This offseason, MiLB.com presents Student/Athlete, a series about prospects who attended the country's best academic colleges with focus on what they learned while they were enrolled.
Ballplayers pick up a lot of different things in college. Some develop pop. Some improve their offspeed stuff. Some learn where they stand among national competition.
Mark Appel learned how to solve real-world problems and make decisions.
Appel, who went to Stanford University, majored in management science and engineering. If you need help figuring out what exactly that means, don't fret: Appel has explained it enough to have a simple definition at the ready.
"The way I describe it is, it's designed like a half-business, half-engineering degree. I took management classes, I took a lot of econ classes and finance classes," he said.
People who graduated with Appel have found positions with investment banking outfits, oil firms and in management roles at various companies. Some work in Silicon Valley, and some have gone on to law school.
"My focus was on financial decision engineering, analyzing different decisions to be made financially and business-wise," the 21-year-old said. "Risk assessment is a big part of that, determining how big risks are so you can make the best decision possible. You assess the situation and make the best decision possible, and a big part of it is also being OK with the decision you made regardless of the result."
Now MLB.com's No. 25 prospect, Appel had the chance to apply those skills outside the classroom after his junior year, when he was picked by the Pirates eighth overall in the 2012 Draft. Although he found himself in what many college players would consider a dream scenario, Appel was conflicted about his options. Fortunately, his academic work was providing him with some perspective, especially on how to look beyond the easily apparent financial results of any given decision.
"In class, on the business side of things, we did a lot of case studies in management. These were real-life case studies, where we look at what the problem was, who the people involved were, whether the CEO or project manager or whatever the case may be," he said, "and we talked about what we believed the right approach was to fix the situation. Then we looked at what the company did in real life and what the result was," he explained.
"It was cool, because every different situation is unique in its own way. There's no handbook for a lot of kinds of problems, and sometimes the difference between a company's success or failure. In one case study I did, one of the heads of the company was going through a divorce. There's no handbook for that."
Appel didn't have a handbook for his conundrum either. He knew there was a lot of money on the table -- he eventually turned down a package that reportedly included a signing bonus worth $3.8 million -- and a chance to leave school and focus on nothing but playing baseball. He also knew he loved being at Stanford and that money couldn't be the only consideration.
Pittsburgh wasn't shocked when Appel elected to complete his degree. "Selecting Mark was a calculated risk, as we knew he would be a difficult sign," GM Neal Huntington said in a statement at the time.
He finished the bulk of his academic work early enough that he could "basically play without taking classes during the season," he said, and he put together a 10-4 campaign with a 2.12 ERA and 130 strikeouts and 23 walks for the Cardinal.
Had Appel signed, he not only would have missed out on that senior season at Stanford, but he wouldn't have been able to graduate sooner than Fall 2013 at the earliest, as negotiating an academic calendar and the longer baseball season would have been a challenge. Obviously, though, there were also other reasons the right-hander was willing to delay his first crack at pro ball.
"So many great things brought me back: teammates, coaches and relationships with other people at school, campus ministries I was involved in and my team bible study. There were so many cool things that Stanford had to offer," he said.
The Astros took Appel No. 1 overall in '13, and his deal was reported to be worth $6.35 million. Some fans and members of the media assumed a higher signing bonus was Appel's only aim all along, but they didn't see the whole picture.
"I made that decision with the knowledge I might not have as good a season or that I might get hurt or that things might go wrong some other way, and I went back with that knowledge and without any regrets," he added. "I felt that if I ended up getting less money in the 2013 Draft, it was still a good decision. I guarantee you the value system that I have is not the same as the value systems of a lot of other people, and that's evident in that decision."
Now that he's a Minor Leaguer, he continues to use the thinking techniques he picked up in his studies. In his upper division coursework, Appel found himself turned off by certain areas of his studies and drawn more intensely to other areas, and it's those other areas that he believes will help him be a part of a winning team.
"That was my focus -- financial decisions engineering -- but as I went through, I found it wasn't necessarily something I really enjoyed. I wouldn't want to go into investment banking or anything like that," he said. "It'd be cool to be in a management position, but the thing I really enjoy is the relationship aspect and the way relationships make a real difference.
"A lot of that goes into how you play on the field as a team. I'm a big proponent of team chemistry, how guys play together and how relationships away from the field correlate to better relationships and better play on the field. My biggest focus this year was getting to meet the other players and getting to understand where all the players come from."
Appel also discovered a new interest at Stanford -- one that he may someday develop into a career.
"I got to take one class, the history of architecture, and we looked at architecture going back thousands and thousands of years in the B.C. It was cool going through the different stages and seeing what technology and innovations brought to architecture around the world at different points in time," he said. "I enjoyed getting to see how houses are built and how different buildings are built, inside and outside, how people use any given space to maximize value, whether it's on a hill or any other kind of landscape."
Appel's experience in that course and with higher education as a whole was so enriching that he might eventually go back for more… again.
"After baseball, I might go to architecture school and get an architecture degree," he said. "We'll see where it leads. My interests might change before then, but I thought that was a pretty cool class."