Starting Nine is a new series here at TCB where we check in with The Crawfish Boxes staff on a hot Astros-related topic of the week.
Leading off: Mark Appel has had himself a rocky start to the 2014 season, to say the least. Following an appendectomy in late January, the Astros' first-round pick was able to appear in only one spring training game. However, the Astros sent him to the hitter-friendly California League to begin the year and things did not go well. Reports said that Appel was not adjusting to the tandem system well and Appel was moved to extended spring training. The Stanford product returned to Lancaster rotation on May 31 only to allow ten earned runs in 1.1 innings. Since June 22, Appel has allowed three earned runs in five innings in three consecutive starts. Not bad, but certainly not dominant.
How worried should Astros' fans be about Mark Appel's 2014 thus far?
Not to a very large degree. Their only concern should be why he's been so hittable, and even that is explainable. It's bad luck combined with Lancaster wind, along with his pitches not seeming to be as sharp as they should be. He needs his full repertoire to return before he's judged. (For instance, in the game he was tagged for all those runs, I believe Jason Schwartz said he was only throwing fastballs.) 32 innings is much too small a sample size to judge, and his stats really aren't as important as his pitching development right now.
Mildly at best. Appel's health issues have been many, but none of them have had to do with his knees, elbows or shoulders. By all accounts, his stuff is still perfectly fine. By the numbers, he's still missing bats, not beating himself with walks and inducing grounders. He's pitching his home games in one of the five most hitter-friendly ballparks on the face of the continent. He's had almost everything that can go against a guy go against him in the last six months or so, and despite that, he's out there, on the mound, fighting, learning, adjusting, developing (body and mind), and it's been barely more than a year since he was drafted. The panic surrounding Appel is based solely on his draft slot and inflated expectations. McCullers has been on the DL this year, and no one seems worried. Where's the fear for Velasquez, who's missed most of the season after already losing a whole development year to Tommy John?
First, the qualifications. Appel was my top choice in 2012 and 2013. I like the guy and tend to think he will still contribute and certainly think people are getting way carried away by proclaiming him a bust but ...
1) Most draft picks don't work out. The default setting on any prospect should be pessimism.
2) Despite the evidence in his favor, this has been a disappointing start. With that should come an increase in worry, by definition. If the shoe were on the other foot -- if he had had a great start -- we would likely all say, with all the requisite qualifications, that that was good news and, everything else equal, he was more likely to contribute in the future.
3) While Harold Reynolds and to a much lesser extent other guys like Gammons were way over optimistic about his MLB ETA, a relatively early ETA was in fact one of his selling points so we're not getting that.
Astros fans shouldn't be worried at all. This is one of the drawbacks of the "new Astros," with so much attention focused on the minors to help ease the pain of the awful major league team. Without being able to actually watch him pitch, people are left to box scores, occasional scouting reports, and whatever scraps of information they can find to string together a narrative - the thing is, a year after the draft isn't the ideal time to judge a draft.
I'm not saying Appel is going to end up being a great player. Nor am I saying that he's going to end up being a poor one. But it's just too soon to worry, particularly based on the scarcity of information available. In trying to find "winners" and "losers" in the draft, it's tempting to pass judgment on early returns. But I'd caution against it, and encourage Astros fans to take a long view on all draft picks, even first overalls. There's nothing wrong with acknowledging that his season hasn't been ideal; but I wouldn't extrapolate that as far as being actually worried about his long-term prospects.
No. I'm not concerned. Baseball is a game of patience. Especially when we are evaluating prospects. Yes, it's too small a sample to raise concerns. This means the length of time period prevents us from getting useful information about Appel's true talent level or future career. From a statistical standpoint, we know that his BABIP and HR/Fly rates in A+ are unsustainable. No matter whom we are evaluating, the BABIP and HR/fly rates would tell us that the results are not indicative of his future ability. A few tips. Ignore ERA of pitching performances in small samples. And that is particularly true in the California League. FIP is a little better than ERA for evaluating Appel's performance, but it still includes HRs, which are happening at an unsustainable rate for Appel and are heavily influence by the park conditions. SIERA (from minor league central.com), which is more predictive of skill level and normalizes HRs, shows Appel with ERA-equivalents of 3.90 in A+ and 3.64 for his full minor league career. Does that calm anyone's concern?
