Kate Morrison: Mark Appel has been kicking around prospect lists for three years, though those three years feel like a lifetime. The now-Phillies minor leaguer is far from the first player to go in the first round and run into bumps along the road to the majors, and these bumps have made it difficult to figure out exactly where to put him on prospect lists, not to mention what his future might have in store. Today, Adam McInturff and Brendan Gawlowski debate the consistent inconsistency of starting pitcher Mark Appel:
Brendan Gawlowski: As the low man on Appel, I feel obligated to acknowledge his strengths. I've caught him twice, and both times, he was sitting 93-94 and touching higher. I've also seen plenty of plus sliders and changeups—when he's on, he's filthy.
The problem for me is that he's rarely in control for an extended stretch. His changeup comes and goes, he's prone to overthrowing his slider, and based on all the reports I've seen, I clearly caught him on good velocity days. The biggest concern for me though is his command. His delivery is very difficult to repeat: there are too many moving parts, his tempo isn’t consistent, and he struggles to align his upper and lower halves. He might get away with that on days where he has a 7 and two 6's working, but given his inconsistency there…
Adam McInturff: In similar fashion, I'll start by acknowledging the aspects of my stance on Appel as the high man through the lens of why he might not take steps forward. If he remains this inconsistent, enigmatic flamethrower who routinely has glimpses that leave you questioning why the stats don't fit the stuff, it will be because he doesn't—or can't—make the adjustments to his mechanics and arsenal that I believe he will.
Brendan noted inconsistency is the primary issue, and it absolutely is. However, I think that inconsistency is a byproduct of mechanics that Appel can change, rather than ‘inconsistency’ in general just being a foundation of Appel’s game throughout his career (a la Ubaldo Jimenez or Edinson Volquez). Everyone is in agreement that Appel's stuff is not the issue. I see his stuff being able to play the way we're all waiting for—but only if he makes the adjustments to his mechanics and arsenal that I believe him to be capable of making.
KM: So where exactly does he need to go from here to live up to that potential? He’s been in Double-A parts of two seasons (19 starts), and, as earlier stated, has been reported as anything from “potential ace” to “reliever.” When does he need to start proving his consistency, regardless of stuff?
AM: I’ve always hypothesized that Appel’s wake up call is going to come when he can’t just “out talent” his competition. He has an arsenal with enough easy plusses that he can cruise through a minor league lineup—Appel has success without having to execute or locate his pitches the way he will have to at the major-league level. There is a lot of inconsistency in where Appel is finishing his pitches in the strike zone command-wise, and that stems from the variables in his delivery I think he’ll need to change. I just don’t see there being enough talent around him anywhere but the major-league level at this point for that need to make adjustments to really be ‘driven home’.
I’m hoping that after guys in the big leagues show Appel that he’s not just going to be able to ‘out-stuff’ the baseball world forever, he will begin to tinker and alter his game accordingly to find more success. Pitching for a rebuilding Phillies team in 2016 will give him the time to get some major-league experience under his belt, while taking some lumps in a low-pressure environment. Given the fact that I have seen Appel as the type of pitcher who will need to make a handful of adjustments even at the major-league level (presuming he debuts there in 2016), being traded to a rebuilding situation in Philadelphia might be the best thing for him.
BG: I'll agree with you that he'll be a no. 3 if he can streamline his delivery. If the mechanical adjustments also help him execute his off-speed pitches more effectively, I might even go higher than that. I suppose I'm just not convinced he'll be able to do it.
I also don’t entirely buy the “he’ll fix it when results go south” argument. Statistically, he hasn’t been all that impressive, particularly considering that he’s a college senior who went 1:1, largely on account of his polish and proximity to the big leagues. He was only okay in Quad Cities, got bombed in Lancaster in 2014, ran an ERA north of 4 in Double-A last year, and was no better in Fresno. To top it off, he didn’t strike out a batter per inning in any of those stops. Do I think those statistics preclude him from future development, or believe his numbers are the best way to evaluate him going forward? Absolutely not. But the results really haven’t been good, and if he’s waiting to get knocked around before fixing something, I’m wondering what he’s waiting for.
KM: Mechanical fixes appear to be a major theme in both of your answers. What about his current mechanics are causing the concern or consistency issues? Adam, why are they fixable, and what are the possible pitfalls of altering his mechanics at this point? Brendan, what about those mechanics tell you he’s unlikely to make a fix that would lead to future success?
AM: I can’t see many pitfalls from making some of the changes to his delivery that would allow him better extension through his pitches, and angle down in the zone.
