When Mark Appel was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012 and chose to return to college rather than to sign, there was a lot of speculation as to why. The narrative usually revolved around some degree of greed. Tales resurfaced of former Scott Boras draft picks who went to play in independent ball rather than accept smaller bonuses than they wanted.
Of course, that narrative fell apart when Appel quickly signed after being drafted by the Astros, and below the slot value for his draft pick. So the narrative evolved, bringing in the Pirates' Navy SEAL training with their prospects and all kinds of other things. One thing that was rarely given much weight, largely because we're dealing with professional athletics, was the possibility that Mark Appel might simply have wanted to finish his college degree at Stanford.
Standing beside the cherub-cheeked bonus baby, though, one gets the sense that that may in fact be exactly what he had in mind when he returned to Stanford.
"There might be high expectations, but they aren't expectations I put on myself," Appel told me at yesterday's Media Day event in Lancaster. "The only expectation I put on myself is to give 110% every single day. If I do that and I give up ten runs, I can honestly look at myself in the mirror and say I gave it my all. I might need to get better, and hopefully I'd learn from that and be able to get better. But I gave it my all. It wasn't from lack of effort."
Yes, the first thing that strikes you when you talk to Appel - besides how easy he is to talk to for such a high-profile player - is his humility.
It's easy to talk about baseball as a game filled with failure - whether that's an elite hitter who succeeds just thirty percent of the time, or whether it's baseball prospects, who often simply never make it to the big leagues. Appel is aware of the game's nature - both on the field and off - and has found a way to weather whatever storms come his way.
"It's a game full of failure," he says. "In Lancaster, a lot of runs are going to be scored, whether you like it or not. All I can control is what I throw and where I throw it. If I throw it where I want and it gets hit, there's not much I can do. Once the ball leaves my hand, it's out of my control."
Control is a word we use a lot when it comes to pitching. But not always the way that Appel uses it. He knows that what happens between his hand and the catcher's mitt is what he can control. What happens everywhere else, well, that's a different story. And that may be exactly why he finds success in an environment like Lancaster, where there are a lot of things outside of that sacrosanct sixty feet and six inches that a pitcher can't control.
"My job isn't to strike everybody out. My job isn't to get everybody out. My job is to give our team a chance to win the game. If I leave the game and we have more runs than the other team, then I see that as a success, whether I gave up eight runs and we scored ten, or whatever. At the end of the day, we're here to win. Personally, I'm here to develop. If I can learn something from the bad starts as well as the good starts, then I feel like I'm moving in the right direction."
Other things outside of Appel's control? Prospect rankings. "What happened last summer happened last summer. I don't see myself as a lesser pitcher or a lesser player or anything like that than I was when I was drafted, just because my numbers didn't look as good as some other guys. I'm okay with people not talking about me or anything like that. I don't need the attention to motivate me to do well."
Appel grew up in Houston, rooting for the Astros, and wants nothing more than to help bring his hometown team a World Series championship. When he even mentions the idea, his eyes widen. But he also understands that a lot of whether or not that happens is, you guessed it, out of his control. So instead, he focuses on the things he can control, like how hard he works.
"I want to earn my way up (in the organization.) Not because I was a high draft pick, but because I work harder than everybody else, or because I make the pitches that I need to do. That's really what my mentality is - to just go out and give 110% every time out. If I do that every day, I'll get better every day and I'll help my teammates get better every day. If I'm doing that, then I'll be exactly where I need to be."
He's also found a way to deal with those numerous things he can't control - through his faith.
"Knowing my life is built on something that is so solid, with such a firm foundation... it makes all the pressures, the expectations, the failures, the fears, it takes them all away and I'm able to go out there and play this game I love. It's something that I find joy in. I honestly feel like when I find joy in playing this game, God is glorified through that. So it's really freeing, knowing that I don't have any expectations to reach. I don't have to be the best guy every single time out."
He doesn't know how long he'll be in Lancaster ("Part of me doesn't want to know. I want to earn my way up.") He doesn't know - at least not firsthand - what it will be like in the Cal League ("You can complain about it all you want but it's not going to accomplish anything. It'll be a test of character. It'll be beneficial to us all in the long term, even if we do get completely rocked.") He doesn't know how he'll like working in a tandem rotation ("I'll try to make the most of it. Try to be able to succeed and thrive in the system.")
Those things are all outside of his control. And he's learned to accept that about baseball, and about life.
Oh... and one more thing he can't control: He'll be wearing high socks this season, not his signature stirrups. "They don't really do stirrups in this organization. I tried to talk to them, but no luck."
Sometimes, things outside of our control are just plain unfair.