Wednesday night was a long time coming for Mark Appel.
Appel — the first overall pick by the Astros in the 2013 MLB Draft — at last made his MLB debut, pitching a scoreless inning in relief for the Phillies against the Braves. Appel, 30, is the oldest former No. 1 pick at the time of his MLB debut since 1965, when the draft first moved to June.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Appel told reporters after the Phillies’ 4-1 loss.
A decorated college pitcher at Stanford, Appel inked a $6.35 million signing bonus with the Astros upon being drafted. But that marked the end of his baseball-related good fortunes.
Across seven minor league seasons with affiliates for the Astros and Phillies, Appel is 32-24 with a 5.01 ERA. Hampered by a myriad of injuries and discouraged by poor on-field performance, Appel left the sport altogether in 2018, walking away from the game he once dominated.
“I’m pursuing other things, but also trying to become a healthy human,” Appel told Bleacher Report. “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. I enjoy challenging my mind. My last four years in baseball have challenged my mind.”
At the time, Appel seemed at peace with his failures, which included pitching to an ERA of 5.14 in 2017, his last season before stepping away.
“If you want to call me the biggest draft bust, you can call it that,” Appel said.
But after three years away, Appel embarked on a comeback in the spring of 2021, reporting to the Phillies’ minor league spring training. Though he posted a 6.06 ERA in 2021, 2022 told a different story — in 19 appearances this season for Philadelphia’s Triple-A affiliate, Appel is 5-0 with a 1.61 ERA, gaudy numbers that earned him the long-awaited call-up to the big leagues Saturday.
“Even if I was just trying to come back, it’s never been a straight line for me,” Appel said Wednesday, after he allowed one hit and struck out a batter. “Even in that whole process, I was lost. I felt like there were times when I was hopeless, that this dream would never happen. So yeah, I was choking back tears.”