Mark Appel knows what it’s like to be misunderstood.
Last June, Stanford’s ace pitcher was expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft right up until the moment that Commissioner Bud Selig took the podium to make the announcement.
But the Houston Astros threw a curveball by passing on Appel and then the Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres joined the parade, anticipating high demands from his adviser, Scott Boras.
The Pittsburgh Pirates eventually drafted Appel with the No. 8 pick, and after he turned down a $3.8 million signing bonus to return to Stanford, words such as arrogant, greedy and prima donna suddenly appeared next to his name in print.
“Those words are definitely in no way, shape or form representative of any of the characteristics he has,” Cardinal pitching coach Rusty Filter said.
After a dominant senior year on The Farm, Appel is, once again, projected to be the first or second pick in the MLB Draft on June 6, and he says the public backlash he experienced last summer actually made him a better pitcher.
“I think it will really help me out in the long run,” Appel said, referring to the scrutiny he faced. “Coming back to school, everyone said, ‘He’s a first-rounder, he really needs to perform or else he’s a flop.’ ... But the only expectation I had was to keep getting better, to keep competing.”
Once he reached his decision last summer, Appel leaned on his Christian faith to block out the noise and move forward. For the first time in years, the Monte Vista High School (Danville) graduate spent his summer away from baseball, enjoying time with his friends and family in the East Bay, a reminder that life extends beyond the diamond.
“It’s not all about baseball,” he said. “Baseball is going to end sooner or later, and there are so many things that are important in life.”
But when it was time to pick up the glove again, Appel grabbed his hard hat and his lunch pail and got back to work. Despite an incredible junior year (10-2, 2.56 ERA, 130 K’s, 1.03 WHIP), Appel knew he could get better, so he set out to improve his command over his fastball.
Appel routinely hits 96 mph on the gun, his changeup is in the low 80s and his slider looks similar to both pitches until it dives into the dirt. But now, Appel is consistently locating his fastball in the lower part of the strike zone, making him a more aggressive pitcher who isn’t afraid to go inside or outside with any pitch.
“The velocity was already there, but we thought, ‘How can we take his fastball and make it better?’” Filter said. “By increasing the down angle, it makes it a little harder to lift, a little harder to center.”
With a few tweaks, Appel is almost untouchable this season. Heading into Friday’s start against UCLA, he boasted a 2.20 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP, and he’d fanned 121 batters in 98¹?³ innings of work.
But Appel said his performance this season is also a reflection of the mental toughness he gained after last season’s draft debacle.
“If you let that stuff affect you, it will haunt you in the present,” he said. “Instead of looking back, wishing that something else had happened, I decided to look forward at the opportunities I had at school this year.”
To outsiders, he might look like a diva, but Filter said Appel sets an example for the younger pitchers, like big-armed freshman Freddy Avis, by working hard and carrying himself like a professional.
“Freddy said to me that probably the biggest impact he’s had is the way he sees him work every day,” Filter said.
Earlier this week, the management, science and engineering major, who will graduate in June, earned Pac-12 Conference Baseball Scholar Athlete of the Year honors, and he was tied with Kyle Peterson and Justin Wayne as Stanford’s all-time career strikeout king (363) heading into Friday’s contest.
But in less than 12 days, Appel will be the center of attention, again, when the Houston Astros make the first pick in the MLB Draft. Appel said he isn’t planning a holdout and, whatever happens, he hopes to be donning a major league uniform in the near future.
“My goal is to be in the bigs,” he said. “People are thinking I’m going to ask for some ridiculous amount — no. I just want to be treated fairly, I want things to be reasonable and I want to play pro ball.”