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This Former No. 1 Pick Is Trying To Forge An MLB Career … At Age 30

Mark Appel turned 30 on July 15, and he’s already retired once. But the former top overall draft pick is pitching again this season, starting for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, staying ready if the Philadelphia Phillies call.

Appel knows all about the challenges of making the major leagues after turning 30 — it is a rare group that does it, and it’s rarer still for those who make it to stick around. He also knows what it will mean if he doesn’t make it: He would become just the third No. 1 pick since Major League Baseball instituted the June amateur draft in 1965 through his draft class in 2013 to never play a big-league game.

But for a guy staring down those numbers — and rest assured that the Stanford-educated Appel, whose fallback plan after baseball is heading to business school, understands them better than most — Appel sure doesn’t sound like someone afraid of failure, not after three seasons away from the game before his comeback began this spring within the Phillies’ organization. 

In fact, as the IronPigs hurler stood in the concourse just above the first-base stands at PNC Field in Moosic, Pennsylvania, last week, he ticked off the reasons why he saw 2021 as a success.

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“​​I mean, if you compare my performance this year to my last couple years of life, I hadn’t been playing baseball,” Appel said, smiling. “So the bar was set pretty low. Honestly, there are things where I’m really happy with some of the progress that I’ve been able to make, especially given the break that I had, and there are things that I still am hungry to get better at.”

Appel believes, and clearly the Phillies do as well, that he’s still got the raw stuff that made him the top pick. There’s a calm in knowing it’s simply a matter of harnessing it; he said that his velocity this spring returned right away, and he sees his potential in smaller moments as he’s pitched this season.

The results don’t jump off the page, but using typical minor league metrics to evaluate the 30-year-old who missed three years isn’t likely to yield many comps. After six starts in eight games with a 5.84 ERA for Double-A Reading, he was called into manager Shawn Williams’s office and told he had been promoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley — just one step from the big leagues.

“I was honestly surprised,” Appel said. “I wasn’t necessarily throwing the ball great by any means. I had my last game in Reading, and it was a good one. But, typically, just in my experience, one good game is not going to earn you a promotion to the next level.”

There is a historical record of pitchers 30 or older who have broken through in the major leagues. There have been 94 pitchers since 2000 who have debuted in their age-30 season or older, and we’ve seen nine of them already in 2021: Hirokazu Sawamura of the Red Sox, Tommy Nance of the Cubs, Louis Head of the Rays, Hyeon-jong Yang of the Rangers, Dusten Knight and Mickey Jannis of the Orioles, Aaron Northcraft of the Padres, Vinny Nittoli of the Mariners and Andy Burns of the Dodgers. But the list of those who stick around and make an impact is more limited. Just 16 players overall, at any position, have debuted after 30 and posted more than 10 career wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference.com. And even that list is rife with players who joined MLB only after successful careers in Japan or Cuba.

Few rookies in their 30s have made a mark

MLB players with at least 10 career wins above replacement who debuted after their 30th birthday

Name Position Debut year Debut age Career WAR
Curt Davis P 1934 30 39.14
Ellis Kinder P 1946 31 28.92
Orlando Hernández P 1998 32 23.14
Hiroki Kuroda P 2008 33 20.88
Johnny Niggeling P 1938 34 17.73
Mickey Haefner P 1943 30 17.39
Hisashi Iwakuma P 2012 31 16.85
Koji Uehara P 2009 34 13.49
José Contreras P 2003 31 13.14
Yuli Gurriel* 1B 2016 32 13.02
Jim Turner P 1937 33 12.23
Art Fowler P 1954 31 10.88
Takashi Saito P 2006 36 10.50
Nori Aoki OF 2012 30 10.29
Roger Wolff P 1941 30 10.18
George McConnell P, 1B 1909 31 10.13

*Still active, with WAR through games of Aug. 1, 2021.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

But what is it that separates Triple-A players from the big leagues? It could be one game, one injury, one opportunity. All out of the player’s control.

Curt Davis was trapped in the San Francisco Seals’ organization until he became eligible for the minor league draft. The Phillies promptly snapped him up for $7,500, and he won 19 games in his first big-league action. Ellis Kinder didn’t debut until he was 31, earning the nickname “Old Folks,” then enjoyed a long, successful career as a swingman with the Browns, Red Sox, Cardinals and White Sox, winning 102 games and saving 104 more.

