in January 2021.
Appel hadn’t changed his mind. He said he still wanted to pitch. He has been working his way back ever since. (T Zolecki - MLB.com - June 25, 2022)
June 29, 2022: He could have wept. "Choking back tears," Appel makes his long-awaited debut. He had so many thoughts running through his mind as he walked off the mound in the ninth inning at Citizens Bank Park. Nine long years, pressures, expectations, injuries, walking away, coming back, not knowing what it might lead to, but knowing he would be at peace and happy with whatever came next.
“Having perspective and remembering even just two, three years ago,” Appel said after pitching a scoreless inning in his big league debut in a 4-1 loss to the Braves. “Even if I was just trying to come back, it’s never been a straight line for me. Even in that whole process, I was lost. I felt like there were times when I was hopeless, that this dream would never happen. So yeah, I was choking back tears.”
Appel is the oldest first overall pick in baseball history to make his Major League debut, at 30 years, 349 days old. The Astros selected him with the top pick in the 2013 MLB Draft. He struggled along the way. He battled injuries. He was traded from Houston to Philadelphia in ‘15. He was designated for assignment in ‘17. He quit in ‘18. He knew then that he might never return. But a few months later he had surgery on his right shoulder in case he changed his mind.
He did. Appel returned in 2021, but he struggled with Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Yet he came back for another year, this time as a reliever. He was 5-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 19 appearances with the IronPigs.
The Phillies promoted Appel. Of course, his flight from Newark, N.J., to San Diego was canceled. He hopped on another flight from Newark to San Diego, but with a layover in San Francisco. But what’s one canceled flight and one layover when you’ve waited so long for a moment?
“This whole year has been so special for me,” Appel said. “I was coming in, trying to figure out, where do I fit? What’s my role going to be? The fact I got to go to Lehigh and learn how to be a reliever and have some success. That was fuel to my fire. I didn’t need a callup for it to be a successful year. In that sense, this is all just extra. I’m just really thankful for it. And I’m glad that I’m able to go out and do my best and get to face the world champions from last year. It’s pretty surreal.”
Appel started to loosen up after Jeurys Familia pitched the top of the eighth. His heart raced. Adrenaline flowed. He fired a couple balls to the backstop in the bullpen.
“He let a couple balls eat,” Phillies right-hander Corey Knebel said. “We could tell in the bullpen. Man, it was kind of hard. I didn’t know how hard he threw. The last time I saw him was 2013. I didn’t know what to expect. But that was a very special moment. I know he’s had a long journey.”
Appel calmed down for his final few warmup tosses. He turned, walked down the bullpen steps and walked onto the field.
“I was just trying to compose myself,” Appel said. “You just know the magnitude. Oh, it’s your big league debut.” Appel jogged to the mound. He took a quick look around the ballpark. He soaked in the moment. “The music’s louder, the lights are brighter, the fans in Philadelphia are incredible,” Appel said. “I heard people just cheering for me and supporting me, kind of knowing a little bit of my story and the background. It was just a really special moment.”
Marcell Ozuna hit a first-pitch 97.2 mph sinker on a line to Rhys Hoskins, who caught it for the first out.
“It was just really cool to see it all culminate, him running in from the bullpen,” Hoskins said. “I kind of snuck a peek at him a little before second base. Just a grin, right? You just can’t keep it in.”
William Contreras singled after Ozuna, but Appel struck out Adam Duvall looking on a 1-2 sinker. He got Phil Gosselin to ground into a force-out to shortstop Didi Gregorius to end the inning. Appel walked off the field and reached the dugout. Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson. congratulated him first. His teammates followed.
Appel was one of only three first-overall picks in baseball history who signed with their selecting team and did not make the big leagues, not including more recent picks who remain active. Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991) and Steven Chilcott (Mets, 1966) were the others.
“It almost felt like I was being brought into this fraternity of Major League Baseball players,” Appel said. (T Zolecki - MLB.com - June 29, 2022)
Appel no longer belonged on the ignominious list of No. 1 overall picks to never reach the Majors.
He quit baseball in 2017 because it no longer brought him joy and because his right shoulder hurt. Now, whenever he finally appears in a game, he will gain admittance to an exclusive club of fewer than 23,000 men.