Fans have every right to be disappointed in Mark Appel's 2014 season, but not worried. None of his performance this season should tarnish his prospect status or ceiling, and there are several reasons. ERA is the pampered child of a pitcher's peripherals, and right now, Appel's peripherals are on an acid trip, and so the ERA's bound to be screwed up too. In the CAL league this season, 10.6% of fly balls have gone for home runs, and that number has been proven over time to be largely outside of a pitcher's control. Meaning that over time, a pitcher's HR/FB rate should try to return to that rate. Appel has been serving up taters on 26% of his fly balls, which is so unlucky it rivals Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who was on the ground for both atomic bombs during World War 2. Additionally, Appel's BABIP, another stat that usually tries to "find its level" - around .324 for the CAL league - is an unlucky .373.
Appel has been the unluckiest pitcher in the CAL league in terms of HR/FB (oddly followed very closely by teammate and fellow 2013 draftee Kent Emanuel with 19%) and in the Top-10 unluckiest by BABIP. Sometimes, over small samples, that stuff happens, and it's reason to be bummed, not concerned. Fans also seemed disappointed by Appel's season in Quad Cities last year, because they only look at season stats. However if you take out the one 7-ER clunker in August, Appel had a 2.33 ERA over nine other starts with a high strikeout rate. He was exceptional in 2013 - outside of just one start.
Lastly, scouts report that Appel is still pitching in the high 90's, is commanding his pitches exceptionally well, his breaking pitches are biting, and he boasts one of the best walk rates in the CAL league. In all, if one were to strike the "ERA" stat from his record sheet this season, one might guess that in 2014, Appel has pitched like a 1-1 pitching prospect should.
Who's Mark Appel? :)
Just kidding, of course. I'm not concerned and I don't think it's panic mode with him yet either. All reports from scouts still sound like we should have big expectations long term with Appel and that's what matters in the big picture. It's the CAL league so you have to take it all with a grain of salt and a shot of tequila, not to mention that we're all still evaluating him on a pretty darn small sample size. He looked good in '13 and he's still got good command and velocity in '14. Those two factors matter to me infinitely more than the other stats. Plus, as outsiders we never know what the pitching staff is having him adjust or work on and how that effects outcomes. Prospects are prospects and not major league ball players because there's still work to do; they're still developing. Mark Appel has work to do and I think it's time to take a collective deep breath and let him do his thing.
I listened to an interview with Mark Appel and the word I heard him say at least a dozen times was consistency (and its derivatives). This season has been anything but consistent for him. From the appendectomy cutting his spring training to almost nothing, to being sent back to extended spring training, his season has been anything but consistent.
The Cal League is one of the worst statistical environments to pitch in, period. Let's take a look at what kind of wind Appel has faced since coming back from extended spring training:
May 31, 20 mph Out to RF, (2 of 3 HRs wind aided)
June 12, 28 mph Out to RF, (1 of 1 HR wind aided)
June 22, 12 mph R-L, (0 of 1 HR wind aided)
June 27, 26 mph Out to RF (0 Hrs allowed)
July 4, 24 mph Out to CF (1 of 1 HR wind aided)
4 of the 6 homeruns that Appel has allowed have been wind aided, and not just by a gently breeze. The wind in the Cal League is legit, and can wreck a pitchers homeruns allowed. This is why we look at peripherals, and Appel's peripherals are fine. Luhnow knows this, that's why Appel will be at AA if he can continue to pitch to his normal peripherals.
That being said, I would love to see Appel go up and throw some zeroes on the board to calm everyone down.