The Mark Appel Saga

(Photo via the Wiki Creative Commons, seen here)

Mark Appel was recently designated for assignment for the Philadelphia Phillies. His career has been an enigma thus far to say the least. Appel went first overall in 2013 to the Houston Astros, which further magnifies his struggles especially given the success of first overall picks within the last 10 years. After being a top-notch starter at Stanford for four years, Appel has failed to maintain consistency throughout his time in the minors.

The main thing that jumps out is the spike in ERA from his time at Stanford to when he began pitching in the Houston Astros’ minor league system. The goal is to examine Appel’s stats to pinpoint a probable cause of his high ERA since he entered the minors.

ERA is the standard by which pitching excellence is measured. The most likely culprit for Appel’s high ERA, similar to many pitchers, is a mechanical issue. Appel posted a 2.12 ERA in his senior year at Stanford and within one year it ballooned to a 9.74 while he pitched for the Astros High-A farm team in Lancaster, California. Despite Appel’s poor performance, he still received promotion to Double-A in late 2014 after making 12 starts.

A direct contributor to a high ERA is a pitcher’s WHIP. One year after pitching at Stanford, Appel’s WHIP increased almost a full point (from 0.97 to 1.92). However, while a high WHIP could be attributed to issues with control, in Appel’s case it was due to giving up nine home runs in 12 starts at High-A, after only giving nine in four years of college ball. Even this past season, Appel gave up nine home runs in 17 starts in for the Phillies Triple-A team in Lehigh Valley on top of a career high 53 walks. Home runs are the easiest way for a pitcher’s ERA to increase, especially with runners on base.

So far, Appel’s high ERA has been primarily due to giving up to many home runs. Hitters see the ball really well out of Appel’s hand and this is where the mechanical issues come into play.

Another stat which supports this claim is that Appel’s strikeout numbers have dropped since college. Appel’s K/9 was 11 and his K/BB ratio was 5.65 during his senior year at Stanford.  In his first couple years in the minors his K/9 was just over eight and his K/BB ratio was around three. As a result, the main reason for Appel’s high ERA is the lack of deception on his pitches. Appel’s fastball can reach the high 90s but this pitch also generates a lot of fly balls. This means that his fastball has little movement and becomes flat which allows hitters to time it better, producing better contact. However, Appel has even less deception on his slider and splitter, shown to some extent by the higher average against these two pitches.

In conclusion, without having an effective breaking pitch to balance out a fastball, Appel has been unable to keep hitters off balance. The key to being successful as a pitcher is deception and Appel has lacked that for the majority of his career. The mechanical issue behind pitch deception could be his arm angle on certain pitches, or the type of grip Appel uses. However, while mechanical issues can be tweaked and worked with, there is very little one can do if the true culprit of Appel’s ERA is his mental state on the mound. While one can hope that Appel’s mental state is sound, he’s running out of chances to prove himself. Mark Appel has the raw talent to be the next Stephen Strasburg, but also the inconsistency and high ERA to be the next Luke Hochevar.

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