Old-School Delivery Propels Mark Appel To Top
PALO ALTO, Calif.—Mark Appel knew California would be different.
But he had no idea how different when his family moved from Houston to the San Francisco suburb of San Ramon when Appel was 12.
"We went to a private Christian school in Houston and then I come out here and go to a public school in California," he said. "I started hearing things and seeing things that I wasn't used to."
These days, a lot of college hitters he's going up against are seeing things they're probably not used to either.
Just three years removed from spot-starter status on his high school team, Appel now features one of the most powerful throwing arms and advanced pitching repertoires in today's college game. That combination, along with excellent command, aptitude, and high marks for character, has the Stanford ace projected to go at or near the top of just about every reputable mock draft.
And many indications point a return to a place where Appel would likely be less surprised by the things he hears and sees, with the Houston Astros getting the first overall pick—a scenario that has the Houston media abuzz, and which isn't lost on him.
"Nothing's set in stone," Appel said. "The draft is next month and I can't control if Houston picks me or whoever picks me. All I can worry about right now is going out and trying to have fun and pitch the best I can every time coach gives me the ball. That's what my focus has been this year."
This year has been a breakthrough year for Appel, who in just his second year as a fulltime starter—at any level—has put up solid if not eye-popping numbers, while lighting up radar guns and wowing scouts with an easy, repeatable delivery that doesn't have a lot of miles on it.
Appel, 10-1, 2.27 with 127 strikeouts and just 26 walks in 119 innings, commands a plus-plus fastball that tops out at 99 mph, a plus changeup, and an above-average slider.
"The thing that separates Mark is that not only does he have a big arm but he's able to pitch," Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter said.
"He's got a good feel for a changeup that he can get righthanded hitters out with. Usually in college righthanders throw the changeup to lefties, but he'll throw a changeup, slider or fastball at any time and in any count to any type of hitter."
Appel wasn't nearly as polished when he showed up at Stanford as a freshman with an average fastball that topped out at 92 mph and not much else.
"He was a good arm with no command of his offspeed pitches," Filter said. "The changeup was not a pitch he went to."
That wasn't entirely his fault. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Appel played baseball and basketball at Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif., and didn't get much work on arguably one of the state's most talent-rich pitching staffs ever.
He is among six pitchers from a 2009 staff who went on to pitch at four-year schools, including Christian Jones (Oregon), Steven Swift (Washington) and Drew Bradshaw (San Jose State). Appel pitched just 31 innings his senior year, going 4-0, 0.90 with four saves in nine appearances (five starts). He struck out 45 batters and allowed six walks, and closed out his prep career with 24 straight shutout innings. He chose to honor a Stanford commitment after the Tigers selected him in the 15th round of the 2009 draft.
Appel impressed in fall ball when he arrived in Palo Alto later that year, but his inexperience and inability to command secondary pitches were apparent in his 2-1, 5.92 freshman campaign, in which he logged 38 innings. He spent the summer developing a changeup in the New England Collegiate League, and Stanford coaches liked what they saw, making him their No. 1 starter when staff ace Brett Mooneyham suffered a season ending finger injury last season. Appel went 6-7, 3.02 as the Friday guy as Stanford won a regional.
"He got to pitch in these really close games on Fridays and I think that just by being in those situations and learning to pitch in those situations, under the pressure of 'hey, Friday is a pivotal game in a series,' that really helped his development," Filter said.
Filter acknowledged Appel's velocity jump is no ordinary occurrence. He attributes it to a consistent workout routine he's maintained since his freshman year, and a free and easy old-school style delivery.
Appel paints both sides of the plate with a two-seamer that runs in on righties and tails away from lefties, which he throws consistently above 95 mph. And it's a game changer.
"The increase in velocity gives you a little more margin for error with everything you do," Filter said. "He'll get away with a pitch somebody at 90 won't."
But Appel's most effective pitch is his changeup. Stanford teammate Stephen Piscotty, who's faced Appel in fall ball, believes it's among the best changeups he's ever seen.
"Everybody talks about how hard he throws and then he's got that filthy changeup that he throws in there that makes it look even more polluted off his fastball," Piscotty said. "His arm slot and his delivery is all pretty much the same. It looks so much like his fastball and he throws it 10 miles an hour slower and you can't really read the seams to pick up on that."
Appel gets his power from a more fluid delivery than you're probably used to seeing from today's more rigid modern pitchers.
"There's no tension, it's more of a classic windup," Filter said. "You can see him swinging his arms, and he's athletic enough to control some extra free movement."
The fluid delivery makes it even harder for hitters to pick up his pitches.
"He has that kind of slow delivery and then all of a sudden it just pops," Piscotty said. "It can get on you quick."
Whoever drafts Appel, whether it's his hometown Astros with the top pick or some team soon thereafter, hopes he gets to the majors just as quickly.