Mark Appel, once considered the biggest bust in MLB draft history, is heading to minor league camp with the Philadelphia Phillies to make a comeback after the last pitching in a game in 2017.
Appel, 29, spoke to reporters Monday from a hotel room in Florida where he is waiting in quarantine until the camp opens later this week. Appel is one of three No. 1 picks the majors never made, the others being Steve Chilcott and Brien Taylor.
Appel is ready to pursue this dream all over again.
“I think that ate me playing, a lot more than I’ve eaten since,” he said. “I think I have made peace with who I am, what has happened in my life, what has happened in my career and I still have a lot of joy about where I go … I’m here because I play For the love of the game. “
Appel’s return to baseball actually began in 2018, not long after he retired from the sport “indefinitely”.
It started with a baseball game. Appel, the number 1 on the 2013 draft, went to an Oakland A game to catch up with his former Stanford roommate, A’s outfielder Stephen Piscotty.
“At first I wasn’t sure how I would feel if I went to a baseball game. I felt pretty beaten up and exhausted from the game, but I enjoyed it,” said Appel. “I realized that I still love the game and have no bitterness, resentment or regrets about anything that happened in my career.”
As one of the most decorated pitchers in NCAA history, the Pirates moved Appel to eighth overall in 2012, but he returned to Stanford for his senior season and the Astros picked him first in 2013, one place ahead of Kris Bryant. His professional career got off to a rocky start, including a 6.91 ERA on two levels in 2014. He had his best season with the Astros in 2015, posting a 4.37 ERA in 25 starts between Double-A and Triple-A but that Astros locked him in an off-season trade in which they got closer to Ken Giles.
In his two seasons with the Phillies, he was never right. He made just eight starts in 2016 and was diagnosed with a partially torn labrum and rotator cuff. He tried to rehabilitate himself without surgery but made it through just 17 starts in 2017.
“For the past few years I’ve focused on survival,” said Appel. “How do I get through this next start and then to the next? It didn’t feel good. Every time I threw it hurt.”
On February 1, 2018, Appel announced that he would withdraw from the game. However, after going to these games to watch his friend play, he found that the mistake he wanted to play never completely left him. He knew the process began with getting well.
“At the end of the 2018 season, I started wondering what it would take to play again,” he said. “It seemed clear that I still had the desire and just wanted to find out how to get well and started seeing some doctors.”
He finally underwent shoulder surgery in October 2018 and has since rehabilitated, including several trips to Driveline Baseball Academy outside of Seattle. He reached out to the Phillies in November. He threw several bullpens to prepare for camp, and while he said he was probably behind where most of the pitchers are at the time, Appel said he touched 95 mph while he was likely at 92 sat.
“I don’t necessarily expect to be completely dominant and just feel like I did when I played my best games in college and even some good games in professional ball,” he said. “It’s been three and a half years since I’ve faced hits, so I’m trying to put myself on a learning curve to get myself back into baseball.”
While Appel said he’d love to get started, he’ll do whatever the Phillies ask of him. His current goal is simply to keep improving.
“Could I make it to the big leagues now if things go well? Of course anything can happen when you’re back in the system.”