Mark Appel throws a pitch for the Phillies in Spring Training
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Mark Appel Makes MLB Debut After 9 Years of Struggles and Time Away from Baseball

The 2002 Disney movie "The Rookie," starring Dennis Quaid, tells the story of the oldest baseball player to ever make his MLB debut. Jim Morris was 35 years old when he made his first appearance for the Tampa Bay Rays in September of 1999. Almost a decade earlier, Morris had hung up his cleats after years of ineffectiveness and multiple surgeries on his pitching arm had forced him out of the game.

Twenty years later, another MLB debut is making similar waves. The 2013 MLB Draft's first overall pick Mark Appel is finally making his Major League Baseball debut at the age of 30.  After many clubs, pundits and scouts gave up on his chances of making a comeback, Appel will join the Philadelphia Phillies as they finish a series against the San Diego Padres.

Mark Appel Makes His MLB Debut at Age 30

Mark Appel throws a pitch as a member of the Stanford Cardinal baseball team.

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As a result of their decision to tank for multiple seasons, the Houston Astros found themselves with multiple high draft picks in consecutive MLB Drafts during the 2010s. This is how the Astros were able to land players like Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Forrest Whitley and Kyle Tucker, to name a few. The big-name they were able to draft in 2013 was Stanford Cardinal starter, Mark Appel.

Appel had been drafted by two other teams before graduating from Stanford. In 2009, as Appel was coming out of high school, the Detroit Tigers selected him, but he told them to go kick rocks. In 2012, despite rumors he had already decided to return for his senior year at Stanford, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him. No dice yet again, which meant Appel was the consensus first overall pick heading into the 2013 MLB Draft.

The 2013 MLB Draft is insane. Big names like Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant, Tim Anderson, Mike Yastrzemski and New York Mets utility man Jeff McNeil to name a few, were all selected. But at the time, there was no bigger name than Appel, who was coming off another insane season at Stanford. While pitching for the Pac-12 powerhouse, Appel posted a 26-13 record as well as a 2.57 ERA in 339.2 innings of work, racking up 346 strikeouts, using his final season to really blow the doors off his time in California.

As the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft, the Houston Astros would have been dumb to pick anyone else. Like most new draftees, Appel was sent to the Single-A level to get some exposure to professional hitters, as well as to gauge what parts of his game needed adjustment. After their new top prospect pitched to a 3-1 record in his 10 starts, the Astros decided to shut him down for the season. They had seen enough and his 3.79 ERA over 38 innings in the Minors were enough to earn him a Spring Training invite in 2014. But that's when things began to go downhill.

Appel Falls Hard from the Tree

Mark Appel shakes hands with Astros GM Jeff Luhnow

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An appendectomy delayed the former first overall pick's spring debut for the Astros and he was assigned to the Minor League camp. After recovering and pitching the final spring game for the minor league squad, the Astros brass sent him to the Lancaster Jethawks, another Class-A affiliate of the Astros. Just four games into the year, Appel was sent back to extended spring training so he could adjust to the pitching rotation workload. When he returned to Lancaster, disaster struck.

Appel's numbers cratered as his record fell to 2-5 record and his ERA ballooned to 9.74 in 12 starts. In the hopes that this was an issue with the workload in Single-A and Lancaster's "hostile pitching environment," the Astros called him up to the Double-A level, perhaps a bit too early. Most MLB aficionados will tell you that the Double-A level is the hardest for young players to adjust to, and is the make-or-break level for MLB prospects. While Triple-A is the highest level and often full of MLB players just on the cusp of the big leagues, the Double-A level is chock full of players fighting to stay above Single-A. It's a dogfight day in and day out.

Appel's numbers evened out in Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League, as he steadied himself to an ERA around 3.00 in both leagues. That success continued in 2015, as the right-handed prospect posted a 5-1 record and 4.26 ERA in 13 starts in Double-A Corpus Christi, before representing the Astros in the MLB Futures Game at the All-Star Game and being called up to the Fresno Grizzlies in June of that year. Finishing the 2015 season with a 4.48 ERA in 12 starts for Fresno was a perfect way to end the year when everything seemed to be trending in the right direction.

Until the Astros traded Appel to the Philadelphia Phillies after the season, as a part of a package for closer Ken Giles. With the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies' Triple-A club, Appel missed his first season after undergoing two surgeries on his arm. In 2017, after a rough showing for the IronPigs, the Phillies designated him for assignment, essentially casting him out into the world of free-agent busts for a team to take a gamble on.

After no one jumped at the chance to take him, Appel announced in 2018 that he'd be taking a step back from baseball for an undisclosed amount of time. After five years of fighting to get to the Majors, the dream appeared to be over. What's worse, is that the Astros and their other superstar first-round picks had already won a World Series and were terrorizing the American League. The ship appeared to have sailed on right-hander Mark Appel.

That is until 2021, when Appel began a comeback.

The Inspirational Comeback of Mark Appel

Mark Appel poses for a photo during the Phillies Spring Training

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Starting at the Double-A level with the Reading Fighting Phils, Appel showed some promise, but failed to wow as a starter. The Phillies moved him back to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where they made the call to shift his usage to strictly bullpen work. And that was the key to unlocking Appel's success.

In 2022, working exclusively out of the bullpen, Appel posted a 1.61 ERA in 19 appearances, earning himself a 5-1 record as a reliever. For the first time since his stint in the Arizona Fall League in 2014, Appel's WHIP fell below 1.000, and his confidence was even higher. The Phillies organization had finally figured out how to unlock the star potential of their beleaguered pitching prospect. Turns out batters had a difficult time dealing with Appel's stuff late in games. A simple, minor tweak.

And then, it happened. Former No. 1 pick Mark Appel was getting his call-up to the majors, 9 years after his journey to this moment began.

The Real Gift of this Moment Belongs to Mark Appel

Mark Appel throws a pitch for the Phillies in Spring Training

Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Sure, Appel's only making his debut because the Phillies placed Connor Brogdon on the Covid injured list and because they needed reinforcements after Bryce Harper broke his hand fighting off a Blake Snell pitch, but who cares. Mark Appel has been fighting his way to the majors from Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A and even retirement to get his shot.

And that's the beauty of this moment. While every baseball fan waits for the moment their team's highest-ranking prospect arrives at the Major League level, those thoughts tend to be selfish. When the Atlanta Braves called up Ronald Acuna Jr, the thought wasn't "good for him," it was "good for the Braves."

But for Mark Appel, he gets to own this moment in ways no other player has since Jim Morris in 1999. We can celebrate this achievement for Appel because it's truly remarkable, but there's no denying that the freedom from the burden of being a "What If" story, is the real gift for Appel in this moment.

Congratulations, Mark Appel. You're officially an MLB player now, and no one can ever say you were a bust again.

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