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Philadelphia Phillies: The curious case of Mark Appel

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It’s been a tough season for Mark Appel in Triple-A, but the former number one pick might be starting to figure it out.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This year, the Philadelphia Phillies have been hit hard with injuries to their pitching staff at the big league level. So far this season, they have had eight different pitchers get a start, including Ben Lively and Nick Pivetta, who made their big league debuts this year.

Of course, there’s one big name at Triple-A Lehigh Valley that hasn’t made his major league debut yet. That is right-handed pitcher Mark Appel. Appel, who was the number one pick by the Houston Astros in 2013, has had a rough season for the IronPigs. In 14 starts, the 25-year-old is 5-3 with an ERA of 5.05 ERA.

It’s been a tough road for Appel ever since he was drafted. Last season, he only made eight starts due to a shoulder strain and he eventually needed surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow.

When Philadelphia acquired him from the Houston Astros in December 2015 in the Ken Giles trade, it looked like he would be the star prospect from that deal. Instead, Vince Velasquez has made 34 starts in 2 seasons in the big leagues and Tom Eshelman has a 1.68 ERA in eight starts with the Ironpigs.

Before the 2016 season, John had Appel ranked as the number seven prospect in the Phillies organization. Fast forward to this season and he was ranked outside of the top 20.

It was a rough start to the season for the right-hander. In April, teams were hitting .300 against Appel and he went no further than five innings in a game. One month later, he had more walks than strikeouts (18 to 17) and gave up 13 runs in a span of two starts (May 18-May 24).

Appel appears to have turned the corner in the month of June. In his last four starts, he has a 2.08 ERA and he was excellent on Monday against Pawtucket. He went 8.1 innings, gave up five hits, struck out eight, and walked three on 119 pitches (79 strikes). In fact, he has thrown over 107 pitches in each of his last three starts. Here is what he told Michael Avallone of about what he’s learned this year:

"I've been able to learn how to bounce back and not take things so hard if I have a bad outing. I'm working on things between starts and getting good input and help from those around me."

When you watch Appel pitch, he has a fastball that gets up to 95 miles-per-hour, a slider, a changeup, and a soft curveball The key for him has to be to get ahead with his fastball so he can utilize his breaking pitches.

The eight strikeouts he had on Monday were the most he has had in a game since he was at Triple-A Fresno in August 2015. Here’s one of the strikeouts he had in the shutout against the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate in a pouring rain:

Since Appel doesn’t strike out many hitters, he relies a lot on soft contact. In Monday’s game, Pawtucket hit the ball hard, but Lehigh Valley had good defensive positioning with their middle infielders, which led to 13 groundball outs.

Despite his struggles, Appel is still one of 11 pitchers to throw 70+ innings in the International League this year. His big problem is the walks. His 41 walks are second in the IL behind Pawtucket’s Henry Owens (52). If he is going to rely on hitters making contact, that walk rate has to be lower (5.2 walks per nine is ninth in the IL according to Baseball Reference)

If Appel can keep up the success he’s had this month the rest of the way, he may get a chance to make that debut in September for the Phillies since he’s on the 40-man roster. Overall, Appel hasn’t lived up to expectations of being a number one pick, but perhaps he is starting to figure it out now that he’s healthy.