Stanford RHP Mark Appel is the presumptive No. 1 overall pick for this June's Rule 4 draft, but unlike Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper in their draft years, Appel is far from a lock to still be on top in June. On Friday night, he started for Stanford in its season opener and showed some reasons why he might go off the board first -- and some reasons why he might not.
Appel touched 97 in the first inning and was mostly 91-95 after that, gradually losing velocity on a cold night in Palo Alto but still working in the 91 to 93 range in his final two innings. His slider was inconsistent, but when he threw it in the 82 to 84 range it had some tilt and could project as an above-average pitch. He showed he'd throw his low-80s changeup in any count, and once the Cardinal gave him a big lead, he started working more quickly and a little more aggressively. He's 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, with a wiry build, fairly athletic, with a frame to add another 10 to 15 pounds.
Appel's issue has always been his performance, particularly a lack of missed bats. Vanderbilt's lineup is younger and less experienced than it was last year, but they still managed to square up a good number of Appel's fastballs, as he doesn't really command the pitch within the zone yet. In the second inning, Appel went crazy with his changeup, pitching backwards for a few batters for reasons none of us behind the plate could fathom. He does a lot of things right in his delivery, including a good stride and strong shoulder tilt, but hitters see the ball pretty well out of his hand, so without a real knockout pitch, I don't know how he's going to miss bats at the next level.
This was just his first outing of the year, so he'll have many opportunities to refine the slider or improve his fastball command or do something else to instill more confidence in scouts that he's more David Price than Bryan Bullington. Right now, if I were in Houston's shoes, I'd be working with a very open mind on that first pick.
• Stanford's roster is loaded with potential high picks this year, led by two bats in particular, shortstop Kenny Diekroger and third baseman Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty was the more impressive player on Friday from batting practice through the game, showing unexpected power, dropping the bat head in his first at-bat to take a 90 mph fastball out to left. He does get some length in his swing, so I'd like to see what he does against a right-handed pitcher who pounds him on the inner half, but the power potential was a pleasant surprise.
• Diekroger looks like another victim of Stanford's one-size-fits-all approach to "developing" players (and I use that term loosely). He's gotten bigger and stiffer since high school, and his swing is now very short and linear with a noisy lower half that doesn't give him much balance. He's an average runner who'll probably move to second or third base in pro ball because his feet don't work well enough for short. I'd love to see what he could do with a more typical pro swing in which he rotates his hips and tries to drive the ball like a 6-2, 200-pound hitter should. But Stanford forces kids to all hit the same way, and it certainly isn't helping Diekroger.
• Outfielder Jake Stewart isn't swinging uphill like he did in high school, and he's still pretty athletic, but his pitch recognition is still a major issue. Tyler Gaffney, the third outfielder for the Cardinal, has some hype because he's a two-sport guy, but his swing is a train wreck right now and he didn't look good in left field.
• Some notes from around the country on Friday night: Kiley McDaniel saw St. John's starter Kyle Hansen work at 94-96 for three innings with a plus slider, although the velocity dropped off afterward; Red Storm reliever Carasiti was 92-94 but didn't show great control, ... San Francisco starter Kyle Zimmer went just three innings but aired it out at 94-98 with a good curveball and some feel for a change. ... Arkansas' Nolan Sanborn was 93-95 with an above-average curveball. It was a pretty good night for velocity across the country.