Former top pick Mark Appel leaves baseball without throwing a big league pitch

Mark Appel was drafted first overall by the Astros in 2013, and five years later he’s leaving baseball without reaching the majors. (AP Photo)

It’s been a long, strange journey for 26-year-old pitcher Mark Appel. In 2013, the Houston Astros chose him first overall in the draft as part of a massive and risky rebuild. Five years later, Appel still hasn’t made it to the majors, and he might not ever get there. In an in-depth interview with Joon Lee of Bleacher Report, Appel revealed that he’s taking an “indefinite break” from baseball. If Appel stays away, he’ll be just the third No. 1 pick to never reach the majors.

Five years doesn’t seem like a long time, but in baseball it’s an eternity. Five years ago, Appel was a highly touted college pitcher out of Stanford, and the Astros gave him a bonus of over $6 million when he signed with them. So what happened between then and now that would make him want to stop playing baseball?

Life happened. No matter how many experts say a prospect is can’t-miss, it’s never ironclad. Appel had a spectacular senior year at Stanford, but struggled immediately once he started pitching professionally. He was expected to make the majors in less than a year, which went out the window pretty quickly. He couldn’t adjust to the hitter-friendly atmosphere in Single-A Lancaster, or to the system they used for starters which required him to start every fourth day. In 2014 he racked up a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts, and told Lee that he was “maybe the worst pitcher in professional baseball” that year.

“I go out and pitch, and it’s the same thing every time. I can’t get an out,” Appel says. “Walk. Hit. Walk. Hit. Then I’m out of the game. What just happened? Now it’s like I have four days before I get my hopes up again, get excited, build that confidence, not caring what happened in the past. Then the same thing happens again.”

After one particularly horrendous start, he screamed himself hoarse and threw baseballs at a wall, leaving it with a giant hole. Appel fixed it himself instead of paying the $600 repair fee.

At the end of 2015, Appel was sent to the Philadelphia Phillies as part of the Ken Giles trade, which is when his injuries started to stack up. He hit the disabled list with a shoulder strain in both 2016 and 2017, and didn’t pitch well when he wasn’t on the DL. His move to the Phillies was viewed as a fresh start, but Appel was still the same. He was still struggling.

There is no one reason Appel decided it was time to move on. It was a combination of factors. Watching his former teammates on the Astros pass him by and eventually win a World Series. The loneliness that came from the constant travel and long bus rides of the minor league season. Time away from family. The frustration of pitching badly, and the isolation of rehabbing injuries. It all boiled down to Appel feeling unhappy and unhealthy, and Appel decided he’d had enough.

With baseball on hold, Appel has more free time than he’s ever had. He’s been playing, thinking, breathing, and living baseball since he was a teenager, and he seems almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of options he has now.

“I’m 26, I have a Stanford degree, I have many interests beyond baseball, which I still love, but I have a lot of things I care about,” Appel says. “I enjoy challenging my mind. My last four years in baseball have challenged my mind.”

He could do anything next. And beyond that, the door to baseball isn’t closed forever. Appel could still have a future as a reliever. But if he never makes it to the majors, or even if he never plays baseball professionally again, Appel seems to be okay with that.


No matter what Appel ends up doing in the future, we wish him luck in becoming the happier, healthier human he wants to be.

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at lizroscher@yahoo.com or follow her on twitter! Follow @lizroscher