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Thursday, February 14, 2013

No regrets for senior Appel

Kendall Rogers        
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It's a good thing Stanford senior right-handed pitcher Mark Appel can put himself in other's shoes when it comes to opinions about him.

Appel was put squarely under the microscope of critics last summer when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him eighth overall in the MLB draft. Even with the knowledge that Scott Boras was at least somewhat advising Appel, the Pirates took a chance on the righty, who made it perfectly clear throughout the summer he had zero issue returning to college.

The MLB draft signing deadline arrived and the Pirates still didn't have a deal with Appel despite reportedly making an offer up to $3.8 million. It was official at that point: Appel was returning to Stanford for his senior campaign.

The firestorm, particularly on Twitter, was rather heated with fans, and even some writers, taking aim at Appel for what they called a "silly" or "dumb" decision. Appel certainly noticed the amount of critics taking shots at him, and surprisingly, he kind of understands why they might've felt that way following such a monumental decision.

"Just knowing what happened, when someone speaks poorly of me, I try to put myself in their shoes and see why they think that. Why they think I'm greedy and what not," Appel said. "Those people don't know me as a person, though. They don't know my values, and they jump to conclusions without knowing those things.

"If they presented that decision to themselves, they only want to think what they would've done only, and anything that differs from that, it must be perceived by them as greedy or what not. They figure there must be something wrong with that kid," he continued. "It doesn't bother me too much, though. I know who I am."

Appel's decision to spurn the Pirates sent shockwaves through college and professional baseball, with plenty of coaches and scouts pondering if the right-hander made the right decision. Even Rice coach Wayne Graham was rather shocked at Appel's decision.

"He had awfully good stuff last year, I'll say that much," Graham said. "As far as turning that type of money down, it shocked me to say the least. To get that kind of money, it tells you that you'll pitch in the big leagues. There's a pretty big weight to go with that type of money."

But while money may be a big deal to some that play baseball, Appel isn't joking when he consistently states that money isn't a huge issue to him. That isn't Appel being greedy or immature. Far from it, actually. It's simply Appel choosing to focus on more important things in life, such as his relationship with God and letting that guide his life travels.

"That's really one of the biggest things for me, you know, my relationship with Jesus Christ," he said. "My future isn't based on my baseball career or how much money I ever make. It's based on that relationship, the only constant. That's where my confidence in everything I do comes from."

Besides the religious aspect of his decision to spurn the Pirates, Appel also wanted a chance to finish up his degree in management, science and engineering, while also helping the Cardinal reach the College World Series.

Stanford reached the NCAA postseason last year and was a step away from getting back to Omaha before running into a buzz saw at Florida State. Appel was admittedly bad in that series. In the series opener against the Seminoles, the hard-throwing right-hander was visibly affected by the high humidity, and was lit up for seven runs (five earned) on five hits in just four innings.

Being the competitor he is, Appel didn't want that performance being the lasting memory he had as Stanford's ace pitcher.

"I didn't want this decision to be an emotional one, but I definitely though about it [the FSU series]. I didn't want to end my Stanford career like that," he said. "That FSU game, that wasn't who I am as a pitcher. It would've been a real bummer to end things that way. Now, I almost kind of feel like it was a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to come back for my senior season."

As much stock was put into Appel's decision last summer, his actual stock as a prospect hasn't been hampered. The consensus is Appel or Indiana State left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea will be the top pick in the upcoming MLB draft. For future reference, the Pirates don't select until the No. 9 overall pick, with the Astros, Cubs, Rockies and Twins occupying the top four spots in the draft order.

While Appel is excited about the possibility of again being a high draft pick, he feels like he has some unfinished business to take care of both personally and when it comes to Stanford.

It's tough to find flaws in Appel's game, but there are areas that could use improvements. Appel has a huge fastball that sits 94-96, and sometimes gets up to 97-98. He also has good feel for his secondary pitches with a potentially plus 81-85 changeup and swing and miss, hard, 83-86 slider.

Appel, and Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter, feel like he could improve his command of the strike zone. Appel also has been working hard on his mental approach.