“I’ve been at peace with who I am in my career,” Appel said while seated in the visiting dugout at Petco Park. “If I got to the big leagues like today, which is crazy, that’s all gravy. But if I never did, I’d still be a pretty happy guy.”
Appel, having achieved the dream of every farmhand no matter his draft status, was asked what he considered success to be.
“I’m content, and I was content,” Appel said. “It’s strange. One of my really good friends, I got to see him. He just had his first baby. And we were just talking about this idea of having enough and being thankful for what God’s given us and the blessings in our lives. I think I’ve been through enough in my life to know that nothing’s really guaranteed. So, it’s like, I got today. If I’ve got today, then that’s enough for me. I’m obviously going to go and work hard. I love playing the game. I love competing. It’s been so fun getting in some high-leverage opportunities down there (at Triple A). I mean, I love it.
“And you obviously have this dream of getting to the big leagues. But, for me, this is just like gravy. Like all the other stuff is taken care of. I didn’t need this to happen this year for me to feel like it was a successful year. So all of this is gravy. I’m just soaking it all in. It’s awesome.”
Appel’s family flew from Houston to witness it all. His father, Patrick, is a lawyer with a passion for photography. He wielded a large camera to capture the various moments. Mark signed for $6.35 million in 2013 and pursued various business ventures while he spent three years out of baseball. He had a chance to think about what he wanted to do with his life.
“I look back,” Appel said, “and I’m like, ‘Well, the plan was to get to the big leagues quick.’ But it happened exactly like it was supposed to.” (Gelb - TheAthletic.com- June 26, 2022)
MLB debut (June 29, 2022): Nine years after being selected No. 1 overall, Mark finally made his MLB debut for the Phillies.
Appel took the mound for the top half of the ninth inning against the Braves.
After allowing a hit to William Contreras with one out in the inning, Appel notched his first career strikeout, setting down Adam Duvall looking. Appel next got Phil Gosselin to ground into a force out to end the inning. (Mike Santa Barbara)
June 2013: The Astros chose Mark in the first round (#1 overall), out of Stanford Univ. in California.
Dec 12, 2015: The Phillies sent SS Jonathan Arauz and RHP Ken Giles to the Astros; acquiring LHP Brett Oberholtzer, RHP Harold Arauz, RHP Mark Appel, RHP Thomas Eshelman and Vincent Velasquez.
Nov, 21, 2017: The Phillies designated Appel for assignment.
March 20, 2023: The Phillies released Appel.
Appel has a plus-plus 91-99 mph FASTBALL with good life in the strike zone, an 84-87 mph true SLIDER with late tilt and a short downward break, and a plus 81-84 mph circle-CHANGEUP that he can get righthanded hitters out with.
He will throw any pitch at any time in any count. His most effective pitch might be the changeup. And he can take something off his slider, with more up and down movement. That slider can be a wipeout pitch.
“Everybody talks about how hard he throws and then he’s got that filthy changeup that he throws in there that makes it look even more polluted off his fastball,” Stanford teammate Stephen Piscotty said in 2012. “His arm slot and his delivery are all pretty much the same. It looks so much like his fastball and he throws it 10 miles an hour slower and you can’t really read the seams to pick up on that.”
Scouting Grades: Mark has a 65 grade fastball, 55 slider, 40 changeup and a 50 grade for his control, on the 20-80 scout scale.
Mark has the whole package: size, stuff and improving control. The ball explodes out of his hand. He will rush his delivery occasionally. But in 2014, Brent Strom helped synchronize the right-hander’s delivery and led to better results from his front-line stuff. (Spring 2015)
Appel gets a lot of groundballs. He overpowers hitters when he keeps it down in the zone. And he can explode his fastball low in the zone.
But he lacks deception and consistent command, so hitters get better swings at his heater and slider.
Appel has been haunted by command and consistency issues as a pro. He's heard all the critiques that go with unfulfilled potential, everything from he’s too nice to he’s simply a bust. He said he’s learned from failure.
“I know I definitely have the ability to be a consistent, dominant pitcher,” Mark said before 2016 spring training.
