Mark Appel is making his MLB debut nine years after being the No. 1 overall pick

It’s always worth celebrating when a No. 1 draft pick makes his major league debut. But when Mark Appel took the mound in Philadelphia on Wednesday night, it was no ordinary story for a phenom who was starting his career with big years ahead of him.

Apel will turn 31 in two weeks. And in the three seasons he’s been out of baseball entirely, his promising big league career appears to have begun before its end.

A good high school player in Northern California, Appel developed quickly at Stanford, becoming the best pitcher in the NCAA and being talked about as a generational talent who could transform a franchise.

Expected to go No. 1 in the 2012 draft, his contract demands scared off some teams and he fell to the Pittsburgh Pirates at No. 8. Instead of signing for less than he thought he was worth, he chose to return to college and had another stellar season for the Cardinals.

The following year, everything seems to have settled down. The team he grew up playing for, the Houston Astros, took him with the top pick and gave him a $6 million signing bonus. He looked like a can’t-miss prospect, and there was speculation that he would be in the majors by the end of this season.

Instead, it took another nine agonizing years.

Of course, prospects mostly travel through the minors, but Appel struggled. He consistently put up ERAs in the fours, fives or more and battled injuries. A trade to the Phillies in late 2015 didn’t improve things, and he suffered a serious shoulder injury in 2017. The following year, at the age of 26 – “physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually drained”, as he would later say. – He left the game. At the end of the same year, he underwent shoulder surgery.

After three full seasons away from baseball, Appel began his return to the Phillies in 2021. His first year in the minors was tough and Twitter thread last SeptemberHe discussed the difficult road back, admitting that it has been called “the biggest bust in MLB history.” He said he struggled with depression and that in 2014, “after some terrible games, I broke down the locker room wall.”

Things finally came together this spring with the Class AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs. He started the season 5-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 19 relief appearances. That was enough to earn him the first call-up, which came on Saturday.

After days of waiting as Philadelphia played several shutout games, Appel entered the ninth inning Wednesday with the team trailing by three runs. He gave up one hit in a scoreless inning, delivering a nasty sinker that ranged from 94 to 97 miles per hour.

“I feel like a renewed Arsenal this year,” he said on MLB TV after the game. “I made some mechanical changes. He kind of changed his hand on the fastball, changed his arm movement, and I think at the beginning of the season I’m like, “I’m throwing, I’m throwing pretty hard and the ball is moving.”

He added, “I knew I was going to have fun this year regardless of the results, so to get an opportunity like this is way beyond what I imagined when I showed up to spring training.”

While the baseball draft carries more uncertainty than any other sport, the No. 1 overall pick is usually in the majors. Many, such as Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones, became superstars. And in recent years, Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole and Carlos Correa have more than justified their No. 1 picks.

Going back to the 1965 draft, there are now only four No. 1 picks who have never played in the big leagues: Steve Chilcott (the catcher the Mets selected in 1966); Brian Taylor (pitcher, Yankees, 1991), Brady Aiken (pitcher, Astros, 2014) and Henry Davis, a catcher in the Pirates’ system who was drafted last year and should be available soon.

“I came into this year knowing that every day could be my last,” Appel said after Wednesday’s game. “I was really at a point where I was still trying to figure out what my role was — reliever, starter — I still have it in me to put up good numbers, things like that.

“So if every day were my last, I’d enjoy it. And I really enjoyed this night. “

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