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Astros players mad at Astros

7/28/2014

More bizarre news emanating from the 2017 World Series champions: Over the weekend, the Astros promoted Mark Appel, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, from Class A Lancaster to Double-A, despite terrible overall numbers at Lancaster. But he stopped by Houston on his way to Corpus Christi to throw a bullpen session, which angered Astros players. Via Houston Chronicle reporter Jose de Jesus Ortiz and Drew Silva of Hardball Talk, one Astros player said, "It's (expletive) unbelievable," about Appel throwing that bullpen.

In other words: You have to earn your way to the big leagues. Even to throw a bullpen session.

As Ortiz tweeted, "In a sport that prides itself on having guys pay dues, the Astros didn't help perception in clubhouse that Appel is being babied."

Look, the whole "paying your dues" thing in baseball has created a terrible caste system, where poorly paid minor leaguers are forced to eat peanut and jelly sandwiches or unhealthy fast food because they can't afford to eat better, but the system is the system and the Astros clearly ticked off players on the current major league roster.

At Lancaster, Appel had a 9.74 ERA in 12 starts, allowing 74 hits and nine home runs in 44.1 innings. For a supposedly polished college pitcher who was the No. 1 overall pick, Appel should be dominating Class A pitchers, even in a hitter's heaven like Lancaster. Early on, Appel suffered from tendinitis in his right thumb and recently the Astros reported he'd been pitching through a wrist problem that required a cortisone shot. Maybe that explains some of the numbers; but he's healthy enough to pitch and has been lit up.

Maybe the Astros just figured they needed to get Appel out of Lancaster. His last start was a good one -- five hits, seven strikeouts, no walks in six innings -- but he'd been roughed up for 20 hits and 14 runs in six innings over his two previous starts. Those two starts came in Lancaster; the last one was in Stockton. Still, you can't defend the promotion based on performance.

Chris Rodriguez of Baseball Prospectus wrote a scouting report on Appel last week:

Appel's struggles are not simply explained by his delivery or command. What many other sources have noticed and written about Appel is his lack of pitchability. Appel's stuff is good; in his July 10th start, Appel's fastball touched 96 mph a couple times, sitting mostly 91-95. Early in his start, it was 94-96 mph. As the start progressed he seemed to tire, and kept pitching out of jams using mostly his slider and changeup. The fastball velocity dipped, and in his last inning sat only 91-93 mph. Most of the 13 hits off of him that evening were off his fastball, which was flat and up in the zone. He made no adjustment with his tempo throughout the game, keeping the same pace, which made it very easy for the opponent to time. He also made no adjustment with his pitch sequence, going to his fastball every time he was behind in the count, which was often a flat 93 mph get-me-over offering. He rarely attacked. It seemed he was simply going through the motions, and he didn’t show any emotion on the mound or in the dugout once he was removed from the game. While it's not a requirement to show some fire, when you pitch like you're scared of the opponent it doesn't look good.

Not the kind of report you want to read about the guy drafted one spot ahead of Kris Bryant.

This is simply the latest questionable episode to rock the Astros' world, from the public leak of internal trade discussion notes to the failed negotiations with this year's No. 1 overall pick, Brady Aiken. Really, going back to the handling of George Springer -- starting him in the minor leagues to save on service time after offering him a low-ball seven-year, $23 million contract -- it's been a bad year for the Astros. The big league team had started to play better when that Sports Illustrated cover appeared, but has gone 10-25 in its last 35 games.

There is a potential trickle-down effect of the Springer, Aiken and Appel situations: The Astros are arguably developing a bad reputation among players. When the team is ready to compete and may need to sign free agents to fill out holes on the roster, will players want to play there? Sure, in the end money talks and the Astros will have money to spend considering the youth on their rosters, but they may find it difficult to attract players (let alone keep their homegrown stars if they feel they've been mistreated by the organization).

Investing in analytics is a nice story, especially for us numbers geeks. Tanking, while despicable, may prove to be a smart strategy. But before we praise the Astros, let's see if their "new way of doing things" actually works.