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Has the real Mark Appel finally arrived?

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Since the calendar has hit June, former No. 1 overall draft pick Mark Appel has looked more like what the Astros had envisioned.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Appel’s early career has certainly not gone the way many expected. Many believed, including the Astros, that the Appel Era in Houston would be here by now.

It has now been two full years since Mark Appel went first overall to the Houston Astros in the 2013 draft. The Astros passed up two other players that many felt were, at the very least, equally as close to Major League ready as Appel in Kris Bryant and Jon Gray

Bryant, of course, has been making headlines since day one of the 2015 season and has made himself an early candidate for NL Rookie of the Year. Gray, like Appel, seems to still be behind on the learning curve.

Unfortunately for myself, I live in the southeast and while I am surrounded by Minor League baseball teams from all levels, I have never seen Appel pitch in person. That being said, much of this assessment is based on numbers and video footage.

Appel’s early struggles have been well documented. There is no denying that the Astros drafted Appel with aspirations of putting him on the fast track to the Major Leagues. His first two seasons have looked like anything but those of a Major League ready pitcher.

Last year was awful. The positive note to take from the 23-year old righty’s first full season was that at least he was able to get a little bit better once he was promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi. 

Appel recorded a 2-5 record over his first 12 starts of the season with the Lancaster JetHawks. He posted an abysmal 9.74 ERA a 1.92 WHIP while opponents shredded him, batting .372 against him. 

Appel was better at Double-A for his last six starts of 2014, but the performance still did not resemble that of what is expected from a No. 1 overall pick. He finished the season going 1-2 with a 3.69 ERA, improving his strikeout rate (8.1 per nine with the JetHawks and 8.8 with the Hooks) and his batting average against, but saw a slight spike in his walks per nine (2.2 in Lancaster to 3.0 with Corpus Christi).

If you were to look at Appel’s 2015 on paper, it may not appear at first glance that he has seen any improvement. He sits at 5-1 on the season, with an uninspiring 4.26 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP. If you take a look at his last four starts, however, it may be time to question if Mark Appel has turned that corner.

Since the calendar has turned June, Appel has looked more the part of a highly drafted pitcher that could fit into the top end of a rotation. Just look at his numbers:

June 3: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER (1 run scored), 0 BB, 3 K
June 9: 5 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
June 15: 6.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
June 21: 7 IP, 4 H, 0 ER (1 run scored), 0 BB, 6 K -- complete game

It has been hard to pinpoint where Appel’s struggles have been. His mid-90s fastball that comes close to 100 on occasion has not seemed to lose any velocity. He does have good control of his secondary pitches (a changeup and a slider) and is known for having a good understanding of the zone.

One thing that jumps off the page is that when Appel was struggling earlier in the season, 62 percent of his pitches were landing for strikes. He has increased his strike percentage over this four game streak to 66. Perhaps controlling the zone and getting ahead of the batter even that little amount more, has given Appel more confidence on the mound.

That has helped increased his strikeouts per outing as well. Appel struck out 3.2 batters per outing over his first nine starts. He has struck out five per outing during his recent hot streak, but most importantly, he is averaging nearly one strikeout per inning (0.87 to be precise) which is much closer to what has been expected of him than he has shown to date.

Obviously, winning and more command of the zone has led Appel to be more comfortable, which in turn has helped him become less hittable. Over the course of five May starts, Appel allowed an average of 7.2 hits an outing. Allowing just 3.75 hits per June outing has been a major improvement.

Whatever the case may be, his recent June hot streak, one in which he has posted a 2.14 ERA, has earned him a jump to the Fresno Grizzlies. He is expected to make his first Triple-A start on Saturday in the first game of a double-header.

None of this puts Appel on a faster track to Houston, but it it is certainly a promising turn to what looked like an early bust of a career. Should Appel continue to progress in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League, a 2015 MLB debut is not as far away as it once looked.