Appel certainly hasn't had issues throwing strikes in the past year. He finished last season with 130 strikeouts and just 30 walks in 123 innings of work. However, Appel and Filter have been concerned with the fact he almost throws too many hittable pitches, which can be a problem for a power pitcher with a mid-90s fastball.

"The big thing for me in the offseason was working on pitching more inside with the fastball," Appel said. "That's something I kind of started hitting on pretty good after June last year. For this season and my future, I need to be able to locate that fastball inside."

Filter agrees with that assessment.

"I think one of the areas that's big is just pitching on both sides of the plate to right and left-handed hitters. Many guys say they can pitch inside, but it's tough to do while being effective," Filter said. "We've been working on increasing the angle a little bit to create more swings and misses. Guys gear up for the FB with Mark, so we've been working on ways to make sure that pitch goes into the bottom of the zone, creating more ground balls as opposed to fly balls."

For the first time since his decision last summer, at least on a college baseball diamond, Appel will strut his stuff this weekend against the Rice Owls.

In the meantime, for the next few months, Appel likely will never hear the end of it from critics who continue to discount the decision he made last summer. The senior, though, is glad to be back at Stanford, and wouldn't have it any other way if given the opportunity to go back in time.

"I want it so bad [to get to Omaha], and this will be my last chance," Appel said. "We've been working pretty hard during the offseason. Now we'll see what happens going through the gauntlet."


OF Brandon Thomas, Georgia Tech -- Thomas is a toolsy outfielder with good power, and it came as a surprise when he turned down the Pirates as a fourth-round pick. Thomas batted .360 with 15 doubles, three triples, five homers and 44 RBIs last season.

LHP Matt Boyd, Oregon State -- Boyd has a big-time arm, and served primarily as a reliever for the Beavers last season with a 3.41 ERA in 31 appearances (no starts). Boyd moves to the No. 3 spot in the rotation this season, and could improve his stock after getting drafted in the 13th round by Cincinnati last summer.

RHP Buck Farmer, Georgia Tech -- This might be the most surprising return outside of Mark Appel, mainly due to where he was drafted. Farmer was projected to be a top few round pick, but wound out going in the 15th round to Milwaukee. There were some concerns about Farmer's health, but when healthy, he has a FB in the low to mid 90s.

2B L.J. Mazzilli, Connecticut -- It'll be interesting to see if the always consistent Mazzilli can improve his stock as a senior. Mazzilli was a ninth-round selection to the Twins last summer, and he returns as the cornerstone of this year's UCONN club. He batted .339 with 19 doubles, nine homers and 38 RBIs last season.

OF Mike Yastrzemski, Vanderbilt -- One of the more electric players in the country, it wasn't a huge surprise that Yaz returns to Vanderbilt for another season, but it's an important returnee to say the least. Yaz finished last season with a .286 batting average, six homers and 41 RBIs, and turned down overtures as a 30th-round pick to the Mariners.

SS Justin Gonzalez, Florida State -- The Dodgers selected Gonzalez in the 26th round, but he likely made a smart move by returning to college for his senior campaign. Gonzalez is a smooth fielder with range, and has good power, as illustrated by his nine homers last season. However, the FSU shortstop must become more consistent offensively after hitting .256 in '12.

1B/OF Connor Harrell, Vanderbilt -- Another huge returnee for the Commodores, Harrell, a good power hitter and consistent hitter overall, turned down overtures as a 31st-round pick to the Detroit Tigers. Harrell will play first base for the Commodores this spring, but could see himself in the outfield at the next level with a big-time arm.

SS Pat Blair, Wake Forest -- The Demon Deacons hope to take a big step forward this season, and getting Blair back was huge after he was drafted in the 24th round by the Houston Astros. Blair batted .292 with two homers and 31 RBIs last season.

C Colton Plaia, Loyola Marymount -- The Lions are ecstatic to get Plaia back this spring. The talented backstop is not only a solid defensive player, he's also a good hitter with raw power. Plaia returns after turning down overtures from Baltimore as a 33rd-rounder last season.

LHP Jerad Grundy, Kentucky -- Grundy's return might just be the final piece of the puzzle to this team being a College World Series club this spring. Grundy was a 27th-round pick to Minnesota last summer, but is back with the 'Cats. Grundy is 88-92 FB with a plus SL and CH.

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