Drafting a pitcher in the first round of the MLB amateur draft can be a bit of a risk. However, it doesn’t always work out, and Brandon Magee looks at the history of pitchers taken first overall to try and find out if time is running out for Philadelphia Phillies prospect Mark Appel.
Being drafted in the first round of MLB’s First Year Player Draft confers certain expectations to the player and to fans. When a player is picked in the first round two years in a row, expectations rise even further. However, when a player is selected with the very first pick in that second year, the expectations of fans become nearly impossible to attain. Now that three years have passed since Mark Appel was chosen with the first pick of the 2013 MLB Draft, is it time for fans to reset their expectations?
The First Year Player Draft began in 1965 as a way to curtail the large bonuses teams were handing out to amateur players, and to even the playing field. Excluding Appel, Brady Aiken and Dansby Swanson – the last three #1 picks, who are all still working their way through the minor league system – only two first picks failed to reach the major leagues. The first was early, when 1966 first overall selection Steven Chilcott – a high school catcher who had two decent seasons in A-Ball – was unable to catch on above AA. Twenty-five years later, high school southpaw Brien Taylor was taken by the New York Yankees. The left-hander started 27 games in each of his first two seasons (1992 and 1993), averaging six innings per start. Taylor, who had already reached the AA Eastern League in his second season, not only averaged a lot of innings, but almost certainly a lot of pitches as well, as he walked 102 and struck out 150 that year. An arm injury cost him his 1994 season, and he was never able to progress past A-Ball in five more minor league seasons.
While almost all the first picks in the draft make it to the big leagues, the journeys are not always so straightforward. Matt Bush – the first pick of 2004 – finally made it to MLB this season, after a circuitous trip through multiple organizations, multiple positions and a three-year trip to prison. The #1 overall selection in 1999, Josh Hamilton, also spent multiple seasons out of baseball due to personal demons before finally making it to the majors and earning the 2010 AL MVP.
The Appel of MLB Eyes
Widely considered the best player of the 2012 Draft, Appel was taken with the eighth pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates. A combination of factors – Appel’s advisor Scott Boras, draft compensation rules that penalized teams which went over their allocated money, and Appel’s own desire to complete his Stanford degree – saw Mark slip down the draft board. Appel turned down the Pirates $3.8 million bonus offer and returned to college.
Appel did nothing but solidify his standing in his senior season with the Cardinal, going 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP over 106 1/3 innings in 14 starts. Appel not only put up his lowest college ERA and WHIP in his senior season, but also had his best year in strikeouts (130, 11 per 9), walks (1.95 per 9) and hits (6.77 per 9). The Houston Astros, who had passed on Appel with the first pick in the previous season – taking prep star Carlos Correa instead – tapped him #1 overall in the 2013 Draft. Appel would sign with the ‘Stros, inking a contract that included a $6.35 million bonus – $1.5 million below slot.
We’re not in the Pac-12 Anymore
Appel spent the 2013 season making ten starts with Tri-City of the New York Penn League and Quad Cities in the Midwest League, putting up an ERA of 3.79 and a WHIP of 1.184 over 38 innings. In this admittedly small sample, his numbers were not overwhelming, but first-year performance needs to be evaluated in concert with the adjustment to the professional lifestyle.
Houston placed Mark in the High-A California League with the Lancaster Jethawks for his first full season in 2014. While High-A is a standard assignment for an advanced pitching prospect, the California League – with the desert winds of the Mojave – tends to crush pitchers’ spirits and statistics. Appel was no exception, as he recorded an ERA of 9.74 and a WHIP of 1.917 over 44 1/3 innings in 12 starts. Appel was able to keep reasonable numbers with his strikeouts (40) and walks (11), but allowed hard hits at an alarming rate (74 hits and nine HRs). Mark went beyond five innings and produced a game score above 60 only once in Lancaster – his twelfth and final start with the Jethawks.
That start, however, earned him his freedom from the high desert and a place in AA Corpus Christi of the Texas League in late July, 2014. In 39 innings and seven starts for the Hooks, Appel put up better numbers with a 3.69 ERA and a 1.231 WHIP. He also was able to register the best start of his professional career in his penultimate appearance for the Hooks, pitching eight scoreless innings on two hits and a walk while striking out ten.
Appel was able to continue to show improvement in the Arizona Fall League in October and November of that year, adding an additional 31 innings over seven starts with an 2.61 ERA and a 0.839 WHIP. Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com all considered him to be a top 35 prospect in all of baseball despite his horrific beginning to the season.
