Mark Appel’s Retirement Highlights Challenges Of Scouting

If you want proof scouting is and will always remain an inexact science, just look at the career of Mark Appel.

Appel told Bleacher Report on Thursday he is stepping away from baseball. It’s always possible the 26-year-old will return at some later date, but for now, he’s done with baseball. If he never does return, he will be one of only three No. 1 picks to not make it to the majors, joining 1966’s Steve Chilcott and 1991’s Brien Taylor. (Obviously 2016’s Mickey Moniak and 2017’s Royce Lewis have not had time to reach the majors yet).

Appel’s final career minor league stat line is an ugly one: 24-18, 5.06 with 412 hits allowed in 375 innings.

But what’s most interesting is the gulf that almost immediately opened between the amateur scouting and pro scouting of Appel. Scouts who saw Appel as in college at Stanford saw him as a potential ace. Scouts who saw him as a pro saw an entirely different player.

Mark Appel Mark Appel (Photo by Larry Goren)

Few players have ever been scouted as extensively as an amateur as Appel. He was a top draft talent coming out of high school and was thoroughly scouted, but his Stanford commitment caused him to fall to the 15th round.

At Stanford, Appel moved into the Cardinal rotation as a sophomore and was effective. Coming into the 2012 draft, he went 10-2, 2.56 as a junior. Appel was considered one of the top players in that loaded draft class, which meant that he was seen and scouted by a wide variety of the crosscheckers, special assistants and general managers.

Our scouting report heading into the draft summed it up:

It’s never happened before, but this year the NFL draft and the MLB draft may feature players picked first-overall from the same school. Quarterback Andrew Luck already went first to the Colts. His buddy Appel, who has Houston roots, is in the running to go first this year to the Astros. Appel has the ingredients to be a frontline starter. He has a pro-ready body at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds to go along with his mid-90s fastball that touches 98. He throws a hard slider that has the potential to be an out pitch and his changeup has improved. He is a solid athlete who played basketball in high school and is delivery is relatively clean. The knock on Appel is that he hasn’t dominated like most highly-ranked pitchers have in the past. Hitters frequently square him up because, even with his arsenal, he’s easy to see with his slow delivery, long arm action in the back, and a fastball that doesn’t have a lot of movement.

Although seen as a consensus Top 5 talent in that draft, he fell because of his high asking price. The Pirates ended up picking him eighth overall, but when they wouldn’t meet his signing demands, he returned to Stanford for his senior season.

So all the scouts who saw Appel pitch during his junior year got another full year to dissect and analyze him as a senior.

Now, the 2013 draft class was not nearly as deep as the 2012 class. In fact, it’s one of the worst first-round classes of the 21st century. But it was seen at the time as having three potential No. 1 picks–Appel, Kris Bryant and Jon Gray.

Appel went 10-4, 2.12 for Stanford as a senior. The Astros chose him first overall over Bryant and Gray. But even if they hadn’t, Appel would have heard his name called very early during that draft. For the second year in a row, he received excellent reviews and was seen by the scouting community as one of the top talents in that draft class, with the track record to match.

Baseball America’s Appel scouting report for 2013 (compiled from conversations with teams’ scouts) is even a little more glowing than his 2012 report.

Appel picked up where he left off last year, after he turned down $3.8 million from the Pirates as the eighth overall pick. As a senior, he fine-tuned his stuff and graduated with a degree in management science and engineering. He shows everything scouts look for in a frontline pitcher. He’s 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds with a clean delivery, and he is a solid athlete who played basketball in high school. Appel’s fastball sits in the mid-90s and gets as high as 98 mph, and he holds his velocity deep into games. His slider is a plus pitch that generates swings and misses with its sharp, late break. Under Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter–who was Stephen Strasburg’s pitching coach at San Diego State–Appel has gotten a little more downhill with his fastball and has improved his changeup as a senior, and it should be at least an average third offering. Appel has improved every year at Stanford and dominated as a senior, and he should move quickly through the minor leagues.

Appel signed quickly with the Astros, but that’s when the evaluations almost immediately changed. Pro scouts who saw him pitch in the Midwest League that summer were almost universally unimpressed, as we documented at the end of the season.

Scouts who saw Appel’s first starts as a pro weren’t as overwhelmed. His numbers were fine, as he went 3-1, 3.79 in 10 starts between short-season Tri-City and low Class A Quad Cities. He struck out 33 and walked nine while allowing 36 hits in 38 innings. 

On a good night, scouts saw a pitcher who could run his fastball up to 96 mph and pair it with a good slider. But on other nights, Appel looked hittable with an 88-94 mph fastball, a below-average changeup and an inconsistent slider.

Appel would add and subtract velocity from his fastball to try to deceive hitters, and he tried to mix his pitches. But he would often tip his changeup and throw too many hittable fastballs. And when he ran into trouble, he didn’t seem to have a backup plan.

“I don’t know what he has as an out pitch to get (major league) hitters out on a consistent basis,” an American League scout said.

Appel also did not impress scouts physically. Some said he had a soft body, while others said he had a thick but unathletic build.

Pro scouts who saw Appel almost immediately downgraded him from a front of the rotation starter to a back-end of the rotation innings eater, an amazing turnaround in a matter of months. The velocity readings were fine, but the quality of the pitches never matched the radar gun readings. His fastball was too often in the middle of the plate. His slider was hard, but it broke early and hitters never seemed baffled by him. When a hitter got on base, everything backed up as his stuff wasn’t the same pitching from the stretch.

Mark Appel Mark Appel (Photo by Larry Goren)

Those scouting reports proved more and more accurate over the years. In 2014 Appel was even worse in Lancaster. And the scouting reports were no better.

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.

Appel never outlived those early pro scouting reports. He’s battled injuries, but his fastball generally proved to be quite hittable and his slider and changeup were never as sharp as expected. For his career, Appel had eight outings where he threw five or more shutout innings. He also had eight starts where he allowed seven or more runs. Although the No. 1 pick, Appel never ranked No. 1 on the Astros’ Top 10 Prospects list. He slipped to 20th on the Phillies Top 30 a year ago and did not make the Phillies Top 30 this year.

Even someone who was analyzed, dissected and probed as deeply as a player can be proved almost immediately to be less than expected when he became a pro. This is not an indictment of amateur scouting. Instead it’s a reminder scouting is extremely difficult and an ever-evolving art. And it’s also a useful reminder that it’s worth paying attention to early pro scouting reports. Seeing a player facing pro players can raise warning flags that weren’t apparent during a player’s amateur career.

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