LANCASTER, Calif.—The buzz started only moments after Mark Appel turned in his best outing of an otherwise forgettable season.
Pitching for high Class A Lancaster Thursday night, Appel tossed a season-high six innings while allowing just two runs on five hits with seven strikeouts.
Soon after, Twitter was alive with proclamations that the time had come to promote Appel to Double-A Corpus Christi. Others stated the 23-year-old had figured out all of his problems.
Yet, even with the strong start, Appel has a meager 2-5, 9.74 record. Earlier this week, after his scheduled start was pushed back to Thursday, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft was asked what his reaction would be if he went out and dominated.
“If I do have one of those games, I don’t want people to start saying that things are completely fixed,” Appel said on Tuesday. “The way I see it, it’s not as bad as it seems right now. But if I have a great game, it’s probably not as good as that seems.
“I am much more realistic with what’s going on than probably many people are. I know I’m not far away but I also know I have a lot of work to do.”
The main focus of late has been tinkering with a motion that Appel admits has changed a bit since he went 28-13, 2.91 in four years at Stanford.
Appel has spent the last week working with Astros minor league pitching coordinator Dyar Miller and Lancaster pitching coach Don Alexander trying to refine what Miller calls a “more athletic delivery.” At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, Appel already has a major league body. But because his motion had faltered a bit of late, scouts and coaches noticed Appel was showing the ball too early in his delivery.
“We’re trying to maximize the size and strength of my body to create a more efficient motion,” Appel said. “It was something that I had last year at Stanford. But over time it gradually changed in a way where I haven’t felt the need to correct it.
“I feel really good about it.”
The Astros are among teams that are proponents of “athletic deliveries” that often involve pitchers using their lower halves in their delivery to ensure they are direct to the plate.
And much like Appel’s even-keeled approach, Miller and Alexander harped on how the final six weeks of his season (whether in Lancaster or Corpus Christi) will be about progression.
“The process has its own timetable,” Alexander said. “You want every pitcher to get it right away but some guys do and some guys don’t. If you get enough repetitions with it then it starts to carry over. He’s got some of the best work ethic I’ve seen.”
Added Miller: “Is it going to work overnight? Probably not. But hopefully it gets a little better each time.”
Based on Thursday’s encouraging start, at least something clicked with Appel, who said he wasn’t concerned with his delivery earlier in the season because he had bigger things to worry about.
That would be his appendectomy in late January. Or his struggles adjusting to Houston’s minor league tandem pitching rotation. Or getting sent to extended spring training for a month, only to get shelled upon returning to Lancaster.
Perhaps Appel was more concerned with the bout of minor tendinitis in his right thumb. Or the cortisone shot he got in his right wrist in mid-June.
Whatever issue Appel has dealt with, it’s translated into the most difficult season of his life. The praise Appel heard on social media after Thursday’s start hardly erases the inappropriate jokes aimed at him after earlier this season when he failed to make it past the fourth inning in all but four of his starts.
“We choose this profession, we choose this life and people are always going to make a big deal when he’s not pitching well,” Lancaster manager Rodney Linares said. “And he’s going to get bombarded because he’s on social media . . . everyone wants to be a scout or GM these days.
“If they saw what goes on day in and day out with him, they wouldn’t be putting that crap out there. But that’s the nature of the beast these days.”
Appel admitted that he’s heard the whispers that he doesn’t care or that he’s happy collecting checks from his $6.35 million signing bonus, the seventh-highest in baseball history.
“The focus and the desire and the motivation are all there,” Appel said. “I know exactly where I stand as to how much I put into each game. No one can be in my body and feel what I feel.
“What other people say or think isn’t a huge issue to me. They can say I’m soft or whatever but I know exactly who I am.”
Appel will likely make six or seven more starts over the final five weeks of the regular season. Some might be great and some might be unremarkable. But don’t tell that to Appel, who still acts like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning when describing his love for the game.
“I’m as excited as I’ve ever been,” Appel said. “The joy I have from playing this game is unbelievable.
“Yes, my failures have been frustrating . . . but at the same time I understand that it’s a blessing to play baseball for a living.”
Mike Elias, the Astros’ director of amateur scouting, added: “He’s a guy that when he’s on, he’s like a prized sports car. We just have to get it operating and firing on all cylinders.”
Eric Smith covers the Lancaster JetHawks for the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Calif.