In 2015, Appel spent the first half of the season with AA Corpus Christi before getting a promotion to AAA Fresno of the Pacific Coast League. Overall, Appel went 10-3 over his 25 starts, which might suggest a strong performance. However, his other numbers indicated a struggle. In his 13 AA starts, Appel had an ERA of 4.26 and a WHIP of 1.437, a significant step back from his record in AA the previous season. His hits, walks, and home runs per 9 innings all increased while his strikeouts per 9 decreased. The move to the PCL saw some improvement with his WHIP (1.390) and his strikeouts (8.0 per 9). However, his ERA jumped to 4.48 and his propensity to give up the base on balls increased to 3.7 per 9.
In December, Appel was traded along with four other Astros – including Vincent Velasquez – to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Ken Giles and Jonathan Arauz. He also found himself on the outside looking in, falling out of the top 100 prospects in baseball.
His 2016 season has seen him start seven times with the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs of the International League. It has been a tale of two months. Appel came out of the gate strong, going 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his four starts in April, striking out 17 and allowing only four extra-base hits in 22 innings. May has seen him fall back to earth, with a 6.32 ERA and an 0-2 record over 15 2/3 innings with nine walks and five extra-base hits. He has struggled with efficiency the entire year as he has been unable to go beyond six innings in any of his seven games while throwing between 83 and 93 pitches in each appearance.
In 52 years of the draft, 14 college pitchers have been drafted with the first pick. How does Mark Appel compare to those other 13 pitchers?
Unfortunately for Appel, not favorably. Eight of the thirteen appeared in their first major league games in their first full professional season. Not surprisingly, with a pair of exceptions, they all could be considered unqualified successes. Ben McDonald – who debuted in the same season he was drafted – Andy Benes, Mike Moore, and Floyd Bannister each accumulated at least 20 WAR over their careers. David Price and Stephen Strasburg are still active and both have signed huge multi-year deals in the past year.
Luke Hochevar, drafted in 2006, debuted for the Kansas City Royals the next season. He spent five full seasons in the Royals rotation, producing a mediocre 5.44 ERA. However, since moving to the bullpen, Hochevar has put up a 2.74 ERA and increased his K/9 to 9.5. His success may not be unqualified, but he will have a decade-long major league career when all is said and done.
Matt Anderson, on the other hand, didn’t last so long. He started out fast, putting up a 3.27 ERA in the Detroit Tigers bullpen as a 21-year-old in 1998. However, his propensity to give up bases on balls ultimately led to the loss of major league opportunities. Anderson last played in MLB for the Colorado Rockies in 2005, at the age of 28.
Paul Wilson and Gerrit Cole each made it to the majors in their second full professional seasons. Cole has been one of the best young pitchers in the majors in his first three MLB seasons, coming in fourth in the NL Cy Young race last year at 24-years-old. His 3.05 ERA and 1.161 WHIP this season continue to add to his successful beginning. Wilson is another example, like Brien Taylor, that injuries can fell even the best potential.
Which leaves three players who, like Appel, only slowly navigated the minor-league system.
Kris Benson spent his first full season in the minors (1997) in High-A Lynchburg and AA Carolina. His second season (1998) was with AAA Nashville, where he put up a 5.37 ERA and a 1.359 WHIP in 28 starts. His minor league apprenticeship over, Benson was a member of the starting rotation for the 1999 Pittsburgh Pirates, where he recorded a respectable 4.07 ERA over 31 starts. Benson, who lost the entire 2001 season due to injury, ended up starting 200 games over 9 major league seasons.
Tim Belcher’s minor league journey extended over four seasons, largely due to losing most of the 1986 season – his third – to injury. Once Belcher did debut in the majors, he was able to make the most of it: a 14-year career, 373 starts, and a 146-140 record. His second full MLB season in 1989 was his best, as he led the league with ten complete games and eight shutouts.
Finally, there is Bryan Bullington. His major league debut was a September bullpen appearance in his third professional season in 2005. It was his only moment in The Show for that year. He would make MLB appearances for four different teams from 2007-2010, but his total of only 26 appearances, a record of 1-9 and his 5.62 ERA during his Major League career show that even a seemingly safe pick can fail spectacularly.
Where does that leave Mark Appel? While it certainly seems unlikely that he will be the first college pitcher chosen as the overall number one pick to not make the majors, his chance to be an all-time great has almost certainly passed. Given the above comparisons, Appel certainly could end up having a serviceable decade of MLB service, possibly even enjoying a Cy Young-worthy season. Another possibility is that the Phillies decide to focus on his best pitches and convert him into a reliever a la Luke Hochevar. But success is never guaranteed – just ask Bryan Bullington.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.