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July 25, 2014

Notes from the Field

What's Wrong With Appel

by Chris Rodriguez


Take a moment to forget about the Brady Aiken mess and think about last year’s first overall selection. Mark Appel was supposed to be on the fast track. You aren’t supposed to struggle if you’re the first overall selection, and the 6-foot-5 right-handed starter with a prototype body had the look of a player who would move quickly, stopping only briefly in Lancaster and Corpus Christi to humble inferior hitters with his mid-to-upper-90s fastball. If you’ve been paying attention to his season, you know this hasn’t exactly gone as planned.

What has happened
First, appendicitis in January sidelined him for most of the spring. Regardless, the Astros aggressively sent him to Lancaster to begin the season. I was able to catch an early start of his, on April 10th, and was impressed with the raw stuff he brought to the table. Then 22, Appel showed a fastball that touched 98 mph, and paired it with a sharp, bat-missing slider (scouting report). Immediately after this start, on April 14th, Appel’s velocity dipped and only touched 91 mph. As has been well documented, the Astros installed a tandem or “piggyback” pitching rotation, where two “starters” would pitch back to back in the same game. Also, some pitchers would be subjected to only three days of rest, which happened to Appel in these two starts. This obviously took a toll on Appel, and there were rumors of shoulder soreness after the second start. He was sent to extended spring training to get some rest and have proper time to build stamina for the season. After returning, he had the worst start of his season on May 31st, surrendering 10 earned runs in 1 1/3 innings. Five days later, he was diagnosed with tendinitis in his right thumb and scratched from his next start. After getting the standard four days of rest (and sometimes more), he continued to struggle. Recently, the Astros made it public that Appel had a right wrist issue and received a cortisone shot. It’s unclear whether the thumb tendinitis is connected. I took in his start on July 10th with intentions of pin-pointing his problems.

What’s the problem
Appel has a smooth delivery with good momentum that drives toward the plate. It’s surprisingly easy for someone with his size. His filled-out upper body work well with his hips, which turn on time with the rest of his delivery. The extension he gets is very good, and if you pair that with a 92-98 mph fastball, it should create a problem for hitters to catch up to.

Unfortunately, that just isn’t happening. His fastball often plays soft—hitters are getting a very good look at this pitch for several reasons, the first being his command. Appel has walked only nine batters in 11 total starts, including the one on July 16th. Control isn’t his problem, as he has no issue throwing the ball over the plate and filling up the strike zone. He tends to be very “loose” with his command, meaning that when he tries to hit the low and outside corner to a lefty, the ball leaks over the plate or elevates. While that might work at Stanford with his plus raw stuff, it will does not work in the California League and certainly will not work at the highest level.

What might be causing this command issue is the excessive trunk tilt (lean) in his delivery (as seen below). I should warn you: I am not a biomechanist. This is something I noticed and it could help explain his struggles. The first figure shows what excessive trunk lean looks like in a pitcher, and for comparison purposes I took a screen shot of a video shot in early April this season. I tried to the find the video which showed him most square to home plate to make sure the lean was in fact excessive.

pastedGraphic_1.png

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Related Content:  Scouting,  Houston Astros

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