Mark Appel sported a black throwback uniform and a wide smile as he stepped behind a podium at Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium.
At a glance, it might seem odd. Former No. 1 overall draft picks aren’t supposed to be this happy about starting a season in Double-A. Not when they’re nearly 30 years old and eight years removed from their selection.
But the situation is different for Appel, the top choice in the 2013 Major League Baseball draft. This season marks the start of a new chapter in his career, a return after walking away from the sport for three whole seasons.
“I’m really excited. It’s been a long time since I played,” Appel said Monday at Reading Fightin Phils media day. “I think getting to even wear the jersey and be in the locker room, it’s a lot of fun for me.”
The right-handed pitcher hasn’t played since the 2017 season, his second in the Phillies organization. He came in a trade prior to the 2016 season that sent Phillies closer Ken Giles to the Houston Astros, the team that took Appel with the first pick out of Stanford just over two years before. Despite excelling in his college career, Appel struggled in the minors — statistically, mentally, physically.
Struggling in the minor leagues is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re expected to be a team’s next ace when you get drafted. In the winter after the 2017 season, he decided to call it quits.
“I was at a tough place physically. I was hurt. I didn’t really have any light at the end of the tunnel that I could tell was [coming] quick,” Appel said. “Mentally and emotionally, I was worn out.”
Appel didn’t really do any pitching activity throughout the 2018 season. Some of his only experiences with the game at the time came as a spectator. Appel lived in Houston at the time, and would go to see his roommate at Stanford, Stephen Piscotty, play for the Oakland Athletics when they faced the Astros. There, Appel began thinking a comeback might be possible.
“I realized,” he said, “I don’t hate the game. I’m not bitter, I don’t have any resentment or any regrets. I just wasn’t healthy.
“I think by the end of that year I realized that I still have a desire to play again, but I need to figure out how to get healthy.”
Appel underwent surgery and began building back towards pitching. Around the beginning of last summer, he felt like he could be ready to pitch again. The cancellation of the 2020 minor-league season due to the pandemic delayed that, so Appel kept working.
This past November, Appel called interim Phillies general manager Ned Rice to inform him of his desire to come back. In January, he contacted new general manager Sam Fuld to finalize it. The Phillies were happy to have him in minor-league spring training.
“It just felt really good, knowing that a lot of people in the organization are excited that I’m back, are rooting for me and are giving me the tools to try to keep working on my craft.”
Out of spring training, Appel was assigned to Double-A Reading to join a rotation of pitchers who are set to “piggyback” most of their starts, meaning two “starters” combine to pitch most of the innings in shorter outings. He’s scheduled to pitch with Taylor Lehman on Saturday. Appel’s manager has been impressed with what he’s seen so far.
“I’ve heard really good things. I saw one live [batting practice] that he threw and it was pretty awesome,” Fightin Phils manager Shawn Williams said. “Good fastball, everything looks pretty darn good. Just looking forward to seeing him pitch here.”
Williams was also optimistic about the guidance and leadership Appel could provide with his experience in baseball and in life. He turns 30 on July 15, and will be pitching alongside younger players, including the Fightins top prospect and youngest player Francisco Morales.
“I think that always helps,” Williams said, “having an older guy just kind of showing you how to do things, how to do them professionally, on and off the field.”
Although he obviously missed out on time of development, Appel may even be bringing more to the table now because of what he’s learned over the past few years.
“Being able to take a step away was great for me,” he said, “because it gave me perspective. It allowed me to figure out whether I wanted to play again, and if I did, I was playing because I love it – not because of any expectations or pressures that people placed on me.”
That’s what’s changed this time around for Appel. He’s playing for himself and to enjoy the game instead of trying to live up to a title or selection.
“[The expectation is] just to get better and have fun,” he said. “There’s no real expectations as far as what levels I’m playing at or anything.
“If I keep getting better and I feel like I’m improving and I’m having fun, I think I can play for a long time.”
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