It’s the seventh inning of the first game in the opening series of the year. At about 55 degrees, the clear Palo Alto night is brisk but comfortable. Top prospect Mark Appel has held No. 10 Vanderbilt to one run on two hits so far, including four no-hit innings to start his season on the right foot. His top-rated Stanford squad is ahead comfortably after a home run by fellow Major-League prospect Stephen Piscotty and an inside-the-park home run from infielder-turned-catcher Eric Smith. With one out, an Appel changeup gets taken all the way to the wall for a long out.
Coach Mark Marquess heads to the mound for a conversation — his pitcher looks a little gassed. His Friday Night Starter shakes his head repeatedly, affirming that he’s fine. Marquess makes his way back to the dugout.
A groan erupts on social networks and in the crowd of scouts behind home plate. Even after a few more long fly-ball outs, the sentiment remains. Why should the Cardinal leave their ace out there in a game that is well in hand?
Because it was important to the Stanford ace.
“Staying strong late into games is something I’m working on,” admitted Appel, who’s heading into a game against USC this week. When asked about the specifics of that inning against Vanderbilt, though, he laughs — “two weeks seems like such a long time ago now.”
That might be because since then, Appel has put up a signature game in which he showed both durability, longevity, and a crisp, sparkling changeup. In “that game against Rice,” Appel struck out 14 in nine innings and sat down the side in order in six innings. He said he felt his strongest late in that game. “I didn’t feel strong at all in the first inning, and my velocity was down,” Appel recounted, but by the eighth and ninth inning, “I was my normal self again.” He remembered that 12 of his 13 pitches in that ninth inning — where he struck out the side to finish his day in Stanford’s first loss of the season — were fastballs, but the changeup felt great all game and he got strong as the game went on.
“I want to build off that,” Appel felt.
The durability and longevity are great for his current team, but Major League teams might be more interested in the viability of his secondary pitches. “The changeup has become a go-to pitch for me this year — not necessarily for strikeouts, but for a change of pace, to get strikes in any count,” Appel pointed out, and the pitch has certainly gotten better results as the season has progressed.
He does have another breaking pitch. When asked if it was a slider, curve, or slurve, Appel admitted the pitch sometimes looked more like a slider and sometimes more like a curve, but was “more slurvish than anything.” He also pointed out that it was the pitch he’s thrown the longest, other than his booming fastball. Every year, he gets a better feel for it, but the changeup is still the go-to non-fastball pitch.
The changeup is a mostly platoon-neutral pitch, but the more pitches the Stanford ace can refine this year, the better. Scouts have noticed the improvement already, and the current consensus is that he’ll be the top arm in the draft.
Perhaps his slurve is the next step for his pro game. He’s keeping all of this in mind, and still enjoying every game — his next start will mean he has another opportunity to work on his repertoire deep into games.
This next start in particular, though, means a little extra more — “It’ll mean that finals are over,” Appel laughed.