- He has a free, easy, old-school delivery. He throws strikes but leaves his pitches over the plate and up in the zone too often. Once he refines his command he will be almost untouchable. Appel gets his power from a more fluid delivery than you’re probably used to seeing from today’s more rigid modern pitchers.
There’s no tension, it’s more of a classic windup. You can see him swinging his arms, and he’s athletic enough to control some extra free movement. The fluid delivery makes it even harder for hitters to pick up his pitches.
Mark has poise on the mound and is an aggressive competitor.
- Mark set the Stanford school record with 372 strikeouts.
Appel can add and subtract velocity from his fastball to try to deceive hitters, and he tried to mix his pitches.
- 2014 Season: Appel’s fastball generally lost velocity quickly when he was pitching in the California League. He’d show 94-97 mph early, then tail off to 91-92 mph as the game wore on. His slider was his second-best pitch, but because he struggled so much with his command, he often was forced to shelve it and rely on trying to work out of poor counts with fastballs that too often were elevated in the zone and straight.
Once he arrived in Corpus Christi, Mark’s stuff took a significant step forward. He showed three potentially plus pitches late in the season, and his fastball and changeup command improved.
If Appel’s disastrous first half in 2014 can be forgotten, he still has the makings of at least a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter and perhaps better, but he has to prove that he can maintain his stuff for longer stretches. (J.J. Cooper - Baseball America - Oct. 2014)
Spring, 2016: Appel has a good understanding of his craft and a strong, durable pitcher’s frame. While his progress has been slower than many had hoped when drafted, he should soon be ready to help the Phillies in the major leagues sooner or later in 2016.
“What’s encouraging is the physical traits that drove Mark to be the first overall pick are still present,” Phillies GM Matt Klentak said. “The raw stuff, his power, his delivery, his ability to make pitches are still there.
“We’re hopeful that a change of scenery, a change of approach to some things and the ability to let him continue to grow into himself as a pitcher will allow him to have success."
Mark's heater comes in on a flat plane, making it more hittable, especially because he has problems consistently placing it low in the strike zone. (Spring, 2017)
Appel is concentrating on pitch efficiency during the 2017 season.
“I’m seeing more quality in his pitches,” Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said. “It looks like he’s going forward. He’s not scattering balls all over. His misses are not as frequent and not as bad as they were. I’m very pleased where he’s at, and he should be too.”
Former Phillies reliever Larry Andersen also stressed pitching efficiently to Appel during his time as an instructor in 2017 spring camp.
“We had some conversations about the mentality of pitching, and really just having confidence and not trying to throw a strike but knowing you’re going to throw a strike,” Appel said. “There’s a difference in knowing it in your head and kind of believing it in every fiber of your body.” (Jim Salisbury - Baseball America - 4/07/2017)
- 2022 Season: One of the feel-good stories of the 2022 season, was the arrival of Mark Appel to the major leagues. The number one overall pick of the 2013 MLB Draft never found his footing in the Houston Astros organization, before being shipped to Philadelphia in the Ken Giles deal. From 2016-2018 Appel struggled to stay healthy in the minors, leading up to his eventual retirement in 2018.
After three years away from the game, the right-hander returned to baseball in March of 2021. Appel would spend the next year competing in AA and AAA as he hoped to earn a chance to pitch in MLB.
Finally, after nearly a decade of hard work and setbacks, Mark Appel was promoted to the bigs on June 29th. The 31-year-old was used sparingly throughout the summer, but continually impressed when given the opportunity.
2022 stats: 6 G, 10 1/3 IP, 9 H, 2 R (2 ER), 0 HR, 3 BB, 5 K, 1.74 ERA, 3.02 FIP, 0.3 bWAR (adecouta Nov 28, 2022)
January 30, 2014: Appel underwent an emergency appendectomy in Houston.
Later in 2014, a thumb injury sidelined him.
May 27, 2016: Mark was on the DL with a strained right shoulder.
May 29, 2016: Appel underwent season-ending surgery to remove a posterior bone spur in his right elbow.
- July 6-Sept. 6, 2017: Mark was on the DL with a right shoulder strain.