I think his mechanics are fixable insofar as they are related to aspects of a pitcher’s delivery that can be continually altered. Arm actions and the way the arm accelerates through release point can’t always be tinkered with as much as things relating to the stride or extension of a delivery. I’ve always considered Appel to be a fairly fluid operator for his size and build. I don’t think it’s out of his physical realm of skills to simply stay taller in his delivery and shorten his stride to get better upper-half extension and more downhill on his pitches.
Appel still has a collegiate feel to his delivery and overall approach. Between the bent knees in his delivery, the big drop-step, and the drop/drive push to the plate, there’s a lot of mechanical ideologies in place you see much more frequently at the college level. Even in the way he sequences his pitches reminds me of a guy who is overly afraid of contact, almost like he’s still pitching against metal bats at Stanford. Appel is a big guy who throws a plus fastball; I was frustrated with how much he fell in love with his secondary pitches at times. In reality, he’s operating in the mid-90s and he needs to pitch more traditionally off of his fastball, especially early in counts.
Another thing that’s caused him trouble is a pretty significant shoulder tilt as he drives to the plate; at least that’s how his delivery looked to me throughout last season. Some of the tilt will naturally come out if he simply eliminates the pronounced drop and drive. I’d love to see him work with a much simpler drop-step, and not drop his hands so forcefully as he’s taking his step backward at the start of the delivery. Making the delivery simpler will allow the natural stuff to play up the way we’ve seen it.
When written in prose, this sounds like a lot of adjustments to make. From a pitcher’s standpoint, though, this is really all about maintaining a less disruptive drive to the plate, keeping his shoulders more level, and likely just taking out the depth to which he drops his back knee as he moves forward.
BG: There are just so many elements to his delivery that need work. Adam mentions the large drop-step, the drop and drive, the knee collapse, the shoulder tilt: he also has to address concerns about not hiding the ball effectively, and perhaps altering his tempo. That's a lot of adjustments to make all at once.
Ultimately, I just see a pitcher who has a lot of work left to do, and while I'll concede that none of those changes is impossible for him, I'm just not comfortable assuming he will be able to do it. The delivery he used in Triple-A was more or less the same one he had in college. Furthermore, he's not the youngest prospect in the world anymore. He was drafted three years ago, and he'll be 25 this June. I'm not suggesting that the Phillies throw him in the bullpen yet, but if his stuff doesn't improve, or his mechanics stay the same, or if he does make a mechanical adjustment and still gets roughed up in the big leagues, how far away is that conversation? This is especially relevant if, like Adam hypothesizes, Appel needs to take a battering in the big leagues before he’s willing to adjust.
It’s not just mechanically either. He’s very reliant on his off-speed early in counts, and could stand to revise his whole plan of attack. In theory, adjusting his approach to pitch off the fastball more should be an easy tweak. I do think there's some risk there, however. Whether that stems from implementation—do you let his catcher call pitches? Force him to throw first or second pitch fastballs X number of times until he naturally improves his feel for sequencing?—or getting him to buy in on changing his approach. I don't think that's an instant fix, particularly if you're also asking him make mechanical fixes.
As Adam has said, Appel is an athletic pitcher, and he’s clearly an intelligent person. It’s certainly possible that he grows as a pitcher going forward. I just see a pitcher with a lot of development ahead of him and I think it’s more likely than not that the final product is less than the sum of its parts.
AM: There is no doubt that there is still projection (perhaps in a somewhat abstract fashion) to this 25-year-old pitcher, and that’s not at all what you want from the college senior you select first in the draft.
We didn’t foresee Appel having some of the hiccups he has endured throughout his relatively short professional career, but I do think plenty of the ‘anti-Appel’ train is a byproduct of the weighted expectations that surround being drafted first. Those apply to any 1:1, in any draft.
Do I foresee Appel having the type of sustained contribution of other recent 1:1 draft picks in the last few years? No. Not even in the best case.
However, do I see Appel being a no. 3 or no. 4 starting pitcher for a long time, after a lot of hullabaloo about the time it took him to get to the big leagues and his lower ceiling? Yes. Sometimes the first guy taken isn’t always he with the highest ceiling, or largest ‘best case’ contribution. I think history will remember Mark Appel as the type of first overall draft pick who went on to have a lengthy—if somewhat unspectacular—career at the major-league level.
KM: Of course, only time will reveal what Appel ends up being—solid top-end major-league starter, back of the bullpen reliever, or high draft bust. For all the best and worst circumstances discussed here, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. A change of scenery will likely help a prospect with documented friction in his former system, and the chance to earn his way into a major-league rotation may help him show exactly why the Astros originally drafted him first overall.
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