Mark Appel learned a lot in his four years at Stanford University. The 22-year-old right-hander graduated with a degree in management sciences and engineering. Along the way, he aced Pitching 101. This past summer, the Houston Astros selected him with the first-overall pick in the amateur draft.
Appel isn’t your typical power pitcher. He possesses an overpowering arsenal, but he goes about his craft like a technician. That doesn’t mean he’s a finished product — he has just 38 professional innings under his belt — but it does suggest his time in the minor leagues could be short.
Appel talked about his cerebral approach to pitching — including the importance of knowing who you are — late last week.
Appel on if pitching is more of an art or more of a science: “It’s a combination of both. But if I had to choose one, I’d say it’s more of an art. Each game is different, and I don’t think there is a single method that allows you to perform well and have the stats you want. You’re going to have to make adjustments. You’re going to have to adapt. When you do that, and do it well… you’ll hear people describe a pitcher having had a beautiful game. You usually don’t use that adjective for scientific discoveries. Not unless it’s something naturally beautiful.
“I like to describe games as a puzzle. Different pieces have to go in place at different times. No puzzle is the same. When you start putting the pieces together and seeing results, you get satisfaction. Maybe it was a strikeout with one out and a runner on third. It’s about finding the pitches — and sequences — it takes to get a hitter out.”
On the relationship between baseball and engineering: “They’re pretty different, although there are some [parallels]. Having a management and engineering degree keeps me pretty even-keeled. You learn about things like risk analysis, and throwing a certain pitch can sometimes be a risky thing. You need to understand how to minimize risk. That’s figuring out which pitch to throw, based on that specific batter and your own strengths.
“Engineers are great at taking something simple and trying to make it as complex as possible for the sake of future simplicity. They’re trying to understand how something works. How do these pieces fit together, and work together? How does something do what it does? They use those findings to better the technology — or whatever it might be — within the field they‘re working.
“My mindset is simpler than that. It is to attack the strike zone, although there is a process involved. There is the scouting of hitters, which is something I’ve been working on more and more. At Stanford, it was sometimes tough to delve into in-depth scouting reports. They were provided, but there wasn’t always enough time.”
On advanced stats and keeping it simple: “I know there are a lot of theories out there. All of the modern statistical advances — all of the regressions and different things being done — paint a pretty cool picture of what is important, like which stats are worth spending money on. But as far as the things I can control within the season, I don’t worry about what my ERA is after each start, or my batting average on balls in play.
“My mindset is, ’What can I do today to help the team win?’ That involves giving up as few runs as possible. Looking at it from a very simple view, that’s the name of the game. If I can do that, we have a chance to win. That’s what my focus is. If I pitch well, I trust my statistics will be there.”
On pitch sequences and reading hitters: “How to attack hitters is a combination of things. It’s good to have scouting reports going into a game, but things change. Baseball is such a game of ups and downs. You can be facing an all-star hitter, but he’s going through a slump, so almost anything can get him out. Or he might be hitting everything you’re throwing in the strike zone. That doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a best approach against him.
“Players have tendencies, but they aren’t the end-all. You can’t go off what’s on paper when you’re on the mound and seeing something different. That’s part of making adjustments and adapting to what the game throws at you. That extends to certain counts and situations. There’s a lot that goes into the pitch you’re making.
“Our coach called our pitches at Stanford. I think a lot of people would have been frustrated, but I took it as an opportunity to learn. My first year starting was my sophomore year of college, and coach [Dean] Stotz knows a lot about the game of baseball. He’s been coaching for a long time. If he’s calling pitches and I don’t know why he’s calling them, that’s a great chance for me to start a conversation about why, and to better understand the thought process.
“I usually have a pitch in mind. If it matches up with the catcher, awesome. If it doesn’t, and I’m absolutely confident I want to throw something, I’ll shake until I get there. If I’m not as confident, I might step off and think about why he’s calling this pitch. Say it’s an 0-2 fastball away and I want to throw a slider. Why is he calling a fastball? Maybe he’s seeing something I didn’t see.
“If I’m throwing an 0-2 fastball, it’s usually got to be off the plate. It should be close, but nothing he can put in play. If he’s swinging, it should be a foul down the line or a swing and miss. It’s important to understand that it’s not just the pitch; it’s the location, as well. That’s a big part of pitch selection.
“I don’t think there is always one correct pitch to throw. There are really good pitches to throw, and some not so good, but if you can throw any pitch in the proper location, you should do pretty well.”
On feel and his changeup: “Feel is important. If, for some reason, my changeup feels a little weird coming out of my hand — and isn’t getting the movement it usually does — I’ll usually stay away from it. But then, [warming up before the next inning] I might throw one or two extra changeups to try to get that feel back.
