STANFORD, Calif. -- There has been a lot of nasty stuff swirling around Stanford pitcher Mark Appel over the past year. He's apparently the worst example of something or other -- avarice, gluttony, probably three or four other deadly sins -- which is strange for a guy who comes across as an Eagle Scout moonlighting as an altar boy.
He turned down nearly $4 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates, who chose him with the eighth pick of the first round in last summer's amateur draft, to return to Stanford for his senior year. He graduated early, after three years and two quarters, with a degree in Management Science and Engineering. He was named the Pac 12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year and went 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings.
Sounds terrible, doesn't he?
Most of the time, a kid who is drafted out of high school and turns down pro money to get a college education is feted and honored for his perspective. He's got his priorities straight. We've all seen "Broke" -- it's almost as if bankruptcy is as common in pro sports as a knee injury.
So why is someone like Appel, who turned down nearly $4 million at the height of his leverage to return to school, subject to scorn?
"'He's arrogant, he's greedy' -- I heard it all," Appel says. "Last summer, I turned to Twitter for comic relief. A lot of the stuff on there was really bad -- I can't repeat it. But the bottom line is, I turned down $3.8 million to get my college degree. If you want to criticize me for that, so be it."
Did he, though? Is that why he turned down the money? Or was it something more nefarious, some evil scheme concocted by agent Scott Boras -- who else? -- to overthrow baseball's new system of doling out signing bonuses? Appel, with his boyish innocence and polite demeanor, would be the perfect Boras infiltrator, able to overthrow the system with a smile and a strong handshake.
"People were saying I was a pawn of Scott Boras," Appel says. "No. Scott Boras did not make my decision. Scott Boras advised me on what the situation was and how he saw it. He was one voice. I asked my parents. I asked friends who have gone through the same thing. I was confident it was the right decision for the right reasons."
Nobody, especially not the kid himself, is asking you to feel sorry for Appel. His decision seems to have paid off in life, baseball and finance. ("Getting a degree is important," he says. "You have that sense of accomplishment, something you'll always have. Even if you have a long baseball career, you're going to need to do something afterward.") He had an excellent -- and healthy -- senior season. He'll almost certainly sign for more money this summer than he turned down last summer. Still, look at this objectively: There has to be some room for sympathy for a guy whose timing -- through no fault of his own -- is as bad as his. It's as though he leaned down to try to pick a winning lottery ticket off the sidewalk a split-second after someone else snatched it.
Stephen Strasburg was the first pick of the 2009 draft. He signed for a contract/bonus combination worth $15.67 million.
A year later, Bryce Harper signed for a combination deal worth $9.9 million.
In 2011, Gerrit Cole signed for an $8 million bonus after being taken by the Pirates with the first pick of the 2011 draft.
And then, as Appel was lining up to be the obvious No. 1 choice of last year's draft, the rules changed. Major League Baseball and the players' union agreed to slot bonuses to give teams a specific amount to spend through the first 10 rounds. Where bonus slots were previously mere suggestions, teams are now fined or docked future picks for going over slot. Moreover, a team can choose to go below slot with its top pick to spend more on later picks, usually high school kids who might be otherwise unsignable.
All of which is an extremely boring way of saying Appel lost out. Somebody was going to be the best player in the amateur draft after Major League Baseball changed the rules to slash signing bonuses. Somebody was going to be the guy who got screwed over by his birthday. It just happened to be a 6-foot-5, 215-pound pitcher who scouts believe will be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the big leagues for many years, a guy who -- like Cole -- might end up being a better professional than college pitcher.
There is such a thing as being too good for the competition. Not to discount the level of play at Division I college ball, but a guy like Appel, with a 96 mph fastball, a hard slider and an 87 mph changeup, is more likely to find swings-and-misses at the professional level. That changeup might fool a pro hitter who's geared up and capable of hitting 96, but it's just about the perfect confluence of pitch speed and bat speed for a middle-of-the-road college hitter who's going to work in finance when his eligibility expires.
Strasburg didn't use his changeup much at San Diego State. It was both unnecessary and ineffective. In Appel's second-to-last college start, a win against Cal that was far more dominating than his pitching line (7 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 11 K) indicated, he was hurt by a couple of changeups to hitters who didn't appear able to hit his two best pitches. It's the reason scouts, guys who are paid to find flaws, often discount results in favor of stuff.
Appel and Oklahoma pitcher Jonathan Gray are the experts' picks to be the most big league ready pitchers in this week's draft, which begins Thursday night. (Gray's positive test for Adderall might cloud things some.) This time, the Astros pick first again and are slotted $7,790,400 for the first pick, a substantial raise (if you will) for Appel should he be chosen there. But almost nobody expects the Astros, in dire need of depth in their organization, to go full-slot at the top. They've long been rumored to be scouting players who might sign for less, as they apparently did last year when they spent $4.8 million on 17-year-old infielder Carlos Correa rather than exceed the $6 million reported to be part of informal pre-draft negotiations with Appel, who considers Houston his hometown and would have been a sure bet to make the big leagues before a high school shortstop.
"Being No. 1 overall is not important," Appel says. "I want to end up at a place where there's mutual respect between the team and myself, and a place where I'm treated fairly. People ask me if I'm going to sit out another year. Well, I'm not planning on it."