“It’s been quite the road to get there, and I guess I’m home,” Mark Appel said after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Astros in 2013. But the All-American Stanford pitcher’s journey to becoming a coveted prospect and centerpiece of a rebuild was a short walk to the grocery store compared to the odyssey that would eventually lead to his MLB debut, finally, at age 30 on Wednesday night.
When he pitched a one-hit, scoreless ninth inning for the Phillies in a 4-1 loss to the Braves, Appel became the oldest-ever No. 1 pick from the June draft, dating back to 1965, to make his first appearance in the Majors. It was a pretty uneventful showing, as far as baseball outings go, but given that Appel’s pro career looked to be over years ago, this inning was one of the wildest developments of the season.
The Houston-born Appel joined his favorite team as a kid in the middle of a nine-year stretch of missed postseasons and six straight losing years, including three straight with a winning percentage under .350. While the Astros’ tank job landed them critical pieces that brought them the franchise’s first-ever World Series—including Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer—Appel stands out as its biggest swing and miss. His career started solidly enough as a 21-year-old in Single-A ball, but an appendectomy in early 2014 delayed the start of his spring training and became an ominous sign of things to come. Playing for the Lancaster JetHawks, Appel posted a disturbing ERA of 9.74 in 44.1 innings, but the Astros, wanting to give him a change of environment, brought him up to Double-A anyway. He did in fact get his feet under him at Corpus Christi, and in 2015 Appel made it to Triple-A Fresno, but with a 4.48 ERA in 68.1 innings there, the Astros decided they were willing to give him up. The following December, they included Appel in a package of prospects that netted them relief pitcher Ken Giles from the Phillies.
Appel only got in eight mediocre starts in Triple-A at Lehigh Valley before suffering a shoulder issue compounded by an elbow problem that forced him to get surgery, ending his 2016 prematurely. In 2017, Appel again struggled with his health while putting up a 5.27 ERA in 82 Triple-A innings. Before the next season began, the continuing struggles prompted Appel to announce that he would be taking “an indefinite break” from the sport. Despite getting tagged with the “bust” label, Appel maintained an upbeat mindset about his disappointing career.
“I don’t know what the future holds. I’m pursuing other things, but also trying to become a healthy human,” Appel said then. “I’m 26, I have a Stanford degree, I have many interests beyond baseball, which I still love, but I have a lot of things I care about. I enjoy challenging my mind. My last four years in baseball have challenged my mind.”
He added, “Some people have real struggles. I played baseball. I thought I was going to be great, and I wasn’t.”
Living off his $6.35 million signing bonus, Appel instead enjoyed the outdoors in the summer of 2018, trekking through Colorado and North Carolina. He spent six months as a salesman for a company that gave loans to minor leaguers, then got involved with a sandwich shop in Houston. But as he stayed in touch with other ballplayers, and got surgery to clean up his shoulder, Appel started feeling more and more ready to give pro baseball another try, and the team that still owned his rights was willing to give him a shot. In March 2021, before he reported to minor-league spring training for the Phillies again, he continued to approach his high-pressure line of work with a very chill attitude.
“I think I can do it again, and I think I can do it well, and I think I can stay healthy,” he told The Athletic. “Some of that’s out of my control. But as far as everything that’s in my control, it’s like, I’m going to do it all the best of my ability. And if it doesn’t work, it’s like, ‘Man, bummer.’ But that’s nothing to be ashamed of, or to feel like you feel failed in any way. “
Appel didn’t return as a completely changed pitcher, and his ERA in Triple-A last season was still an unfortunate 6.17. But in 2022, working exclusively out of the bullpen for the first time ever, Appel finally found a real groove, posting a WHIP of 0.929 and an ERA of 1.61 across 19 appearances for Lehigh Valley. Those performances were good enough, after over nine years of waiting, to earn Appel a call-up when Phillies reliever Connor Brogdon went on the COVID list. Five days later, he was on the mound in Philadelphia. Leaning heavily on his high-90s sinker, Appel got a lineout, gave up a single, got a strikeout looking, and then a groundout to end the inning.
In so many stories about his career to this point, Appel had projected a c’est la vie mindset about his disappointments, but the emotional weight of this accomplishment for him could not be downplayed.
“Even if I was just trying to come back, it’s never been a straight line for me,” he said after the game. “Even in that whole process, I was lost. I felt like there were times when I was hopeless, that this dream would never happen. So yeah, I was choking back tears.”