Much digital ink has been spilled over the beauty behind the four words that ignite the spring for a Baseballholic: pitchers and catchers report. But it's a tease, because after pitchers and catchers report to spring training we are left with two weeks worth of recycled stories about players who are or aren't in the best shape of their lives. The spring doesn't begin in earnest until ballgames are being played in March, with the first slate on tap to begin next week.

The “spring stats are meaningless” mantra has been chanted to death at this point, but spring training is not about putting up gaudy stats (unless you're playing with a job on the line). It's about development, conditioning, and getting into physical shape for the season. This adage is particularly true with pitchers, as any spring start might be assessed for usage of a certain pitch, commanding a region of the strike zone, or honing mechanics; whether the pitcher gave up runs is often beside the point.

There are a few things that I look for on the mound once games get underway in Florida and Arizona, and the intrigue can impact prospects and veterans alike. Is a pitcher working on a particular pitch? Is he returning from injury? Is there a mechanical red flag from the previous season? How close is he to game-ready?

With that in mind, here are some of the specific pitchers that I will be watching over the next month:

Mark Appel, Houston Astros

Appel had a rather consistent delivery in college, but his year-and-a-half in pro ball has been fraught with mechanical volatility. At the center of his morphing delivery has been balance, and though his stay-back strategy includes a back-side collapse that dings him in two of the three planes, that element has been present since he was at Stanford. That said, the post-lift plunge has become more exaggerated—and more erratic—recently, and his lateral balance has taken a hit thanks to a tendency to hunch over his front side during the stride.

More troubling has been the discrepancy between Appel's windup delivery and the stretch. He was earning some rave reviews at the Arizona Fall League, but those reviews neglected to mention that his velocity was down more than three miles per hour when transferred to the stretch. He used one of the fastest slide steps that I have ever seen, clocking between 0.4 and 0.5 seconds from leg lift to foot strike, and the rushed timing sequence greatly upped the difficulty factor when coordinating his delivery and timing is trigger to achieve max torque.

What to look for: I will keep a close eye on Appel's balance this spring, in addition to whether he is still using the hyper-slide from the stretch.

Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians

Bauer's delivery went through a major overhaul in the off-season of 2013-14, resulting in a motion that was simplified and more balanced. As a natural part of getting back into playing shape, pitchers typically take some time to rediscover the balance and posture in their deliveries, so it is particularly notable when a young player with stability issues shows up to camp in better form (as Bauer did that season). The right-hander is notoriously cerebral with his mechanics, building the temptation to integrate the more advanced methods of pitching, but he had to take a step backwards before he could take the leap forward.

Last season was a step in the right direction, and it will be interesting to see if the oft-tinkering Bauer has made any adjustments in the off-season. My focus will be on his balance, given his drop-and-drive delivery that features a back-side collapse as part of the strategy, a variant that stands in the way of repetition.

What to look for: Well, everything, but my main focus will be on his balance and momentum to see if he can build on last season's progress.

Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians

Carrasco has the stuff to dominate, with a fastball that averages more than 96 mph and a wipeout slider that finished off 43-percent of his strikeouts last season. The missing element was pitch command. His early-season stay in the rotation was saturated with crooked numbers, at which point he was bumped to the bullpen, where he ditched the windup and discovered the command-related benefits associated with just a single timing pattern. His all-stretch approach took advantage of his mechanical efficiency and eliminated the needless extra motion of his windup, and Carrasco reaped the benefits with a consistent release point.

What to look for: Is he still pitching from the stretch all the time? Fingers crossed that the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

Nathan Eovaldi, New York Yankees

Eovaldi has one of the hardest fastballs in the game plus a sharp slider, but his lack of a third pitch has marginalized his performance and exaggerated his platoon splits. He worked on a changeup last spring, but he was unable to harness the pitch and scrapped it by Opening Day. The new hotness for Eovaldi is a split-fingered fastball that he is developing as a third option to his arsenal in the hopes of adding an off-speed characteristic to his approach. The changeup can be one of the toughest pitches to master and some hurlers never get a feel for it, but the splitter is relatively easy for a pitcher to learn and utilize due to the use of a fastball forearm-angle that doesn't require pronation or supination to execute.

What to look for: Can he locate the split down and under the zone? Does the pitch have good drop? Does he flare the glove when setting up with a splitter, effectively giving away the identity of the incoming pitch?

Jeremy Hellickson, Arizona Diamondbacks

Hellickson's motion is very slow when pitching from the windup, but he picks up the pace when throwing from the stretch. That results in a longer stride and a superior delivery overall when he retains his natural leg lift, but Helix has a varying tendency to invoke a slide step with runners in stealing position, and his mechanical efficiency is at its worst when he pitches with the slide step. He used to mix the strategy in occasionally, but the slide step has become more prevalent and was an all-the-time occurrence in the recent past. Now with the Diamondbacks, it will be interesting to see if he changes his stretch dynamics under a different coaching staff and with a different set of catchers.

What to look for: How does he approach the stretch? Is it a slide step all the time, some of the time, or none of the time? Does he alter things randomly with runners in stealing position, or does the slide step dominate?

Mat Latos, Miami Marlins

Latos had a completely different delivery last season, though he ended up with nearly the same results. He greatly minimized the power in his delivery and traded it for stability, with much-improved balance prior to foot strike (but the same amount of spine-tilt afterward). The power-drop involved a slightly-slower pace of momentum, but the more noticeable change was diminished torque that fell from a 50-grade to 40 on his mechanics report card and robbed him of two full ticks on his fastball velocity. It's possible that Latos was compensating for an injury, and it is very encouraging that he was able to sustain his performance in light of such major changes, but I am very curious to see which version of Latos shows up this season.