“I had games at Stanford where, for the first three innings, I couldn’t throw a slider. By the end of the game, I had six strikeouts with my slider, because I kept working on it. I kept throwing it and figured it out.
“[My changeup] is a little bit different. It’s kind of like a fosh. It’s like a split-change, but not so deep to where you feel you’re going to blow out your elbow. Because my hands are a little bit bigger, I do get a little deeper. I actually circle my pointer finger to my thumb. It’s like a split-circle changeup, if you can imagine that.
“It’s a pitch I developed on my own. In high school, I learned the fosh, but couldn’t throw it for a strike. I had no control over it and there wasn’t much speed differential. I tried changing up the grip a little bit, seeing what would work for me, and after my freshman year I found this one. I threw it one day and it felt great coming out of my hand. I was also getting good downward action. The more I threw it, the more confident I got with it. It’s kind of my own variation of a split-change.
“I think the changeup is the best pitch in baseball. I’ve been working out down at the stadium, and Brad Oberholtzer is there. We’ve been talking about pitching. He said that last year his curveball wasn’t quite what he wanted it to be and in most of the games he pitched in the big leagues, he got by on his fastball and changeup. That goes to show how important a changeup can be.
“At Stanford, I honestly think I threw more off-speed pitches than what a typical professional baseball player would throw. I kept hearing people say, ‘He doesn’t throw enough fastballs.’ I think that, in itself, will actually benefit me. Having thrown a good amount of off-speed pitches — almost 50 percent at times — will help me in pro ball. I know how to attack hitters with more than just fastballs. I’ve thrown three straight changeups, in 2-2, 3-2 counts. I’ve started out batters with three straight sliders, and then come back with a fastball.”
On his fastball and velocity: “I was two-seam all the way through high school and college, and I’m looking to develop a four-seam. It’s a great pitch, especially coming in to lefties, throwing it up, kind of a little below the chin and a little below the letters. I won’t have to worry about if I get a little bit of sink, or if it rides back over the plate. I’m going to start throwing bullpens in the next few weeks, and four-seamers are something I’ll be working on, for sure.
“[Velocity] is a big part of my game, but it’s not where my focus is. Doing what I do in the weight room, and preparing for the season, helps me stay healthy and helps me throw hard. But I’m not a guy who is so cocky with his fastball that I’m going to try to blow it by people. I think that goes back to the art of pitching.
“Sure, I might have it in my back pocket, but that doesn’t mean I need to use it, or I should use it, on any specific pitch. I’ve seen guys throw 90, 95 percent fastballs, and one game they’ll go eight innings, no runs, 10 Ks. The next game they’ll go three innings, six runs. I’m a guy who likes to be as consistent as possible, and I don’t necessarily need to, or want to, use my velocity, and solely velocity. I want to be effective with my velocity, and use it to set up my other pitches, and then use those pitches to set up my fastball.”
“I had games at Stanford where, for some reason, my arm just wasn’t feeling strong. Usually, at least once or twice in a game, I’ll hit 98-99, maybe 100. In one game, I think the highest I hit was 94 or 95. My scatter plot wouldn’t have had those outliers. For a velocity guy, that might be a little scary, but I was able to use my off-speed pitches to set up my fastball. Even though it wasn’t as hard as usual, I was still able to have success. Again, it’s about making adjustments and adapting to whatever you’re feeling like that day.”
On knowing yourself as a pitcher: “I’ve seen guys come in saying, ‘Man, I throw 95-96,’ kind of talking themselves up. That doesn’t do anything. Especially at Stanford, that doesn’t impress anybody. The thing we really respected from our teammates was going out and competing, whether or not you had your best stuff. That’s where my focus is. We didn’t want our teammates to talk about how good they are. We wanted them to show us how good they are, by giving their all out on the field.
“I think it’s important to be honest with yourself about who you are as a pitcher. I know a guy who would throw upper 80s, maybe 90, and he wanted to be a power pitcher. He didn’t have power stuff. He was missing up in the zone and getting beat with his fastball. Once he realized who he was… and one of our best pitchers — one of our most consistent guys — was Sahil Bloom. At times he was throwing 85-86, but he knew who he was. He knew he was 85-86 with sink, and threw a decent slider. He knew to be successful he’d have to keep the ball down and induce a lot of ground balls. That’s exactly what he did.
“It was cool to have different guys on our team be honest with themselves. They came to the table and said, ‘This is who I am; this is what I’ve got, and I’m going to try to maximize that.’ You can’t try to be somebody you’re not. I have a pretty good fastball, but that’s not who I am.”
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