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Looking past the stat line: Mark Appel, RHP, Astros

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Mark Appel's struggles this season have been well documented, but the 2013 first overall pick has been better since his promotion to Double-A.

Scott Halleran

"Don’t scout the stat line" is a phrase commonly heard in scouting circles, especially when it comes to scouting Minor League or amateur players. There are a multitude of factors that play into a players’ stat line other than his true talent, including luck, age relative to his level, park factors, health, and transition to pro ball. For these reasons, it is essential to separate the numbers from the true talent, but when the numbers do not match the talent, it is often worth a second look to examine the causes of the poor numbers. Was the initial evaluation of the player inaccurate or can the poor performance be explained by other reasons? Have the tools that helped the player initially climb the lists regressed?

Using the Baseball Prospectus Midseason Top 50 Prospect list as our guide, there are four pitching prospects whose 2014 statistics do not match their high rankings. These prospects are, with their BP midseason ranking in parenthesis, Mets’ righty Noah Syndergaard (9), Reds’ righty Robert Stephenson (10), Diamondbacks’ righty Archie Bradley (14), and Astros’ righty Mark Appel (34).

This week, I’ve examined one of these players each day. Today's piece, featuring Astros' righty Mark Appel, is the final part of this four part series. Link to the other pieces in this series can be found in the "Must Reads' snippet of this article.

Mark Appel’s 2014 Statistics

At High-A: 44.1 IP, 9.74 ERA, 1.97 WHIP, 74 Hits, 11 BB, 40 K

At Double-A: 26.1 IP, 4.10 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 28 Hits, 9 BB, 24 K

As safe of a pitching prospect as there has ever been, Mark Appel has not been the player that the Astros’ envisioned when they drafted him first overall in the 2013 draft. Assigned to the pitcher’s hell that is High-A Lancaster to begin the year, Appel’s run prevention was nothing short of awful. He was hit around like a piñata at a children’s birthday party, surrendering three or more earned runs in nine of his 12 starts.

The Astros felt that they had to get Appel out of that situation, so as soon as Appel put together a decent start they promoted him to Double-A Corpus Christi. Additionally, the Astros had Appel stop at Minute Maid Park to throw a bullpen on his way to Double-A, a cool experience for the young pitcher that was met with an uproar from players and analysts. A national conversation about Appel’s poor performance and the Astros’ handling of him ensued and often centered around the Astros promoting the underachieving Appel instead of lefty Josh Hader, who was 9-2 with a 2.70 ERA at Lancaster this season. As a player who likes to stay out of the spotlight, this was certainly a tough time for Appel, but he has responded reasonably well at Double-A. Before getting into his numbers there, let’s take a look back at his performance at Lancaster, where his inflated ERA does not tell the whole story.

Appel’s performance at High-A is the perfect example of why ERA is often misleading when judging prospects. Sure, preventing runs is ideal, but I value the pitcher’s ability to miss bats, command the baseball, keep the ball in the park, and possess an arsenal that has the potential be effective at the Major League level much more highly than his ERA. Appel has actually been quite good in the first two categories, as his 8.12 K/9 and 2.23 BB/9 at High-A shows that he can still miss bats and throw strikes. The strkeout numbers have remained but the walks have regressed a bit at Double-A, although in his last three starts Appel has a 16 Ks and just three BBs in 17 innings. He is turning his dreadful season around and with every decent start at Corpus Christi his unsightly line in Lancaster looks more and more like a BABIP, park effect, and luck driven aberration.

The home run rate is alarming but also quite inflated, as ten of the 65 fly balls allowed by Appel this season (combined at both levels) have left the yard. That’s largely due to the swirling winds at Lancaster hurting many pitchers who are not ground ball specialists (Hader is a ground ball pitcher, Appel is more neutral), and should not be expected in the future. The move to Corpus Christi has already helped him in this category as he has seen his HR/9 rate drop from an unsightly 1.83 to a very good 0.44. His true ability in home run prevention probably falls somewhere in between the two, but much closer to the low end than the high end.

As for the scouting aspect, reports on Appel are down. Ron Shah of Baseball Prospectus saw three of his starts with Lancaster this season and was very critical of the profile he displayed during those starts. Shah reported that Appel sat 92-93 with the fastball and touched 94, but "mostly just grooves the offering over the plate." Shah is more optimistic about the changeup, noting its deception and grading it as a future 60 offering (on the 20-80 scale), but is down on the slider. He grades this offering as a present 45 with a future grade of 50 and noting that it was often "flat" and "left over the plate." Furthermore, makeup grades from this report are not positive. I agree with Shah that not every player ought to wear his heart on his sleeve, but when a player is being hit around and seems to be pitching "like it’s a bullpen session," there is a bit of cause for concern.

Shah clearly saw Appel at his worst, and has certainly made some improvement since that time. A MiLB.com report after Appel’s scoreless Double-A debut noted that he began the game throwing his fastball in the 96-97 range and recorded all four of his strikeouts on the slider. His velocity in that start dipped to around the 90 MPH range later in the outing, but it is still encouraging to see the highly touted righty regain some of the form that was absent earlier this season.

Appel is a tricky case, as his terrible numbers in High-A are largely due to a four-run difference between his ERA and FIP, a .414 BABIP, and one of the most hitter-friendly home parks in the Minor Leagues. However, even if we remove his fluke of an ERA, many questions about the profile remain. Will he be a pitcher sitting 92 with merely average offspeed offerings? Will he be able to touch 97 and record strikeouts with a quality slider? Is the safe number two starter that Astros thought they were drafting last summer still a possibility? I don’t have an answer for that, as Appel is still a work in progress with a fluctuating profile. The outlook on this player depends on the time during the season when he was seen, but it is encouraging to see Appel improve throughout the year. He will need to make some improvements to become the pitcher many thought he could be, but his improvements at Double-A show that he is not a lost cause.

2015 Outlook

I expect Appel to return to Double-A to open next season, where the Astros will hope he can finally experience sustained success as a professional. His chances of experiencing said success are entirely dependent on which Appel shows up next spring. I have no idea which one it will be, that is up to Appel himself, but the realistic expectation at this time is that he will be a low three or high number four starter in the Major Leagues. That projection is far from a lock and he could still improve his future outlook, but at this time it would be a stretch to project a realistic role as anything more than a low number three. As for a ranking, I’d have a tough time ranking such a player as high as 34 and would probably bump him down to about the 45-55 range, depending on his performance in his final few starts this season.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and MLB Farm. Additional sources and related material includes Ron Shah's Eyewitness Account at Baseball ProspectusThe MiLB.com report of Appel's Double-A debut, Evan Drellich's feature on Appel, and Jose de Jesus Ortiz's report about the uproar in the Astros' clubhouse following Appel's promotion.

Dan Weigel is a contributing writer for Minor League Ball and Beyond the Box Score.Follow his tweets about prospects and baseball on Twitter at @DanWiggles38.