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Q:How has Mark Appel‘s recent struggles affected your future projections for him?
John Moore, Grand Rapids, Mich.
How much is the Astros tandem starting rotation to blame for Appel’s struggles? When can we start to panic?
Tyler Stafford, Houston
If you're being charitable, there are a lot of reasons to excuse the Astros righthander's difficult adjustment to pro ball. The No. 1 pick in last year's draft had a solid but unspectacular pro debut last summer. Things have gotten much worse since then and he has had setbacks. First, an appendectomy sidelined him for much of spring training. When he returned, he was again OK but unremarkable in his work to wrap up spring training. Assigned to high Class A Lancaster, Appel had one good and three poor outings before being demoted to extended spring training. The Astros explained that Appel was having trouble adjusting to the club's tandem-starter system—which has pitchers throw every four days—instead of the seven-day schedule Appel was on in college.
Appel returned to action in late May, but it wasn't a happy return to Lancaster. He gave up 10 hits and 10 earned runs in only 1 1/3 innings. After that outing, Appel is now 3-2, 6.02 with a 1.47 WHIP in 52 pro innings.
For all the platitudes that can be used to explain Appel’s rough start, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned that the early struggles are a strong indicator he'll never reach the front-end starter projection placed on him prior to the 2012 and 2013 drafts (Appel was picked by the Pirates with the eighth overall pick in 2012 but did not sign).
Appel's outing in late May was one of the worst by a top college draftee this century. Arguably, it was the worst. Baseball America looked at every minor league start by a college pitcher—in their first two pro seasons—picked in the top three picks in the 21st century. Judged by game score, Appel's ranked dead last.
Here are the worst 20 minor league starts this century judged by the same criteria (college pitchers picked in the top three picks in the first two pro seasons).
|STARTS TO FORGET|
Appel, Humber and Johnson posted two each of the 10 worst outings. What you may notice among those 20 outings are how few pitchers on the list went on to have solid big league careers. We don't know yet what will happen with Gray or Appel, but everyone else is a pick the selecting team wishes they could take back.
When it comes to picking a college pitcher at the top of the draft, it's not the sure thing you might believe. Looking at college pitchers taken in the top three picks this century (2000-2013), the failure rate is disturbing. It's too soon to know what's going to happen with 2013 first-rounders Gray and Appel. Similarly, Trevor Bauer's (Diamondbacks 2011) career is still ahead of him. Despite some early struggles, he has shown enough flashes of promise to project him as a potential front-end starter. Danny Hultzen (Mariners 2011) has undergone serious shoulder surgery, but it’s too early to know if he’ll make a full recovery.
But of the other 13 college pitchers taken in the top three picks, it’s been less than a 50-50 proposition that a team will get even an average big league starter.
Make the right pick and teams win big. Justin Verlander (Tigers' 2004), David Price (Rays' 2007), Stephen Strasburg (Nationals ’09) are all front-of-rotation starters with Verlander and Price winning Cy Young awards. Gerrit Cole (Pirates 2011) appears on a very promising track. And while Mark Prior (Cubs 2001) had a short career, at his peak, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball.
But those five are the success stories. The other seven were or have been disappointments. They include the injured (Kyle Sleeth), the ineffective (Adam Johnson, Bryan Bullington, Dewon Brazelton and Greg Reynolds) and the mediocre at best (Luke Hochevar and Phil Humber).
In the old draft system, the best pitcher available sometimes didn't go in the top three picks. Tim Lincecum, Andrew Miller, Jeremy Guthrie and Jered Weaver all fell to later in the first round because of their perceived bonus demands. But any college pitcher taken in the top three picks is getting one of the bigger bonuses in that year's draft. Only one of the 16, Johnson, signed for less than $3 million.
What has to be disconcerting for the Astros is that in most cases, the pitchers who would fail to reach expectations showed warning signs relatively quickly. Generally successful college pitchers taken at the top of the draft succeed from day one. Their combination of plus stuff and advanced feel for pitching dominates less-experienced minor league hitters.
The five success stories went 44-14, 2.06 combined in the minors in the season they were drafted and the following year. Verlander, Strasburg and Prior were all in the big leagues by midway through their first post-draft season. Cole and Price reached the majors for good early in the second post-draft season.
Expanding the survey a little further to include other college pitchers picked in the top 15 picks who have gone on to contend for Cy Young awards finds a similar trend.
Chris Sale needed all of 10 minor league innings before he was ready for the majors. He struck out 19 in those 10 innings while posting a 2.61 ERA. Linceum went 6-0, 1.01 in 63 minor league innings and was winning his first of back-to-back Cy Young awards as a 24-year-old in 2008. Weaver was 14-5, 2.85 with 11 strikeouts per nine innings in 164 innings before reaching Anaheim.
Max Scherzer would seem to be an example of a future ace who took a little further time to develop. But he was 6-4, 3.28 with 10.5 K/9 in his first full minor league season between the California League and the Southern League. He was in the big leagues the next year.
The top picks who ended up failing to live up to expectations? They ran into trouble early. The eight disappointments went 52-53, 3.69 combined in the minors in the season they were drafted and the following year.
|WOULD LIKE A DO-OVER|
|TOO SOON TO TELL|
|Minor league statistics through the end of their second pro season for college pitchers taken in the top three picks of the draft since 2000|
|* Currently pitching in their second pro season ^ Currently sidelined as he rehabs a shoulder injury|
If Appel's troubles were limited to poor stats, it could be explained in part by the difficulties of pitching in Lancaster.
But pro scouts who saw Appel last year and this year have generally come away disappointed. Appel will show premium velocity with a fastball that sits 94-95 mph and touches 97-98 mph on his best nights. But pro scouts who saw him in the Midwest League last year said that he lacked an out pitch, didn't exhibit much feel for pitching and generally didn't have sharp secondary stuff to go with his fastball.
It's been more difficult for scouts to see Appel this year because of his appendectomy and his time in extended spring, but those who have seen him raise similar concerns. They aren't enamored with his body and they see his stuff as that of a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter at best—not that of a potential front-line ace.
Appel has a lot of time to put a rough pro start behind him, but the early indicators are worrisome.