May 21, 2013
Eyes on the Prize
I saw Mark Appel pitch once before. It was early last season, down on The Farm, AKA Sunken Diamond, when it looked for all the world like he would be selected first overall in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
His stuff was electric. Fastball sat in the mid-90s and his slider absolutely unfair. It was there, and then it wasn't. To his opponents—mostly good-enough college hitters whose careers would end when they received their diplomas—it must have seemed like the ball was teleporting, Nightcrawler-style. Here it comes, the BAMF! It's in the dirt, six inches off the plate.
And it wasn't just the stuff. The body was big and muscular with room to add more mass. I wouldn't call his delivery effortless, but the mechanics were clean and repeatable. Appel looked like the whole package.
And he might have been, and might still be, but we all know what happened in the 2012 draft: concerns about signability and bonus demands and the involvement of “advisor” Scott Boras caused Appel to fall to no. 8, where he was selected by Pittsburgh. He opted not to sign, and returned to Stanford for his senior year which, at this point, looks to have paid off. There's a very good chance he could go 1-1 this year. The consensus seems to be that the Astros will select either Appel or Oklahoma's Jonathan Gray with the first pick.
I hadn't made time to see Appel this year, but on Friday night he pitched in what is basically my backyard. I work at UC Berkeley and the Golden Bears hosted the Cardinal at Evans Diamond, so I basically couldn't not go.
I headed over to Evans immediately after work, a couple of hours before first pitch. Cal took batting practice, followed by Stanford, and then both teams took infield. There were a few kids running around the grandstands, seemingly already high on cotton candy. A few diehard Cal and Stanford fans milled about while small groups of scouts sat on benches along the third baseline, taking everything in.
The scouts sat four to a bench, arrayed by race: four African-American scouts on one bench, four white scouts on the other. There was interplay, conversation, good-natured ribbing between the two groups—the scouting world isn't that big, and everyone knows everyone else—but I couldn't help but notice that the two groups had self-segregated.
I'm not great at striking up conversations with these guys; mostly I don't want to bother them, but also, I'm not in their fraternity and wouldn't dream of trying to intrude on it. But I did start chatting with a guy during Stanford's BP session.
Unsolicited, he told me he liked Brian Ragira, Stanford's strong but surprisingly unathletic first baseman. I raised an eyebrow – most scouts I've talked to hate Ragira, and I thought his BP session was awful. He launched a few balls, but he was also cheating, starting early against the BP pitcher. The swing was slow and long. No way Ragira's a prospect, and yet this guy is saying he's on him. Are my sources and eyes that bad, or is he trying to deke me? I mean, although I don't look like a scout (I lack the requisite golf cap, Oakley shades, and technical-fabric polo), maybe I'm still the competition?
I did get said scout to admit to loving Austin Wilson; to say otherwise would be tantamount to insanity. Saying Wilson looks good in a uniform does him a disservice: it's more like the uniform is lucky to be on him. Six-foot-five, 245, broad shoulders, massive quads, he looks more like an inside linebacker than a center fielder. His BP session was mind-blowing. Most kids were lucky to flip one or two balls out, just over the wall, but Wilson was crushing home runs with impunity, peppering the buildings beyond the left field wall and sending a couple of monster shots to dead center. The home run power doesn't show up in games—he's got just five bombs on the year—but he leads the team with a .546 slugging percentage. Wilson will almost certainly get selected in the first round, possibly somewhere in the 20s. No Stanford-swing concerns here. (Wilson would go 1-for-2 with three walks and three runs scored.)
I was surprised by the relative lack of scouting heat at the game, with fewer than 20 men who were obviously recognizable as scouts. After all, there were at least two first rounders playing, one of whom could be the very first pick of the draft. The actual scouts—cross-checkers and regional guys—are fairly easy to spot. Most of them are ex-athletes, and they tend to be big and gregarious and carry team-logo-emblazoned bags containing stopwatches and radar guns. There were some obvious front-office types as well: no obvious team-branded gear, but technical-fabric shirts, khakis, and looks of pure focus. In stark contrast to the scout-scouts, these guys were practically silent for the length of the game. The two guys in front of me, execs from the same club, barely even spoke to each other. They were all business.
