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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.


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Related Content:  Scouting,  Houston Astros

14 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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I dunno. I don't like turning to speculation to conclude that a pitcher's ceiling has dropped after a small nagging-injury-riddled sample in the CAL league.

In the most annoying of ironic coincidences (from the standpoint of a writer), Appel pitched his best start last night against a good offense, hitting 96 in his final fastball (pitch 73), earning 7 K's and 0 BB's.

The Houston Chronicle reports (and as much as we miss Zachary Levine, Evan Drellich was a strong add to balance the inanity of the rest of their sports staff) that the team has been working on Appel's mechanics during his skipped start last week, and that sounds like it had an impact.

It's no secret around here that prospects aren't finished products. Appel is still a prospect, and thus requires development, or else he'd be in the bigs already. He's still got TOR stuff and a history of using it successfully. He was dominant last season in Quad Cities; outside of one stinker start, his ERA was 2.34, and so I don't see reason to pound a nail into his front line ceiling's coffin after fewer than 80 professional innings pitched.

Appel's need for development is no different than with any other prospect - even Kris Bryant currently has a 'needing development' issue: a 67% contact rate this season and 30% whiff/swing rate, which is even worse than Brandon Wood's, George Springer's, and a host of other players who have seen their ceilings questioned because of those issues. Appel's situation is highlighted by his pitiful run prevention counting stats and smaller sample of appearances, which try to give lie to his decent peripherals.

Note that I'm typing this without my Homer Hat on. It's just too soon to draw any conclusions other than that Appel needs more development than national prognosticators predicted.

Jul 25, 2014 05:52 AM
rating: 3
BP staff member Chris Rodriguez
BP staff

If it's true they re-worked his mechanics (and that would be a big positive for his makeup as well because I've heard he doesn't want to change anything about his delivery), then I'm curious to see it in action. They've given him A LOT of time off between starts recently, so they're keeping him very fresh. Both positives. Again, I'm not writing him off. I liked the first start I saw. But the second was just so negative, and had so many problems that it was hard to ignore.

Remember, he still hasn't shown he can pitch every 5th day yet... Let's see how he reacts physically and mentally to the challenge.

Jul 25, 2014 09:34 AM
Brian Kopec

A handful of starts, no matter how disastrous, doesn't change a guy's ceiling that radically. Especially a guy that has been scouted as extensively as Appel. His ceiling remains was it was 3 months ago. He just has more work to do to get there than we all thought, and the risk that he doesn't get there has gone up a bit.

Jul 25, 2014 07:19 AM
rating: 2

Isnt what you highlighted in the picture also known as bad posture? And the head not over the knee spotty balance?

Jul 25, 2014 08:23 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Chris Rodriguez
BP staff

Yes; both his posture and balance have taken a step back from college and his appearances with Team USA. I had a chat with biomechanics guru Doug Thorburn about it.

Jul 25, 2014 09:26 AM

From the look of the photo, I'd say the problem is lack of focus.

Jul 25, 2014 09:54 AM
rating: 16

I appreciate the analysis and realize that BP is in the business of providing content but.....jump to conclusions much?

Two months ago, the guy was "as good, if not better than advertised in this look." Now he may not make it out of AAA because of a couple weeks in Lancaster.

Based on that analysis, are we to expect a piece about Conrad Gregor being the next Lou Gherig based on his time in Lancaster? Surely not, because we all know it's such a small amount of time.

I know it's in vogue to pile on the Astros and Appel lately, but it has jumped the shark at this point.

Jul 25, 2014 09:12 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Chris Rodriguez
BP staff

I would be much more optimistic about Appel if the stuff were crisp and remained crisp in both his starts, but they didn't. The velocity dipped, and he had a tough time putting the fastball where he wanted. It's not just that he needs more time like you all say, it's that he's a different pitcher than he was when drafted. I saw a report that he hit 96 mph in his last pitch last night, so that's a good sign. Still, it's a long way to go.

Jul 25, 2014 09:22 AM

Understood, and I understand that BP's focus and the Astros' focus are different.

The thing I keep going back and forth on is his body language on the mound and in the dugout. Is he mature beyond his years and burning on the inside while showing a calm facade or does he just not have the fire? Who knows..

Jul 25, 2014 09:35 AM
rating: 0

Chronicle reports he hit 97 last night. Potato Potahto.

In a couple comments you've indicated that you've only seen two of his starts. I find it surprising that just two looks would prompt this statement:

"I find it hard to even project him to become a major-league starter at this point."

Especially when you preface it by describing his "impressive raw stuff", three noteworthy injuries, and dominant performances prior to this year. Just seems reactionary and dramatic based on a very small sample, and I think that's why some of the comments are pushing back against this article.

Jul 25, 2014 09:48 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Chris Rodriguez
BP staff

That's fine, criticism is always welcome. Yes I've seen two starts. But reports from my colleague Ron Shah and talking with scouts in between and during his starts has helped paint a clearer picture for me. I probably should have mentioned that in my article. I've talked with numerous people about Appel and have listened to their opinions which helped form mine. I don't think this was dramatic or reactionary by any means. I stand by what I said in this article.

Jul 25, 2014 10:46 AM

Why is this a shock to anyone? He was a constant underachiever in college. He was a poor draft pick then and his struggles should not surprise anyone with their eyes open.

Jul 25, 2014 12:08 PM
rating: -1

Funny, I thought he was a consensus top 10 pick 2 years in a row. Actually, I thought it was top 5 and that he fell for signability reasons. Hard to say "why is this a shock" when people who make their living evaluatino amateurs for a professional baseball team didn't see it. Of course, it's possible I am missing remembering how it all went down.

Jul 25, 2014 13:47 PM
rating: 1

Appel's struggles since having his appendix out remind me of Adam Dunn's disastrous 2011 after having his appendix out at the start of the year. Is there data on players having this surgery so we could assess patterns of performance decline (and, possibly, timetables for full recovery)?

Jul 27, 2014 19:02 PM
rating: 1
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