CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- When Quad Cities rode into Cedar Rapids for the Tuesday night series-concluding game against the Kernels they were carrying the two most recent No. 1 picks with them in Carlos Correa and Mark Appel. The River Bandits put a combined $11.15 million on the field between the two stars. Correa smacked a double off the 400-foot mark in center field and Appel threw five dominant innings, giving the Houston Astros some hope for the near future in the midst of a less-than-memorable season.
Appel has amassed 19.2 innings through five starts with Quad Cities this season, compiling 15 strikeouts and a 2.29 earned run average. Most impressive may have been his most recent start in Cedar Rapids where he gave up just two hits and a walk through five innings to earn his first win as a professional pitcher. He showed impressive command of his pitches along with a plus fastball that consistently hit 98 mph.
The 22-year-old pitcher out of Stanford University is projected by many to rise through the ranks of the minors quickly and land on the Astros staff fairly soon. After showing his skills off this year for Stanford with a 10-4 record and a 2.12 earned run average in 106 1/3 innings, Houston took Appel first overall in the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, feeling confident he isn’t far from being major-league ready.
“It was a surreal moment. Obviously a lot of emotions and excitement, especially going to my hometown in Houston (where there are) a lot of friends and family still there,” Appel said. “I guess I kinda had a flashback of my whole baseball career up to that point and I just really realized how blessed I was just to be able to play this game.”
Many baseball fans know Appel as the guy who turned down his $3.8 million offer after being selected eighth overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2012 MLB Draft and elected to return for his final year at Stanford.
“It was tough,” Appel said of his decision to stay in school. “Where I was sitting I had two great options that I could decide between. It’s hard to say no to one and no to another. People will question you one way or another so I did what was needed for my career and for my teammates at Stanford. (There were) just a lot of reasons why I decided to come back to school.”
From an outsider’s perspective, a chance in professional baseball would be too hard to pass up, especially when it pays $3.8 million. It was never about the money for Appel though, even if returning to Stanford for his senior season meant running the risk of a career-ending injury and missing out on millions of dollars and a career in professional baseball.
“I trusted the guys at Stanford. I trusted my weight coaches and knew that if I focus on the things I can do that hopefully I won’t get hurt, but if I do I know that there are bigger and better things for me,” said Appel. “If it’s a career-ending injury I’ll know that baseball just wasn’t meant to be. A lot of people thought I was crazy for turning down a lot of money. I don’t think it was about the money. If it was about the money I would’ve taken it.
“I went back to school knowing that I could get hurt. I went back to school knowing that I might not have as good of a season. I went back to school with the knowledge and mindset that if I don’t do as well in the draft next year I won’t have any regrets. Once I came to the realization it was really an easy decision.”
It has all seemed to work out for Appel up to this point. His draft status moved up to first overall and he signed for more than he was offered the year prior. Appel believes returning for that extra year made a huge difference and that he hasn’t had to make too many adjustments yet from college to pro ball.
“I would say the biggest adjustment is going from a longer rotation to a shorter rotation, pitching with one or two days less rest,” Appel said. “But I’m seven starts in now and I’m fine. I’ll be ready to go next time out.
“We scout the players just the same. College ball and pro ball are very similar. You still gotta throw strikes to get people out and you still gotta hit the ball to get on base. You attack with your strengths. Sometimes your strengths line up with their weaknesses.”
Appel’s strengths often appear to be overwhelming, even to some of the best hitters he’s faced, both in the PAC-12 and the Midwest League. Not matter who he faces, though, his goals never change.
“The only expectation I have is I compete every single pitch. If I don’t do that then I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll work on it next time,” Appel said. “If I know I gave it my all then I’ll be pleased no matter what the results are.”
It helps that Appel has a defense behind him that is led by 18-year-old phenom shortstop Carlos Correa, the first overall pick the year before. Two No. 1s on the same Midwest League roster is a rarity and it should come to no surprise that Quad Cities sits atop the standings for the second half of the season, at 27-16. However, the two No. 1 picks are very different.
“Me and Carlos, we have really different stories,” said Appel. “He’s a high school guy from Puerto Rico. I’m a college guy. We differ in age. He kinda just got thrown right into the fire and I’ve had a progression of what to expect.”
Obviously, with their high draft status comes a territory. The two are always in the spotlight, their every move being observed and noted carefully by dozens of scouts every time they go out and perform. Appel accepts the spotlight, but is still the same guy his friends and family know him to be.
“I don’t see myself as the stigma or title of ‘first overall pick.’ I see myself as Mark Appel, the same guy I was when I was 10-years-old,” Appel said. “I don’t want people, especially on my team, to see me as this really famous guy, just Mark.”
But Mark hasn’t been ‘just Mark’ for a long time now. Not in the baseball world, at least. Perfect Game had Appel on the radar since he was discovered in 2007 at the National Underclass in Mesa, Ariz. and tagged a top prospect. The following summer he attended the National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minn., where he ran a sub-7 second 60-yard dash, threw a 92 mph fastball, and was given a perfect ’10.0’ as his PG Grade.
“Perfect Game was awesome. The first event I went to as an outfielder and pitcher. One of my summer coaches from high school said, ‘Hey, you should go try this out,’ said Appel. “I went and got invited to the National Showcase for pitching and that really helped the recruiting process for college. I think it really helped me get on Stanford’s radar and end up at the school of my dreams.”
Appel never imagined he would be in the situation he’s in today: playing baseball as a job. It’s something millions of kids grow up dreaming about, including Appel.
“I didn’t know or think it was a reality until as your career progresses through high school, summer ball, stuff like that, you think ‘wow, this actually is a possibility.’ Then you’re in college and you’re like ‘being a first-rounder, that is a possibility.’ Now you’re here and being a major leaguer is a possibility.”
Appel earned his first win as a professional during his seventh
appearance, his fifth as a member of the Quad City River Bandits at
the Low-A level in the Midwest League. Appel worked five innings,
giving up two hits and a walk while striking out a pair. Neither of
the two runs he allowed were earned, as batters had difficulty
squaring the ball up against him. He came out firing against the
Byron Buxton-less, yet still powerful Cedar Rapids Kernels lineup,
throwing almost exclusively 98 mph fastballs in the first inning.
The velocity continued to sit at 96-98 in both the second and third
innings before settling in around 93-96, while still touching 98, in
innings 4-5. The arm action continues to be easy, repeatable and
clean, and he threw downhill while working the bottom half of the
zone pretty well, as evidenced by his 12-to-2 groundout-to-flyout
ratio. An approach typical of college pitchers, Appel started the
game by trying to get hitters swinging by working them outside, and
looked much better an inning or two later when he started to trust
his fastball to establish the inner half. His slider continues to be
a swing-and-miss pitch thrown at 85-86 mph, while also showing a
polished changeup in the same velocity range. The slider at its best
is a plus-plus pitch with sharp two-plane break that makes it nearly
unhittable, although he will need to work at making it a plus-plus
pitch more consistently. His changeup works so well as a perfect
slow-ball complement to his fastball given how well he maintains his
arm action, although my only minor complaint with the pitch is that I
wish there were a little more speed differential between this pitch
and his breaking ball. As Appel continues to gain confidence in his
fastball while honing the consistency of his slider, he's going to be
a strikeout pitcher at the highest level. His cool, poised demeanor
on the mound also serves him well, and in this game he clearly
recognized the importance of pitching to contact to make the most of
his limited pitch count after a long college season. The Astros have
no need to rush Appel, even though they could, so don't be surprised
to see him spend most, if not all of 2014 between their AA and AAA
-- Patrick Ebert, Chris Wimmer contributing