In the top of the first, a dozen radar guns went up to determine what Cal starter Ryan Mason had. After two hitters, the scouts apparently had what they needed: fastball in the mid- to high 80s, breaking ball in the mid-70s. And the guns went away.
Not so when Appel took the mound. Scouts pointed guns at him for all 108 pitches of his outing. He came out of the chute throwing 95 and touched 97 in the second inning. In the seventh, he was sitting 93, and the slowest fastball reading I saw was 91. The slider was wildly inconsistent: he fanned three in the first two innings, all on biting, wipeout sliders. But he also hung a few at the belt and above – extremely hittable, even for middling college batters.
Command would be a problem for Appel all night. He wasn't wild and walked just one, so it was more a question of his command in the strike zone. While his fastball is already a plus pitch based solely on velocity, it doesn't move much, and if you see it come out of his hand, you can pretty much figure out where it'll end up. And he threw too many fastballs over the fat part of the plate, and even Cal's hitters can square those up and drive them, as Andrew Knapp did when he stroked a home run to right center to lead off the fifth.
I also found the pitch selection odd. No college pitchers or catchers call their own games—managers call the pitches from the dugout—but Stanford skipper Mark Marquess seemed to be doing Appel no favors. Appel worked off the fastball in the first inning, getting ahead with the heat and finishing hitters with the slider. But as early as the second inning, he began going to the slider early, in the first or second pitch of an at-bat. Because his slider command was spotty, he'd often fall behind and have to throw fastballs in the zone. In the majors, anyway, you'd expect a pitcher to perhaps try and get through the entire lineup as Appel did in the first, using the fastball to set up the slider. Showing hitters his “out” pitch early, even if he could command it, seemed strategically unsound. But hey, Mark Marquess has been coaching baseball almost longer than I've been alive, so it's very possible he know something I don't.
The bottom of the fourth inning was probably the most interesting for me. Scouts and talent evaluators have had some concerns about Appel's makeup—not that he's a bad guy or has no work ethic, but there have been questions about how much fire he has, how competitive he is. Some have said he pouts when errors are made behind him or calls don't go his way.
The bottom of the fourth started single-strikeout-single, and then Wayne Taylor, the Cardinal left fielder, dropped a can of corn fly ball that loaded the bases. Would Appel bear down or fall apart?
It wasn't decisive either way. The next two batters singled, then Appel struck out the next hitter on three pitches and induced a groundball to get out of the inning. Two runs had scored, one earned. His body language seemed okay, and I saw no obvious signs of pouting.
Appel's final line was curious. The good: seven innings pitched, 108 pitches thrown, 11 strikeouts vs. just one walk, and the W. The not-so-good: nine hits, five runs (four earned), a hit batsman and a wild pitch. Appel threw exactly two-thirds of his pitches for strikes: 72 of 108. But the real issue was where those strikes ended up. Pounding the zone can yield great results, and most kids at this level lack the command to do it at all. But throwing a fastball with very little movement over the heart of the plate usually doesn't yield great results, and that's what Appel did much of the night.
All that said, Appel won't be 22 until mid-July and is blessed with myriad physical gifts. He's polished beyond what most college pitchers can even imagine, and regardless of which team selects him in the draft next month, he'll move quickly. He could be anchoring a big-league rotation in 2016, with the benefit of two-plus years of professional instruction and a focus solely on pitching. His ceiling might be slightly lower than someone like Jonathan Gray, who will light up radar guns with his 100 mph heater, but his floor is also much higher. He looks for all the world like a big-league starter and has true ace potential. All that remains is to see if he can reach it.