Of course, circumstances help determine who even has a chance to keep pushing for that opportunity. Not everyone can spend long, impoverished years in the American minor leagues. It’s something Appel is quick to mention — that getting a large signing bonus and coming from a background he describes as “a privilege” have helped him continue his career. He’s overcome so much to be here, still pressing forward with his dreams, but he knows it isn’t a question of just wanting it more — though he certainly is doing everything he can to get there. He’s had teammates through the years without that bonus, who were sending money home to their families, not getting financial help.

“It’s being aware that, OK, that exists,” Appel said. “And other people don’t have the same. So for me to tell someone else how to live their life, that they need to save money? Of course, they have the pressing needs that I don’t have, so it can be really hard. But I think there’s a lot of guys that have a lot of talent.”

That nobody succeeds or fails on their own is an important lesson for life as well as baseball. Appel said that once he stepped away from the game, he understood that no one he truly cared about saw him as a failure for falling short of the major leagues. Not his dad, his mom or his brother, who provide an emotional support system.

With that, the pressure he put on himself — that knowledge that so many others had helped him, and feeling like he had to justify it all with a sparkling major league career — disappeared.

“There’s so much about life that we miss out when we’re just focused on trying to be the best baseball player that we can,” Appel said. “And when you live in that place, it’s like your good games feel great, you’re invincible, and your bad games feel like you can’t figure anything out. And you’re the worst player ever. And neither of those are true.” 

When Appel retired, his body was aching from trying to fight through injury after injury. Time between starts was dedicated just to physically preparing to get back out on the field instead of working on the craft of pitching. But he’s made time to heal. And health means therapy, too, through conversations over Zoom or phone with his counselor, reminding him of all he’s learned off the field It means spiritual peace, as well.

“I believe God taught me a lot of lessons about contentment,” Appel said. ”Just understanding that nothing is really guaranteed in life. Finding purpose and identity outside of baseball, and outside of what people think of you. … I think the majority of people, that’s how we form our identities, and a sense of self-worth. So when your job is not going great, and people hate you or think you’re terrible … a lot of people will end up in really tough places.”

Keeping those cares at bay, Appel can instead look closely at the things he needs to control to get back to the big leagues. 

His process is all-encompassing. He studies his starts on film, and because the time off has helped his body heal, he’s finally able to work on his craft between starts, going into detail with former big leaguer and current Lehigh Valley pitching coach Aaron Fultz. He entered his Aug. 11 start against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders struggling with his command: Up to that point in Triple-A this season, he had delivered more walks than strikeouts. The swings and misses were coming, but he knew they’d come in greater numbers once hitters couldn’t simply lay off the slider in the dirt and wait for the fastball.

“It’s just the walks are killing me, the free passes are killing me,” Appel said. “I can’t tell you in the last three weeks, how many of the runs that have scored, were walks or hit by pitches that cross the plate. So it’s like, you eliminate those, I’m probably stringing together quite a few solid outings and maybe knocking on the door.”

Appel is following the Phillies and their recent surge closely, willing to pitch as a starter or in relief — whatever would help that team win. And the outing he put together against the RailRiders could have drawn the attention of those Phillies. Appel was masterful, throwing six scoreless innings, walking just one and striking out six, looking every bit like a pitcher ready to help Philadelphia down the stretch. The fastball was down in the zone consistently, and just as Appel predicted, that made his slider a true out pitch.

But he can’t force the Phillies to make a move, and he can’t help the MLB rule change that limits September roster expansion to 28 players, down from the previous 40. “I have to focus only on the dirt that I’m standing on in the middle of the field, I can’t control much else beyond that,” Appel said. He also can’t have too many more outings like Tuesday night’s, in which he was rocked for five runs in just one inning against the Rochester Red Wings.

Whatever other people think about Appel, he knows how he views his life now, in the year he turned 30. And it’s thanks to a film he and his family have been watching since he was a child: “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

“The Appel family, at some point every Christmas season, gets together [to watch it], and there’s never a dry eye at the end,” he said. “And what Clarence writes in that book just always resonates with me. ‘No man is a failure who has friends.’” 

Appel, visibly emotional, acknowledged it, then continued. “For me? That’s everything. I care more about what happens in the clubhouse, what happens in this interaction, with my family and my girlfriend, just everyone back home, than what happens on that field. And I care a lot about what happens on that field.”

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