It’s always worth noting when a No. 1 overall draft pick makes his major league debut. But when Mark Appel took the mound for the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night, it wasn’t the usual story of a phenom starting a career with the expectation of years of greatness ahead.
Appel will turn 31 in two weeks. And for three seasons he was out of baseball entirely, his promising big league career seemingly over before it began.
A good high school player in Northern California, Appel developed rapidly at Stanford, becoming the best pitcher in the N.C.A.A. He was talked about as a generational talent capable of transforming a franchise.
Expected to go No. 1 in the 2012 draft, his contract demands scared some teams off and he fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates at No. 8. Rather than sign for far less than he believed he was worth, he chose to return to college and had yet another stellar season for the Cardinal.
The next year, everything seemed to align. The team he grew up rooting for, the Houston Astros, took him with the top overall pick and gave him a $6 million signing bonus. He looked like a can’t-miss prospect, and there was speculation that he could be in the majors by the end of that season.
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Instead, it took nine more agonizing years.
Sure-thing prospects generally cruise through the minors, but Appel struggled. He consistently put up E.R.A.s over four, five or even more, and battled injuries. A trade to the Phillies at the end of 2015 didn’t improve things, and he faced a severe shoulder injury in 2017. The next year, at age 26 — “physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually drained,” as he would say later — he walked away from the game. He had shoulder surgery later that year.
After three full seasons away from baseball, Appel started a comeback with the Phillies in 2021. His first year back in the minors was rocky, and in a Twitter thread last September, he discussed his difficult road back, acknowledging that he had been called “the biggest bust in MLB history.” He said that he had battled depression and that in 2014 “after a stretch of terrible games, I broke down and destroyed a locker room wall.”
This spring, things finally came together with the Class AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs. He began the season by going 5-0 with a 1.61 E.R.A. in 19 relief appearances. It was enough to earn him his first call-up, which came on Saturday.
After a few days of waiting, as Philadelphia played some close games, Appel entered in the ninth inning Wednesday with the team trailing by three runs. He gave up one hit in a scoreless inning, delivering a nasty sinker that ranged from 94 to 97 miles per hour.
“I feel like a refreshed arsenal this year,” he said on MLB TV after the game. “I made some mechanical changes. Kind of changed grip on the fastball, changed the arm motion and I think early in the season I’m like, ‘shoot, I’m kind of throwing pretty hard, and the ball’s kind of moving.’”
He added: “I knew I was going to have fun this year regardless of the results, so getting an opportunity like this is far and above what I could have imagined when I showed up to spring training.”
Though draft picks in baseball carry more uncertainty than those in some other sports, No. 1 overall picks usually make the majors. Many, like Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones, have become superstars. And in more recent years, Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole and Carlos Correa have more than justified their selections at No. 1.
Going back to the draft’s creation in 1965, there are now only four No. 1 overall picks who never played in the big leagues: Steve Chilcott (a catcher picked by the Mets in 1966); Brien Taylor (pitcher, Yankees, 1991), Brady Aiken (pitcher, Astros, 2014) and Henry Davis, a catcher in the Pirates system, who was drafted last year and should be up soon enough.
“I came into this year knowing each day might be my last,” Appel said after Wednesday’s game. “Genuinely I was at a point where I was still trying to figure out what my role was — reliever, starter — do I still have it in me to put up good numbers, things like that.
“So if each day was going to be my last, I’m going to enjoy it. And I really enjoyed tonight.”