What to look for: The two major mechanical indicators are his lean-back toward second base and his delay of trunk rotation. His 2013 delivery involved a pronounced lean-back as well as a strong delay to his trigger after foot strike, but in 2014 the hips and shoulders fired more closely together while the lean-back had been mostly eliminated. Is he favoring power or stability?

Drew Smyly, Tampa Bay Rays

Smyly is the Leaning Tower of Pitching. The imbalance starts early as he starts to drift toward the third-base side during his stride, and he tilts heavily to the glove side on top of foot strike and veers strongly into release point. The Rays have developed a squadron of well-balanced pitchers who finish with great posture but tend to be slow into foot strike. Smyly exemplifies the opposite strategy, with an average burst that might qualify as the best on staff yet very poor stability, so one of the subplots of spring will be whether Smyly makes some mechanical adjustments or if the Rays' coaching staff stays hands off with his unstable delivery.

What to look for: Does Smyly still look like a drunken flamingo at release point? Is the persistent lean toward the third-base side still part of his delivery? Has he slowed down his pace of momentum?

Thank you for reading

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This is great, Doug. If at all possible, would be cool to see a follow-up article at the end of the spring (or even a few weeks into the season given the limited spring training action we can see) to see the results of "What to Look For."
Great idea, Shawnykid. Brilliant!
I imagine this said in doug's voice's imitation of the Guinness commercial.
Good imagination. This may or may not have actually taken place. And I may or may not have had a Guinness in my hand at the time.
Wondering if you'll view Aaron Sanchez? Was spoke of that he may be raising his arm a bit to get on top of the ball more.
Good call. Sanchez was in my original draft for this article, and I will definitely be interested to see how he looks this spring. I'm also curious about his momentum - he was painfully slow for awhile there (as per coach's mandate), and though he still falls below average on the momentum scale based on his MLB time last year, he has picked up the pace enough to at least reap some benefit with respect to stride length.
Doug, is there a downside or injury risk to pitching exclusively from the stretch, a la Carrasco? I've always heard that starters shouldn't do it, but I've never heard a reason why.
I'm not a doctor or a kinetics expert but I'm perfectly willing to impersonate one on the interwebs. IMO, pitching exclusively from the stretch makes it much more likely to stress ligaments to the point of injury. Precisely because the motion is repetitive. All those moving parts of a windup may create command issues - but they also serve to move stresses to different parts of the body and thus reduce the likelihood of overstress in a single area.

I've actually wondered if part of the reason for increased pitcher injuries despite fewer IP's per season in recent years is because even motions called 'windup' have become more restrained.
Well, I'm not a doctor, either, but I don't see a whole lot of merit in this theory. How is the windup moving stresses to different parts of the body? Which parts of the body are enduring stress during the windup that aren't from the stretch? The modern-day windup is simply a step into the stretch position, so the underlying premise makes little sense to me.

But I bet that Holiday Inn Express was comfy last night.
I am talking about the mechanical advantages of the old windup - not the modern-day windup (which seems pretty useless to me and is as you say basically the stretch with a step). Looking at those older windups, the legs and the hips are doing a lot more of the basic work of setting the body in motion, creating momentum, and rotating the trunk. Which means less work (stress) for the arms and shoulders in doing that prep stuff. They only really started working when the body was already in motion and better aligned for the final arm motion/delivery.

Even the advantages that you describe seem to me simply an alternative way of acknowledging that the modern windup (like the stretch) is putting more stress on the arms/shoulders. Repetition IS stress that is more focused on a particular part of the body. And 'eliminating disparity' (like an old windup that was very different from a stretch) is very much akin to eliminating cross-training in a fitness program.

Maybe the advantage of pitch command and pitcher development does fully offset the cost of that repetition to things like upper body ligaments/joints. But I am also convinced that changes like that can never be costless.
To clarify, I don't see a big downside. It is common for some pitchers to struggle comparatively from the stretch, but there are myriad reasons why that might be the case (the slide step being chief among them). The greater the disparity between windup and stretch, the more difficult it is for a pitcher to find consistency. Some can overcome the obstacle, but other cannot. Pitchers got more of a mechanical advantage from the windup 40 years ago, so an adage that SP's shouldn't go stretch could be an artifact of the past, but more and more MLB pitchers have found success by simplifying things through the elimination of the windup. Personally, I applaud that move.
Should I take it then that Syndergaard, de Grom, Harvey and Wheeler are perfect?
You can take from it whatever you see fit, but this list was not meant as a catch-all for NYM pitchers. Perhaps you thought I was trying to be exhaustive, but the idea was to throw out a few of the more blatant cases around the league that had something specific to watch this spring.

If you want my thoughts on those other four, then I encourage you to check the 2015 Starting Pitcher Guide, which includes report cards for more than 250 pitchers and which is set to release this weekend.
One of the "best shape" stories that I think might hold some value is about Justin Verlander. He's claimed that he was a "mechanical mess" last season, and that he's figured it out this spring. I think Lincecum has said something similar as well.

Is this information that might also be gleaned from spring training? If those two pitchers or others with similar stories appear more consistent in the spring, I could see how that might indicate regular season success.