For a guy with fewer than 60 big-league innings under his belt, 24-year-old righty Zack Littell is refreshingly candid about the early stages of his career.
That includes his first two stints in the big leagues, both of which were exactly one-game stays with the Minnesota Twins.
The second one was especially difficult. Littell met the team in early July of 2018 in Milwaukee, and was told to be ready to eat some innings that day if Kyle Gibson didn’t go deep into the game. The bullpen was taxed after a disastrous start to the road trip on both sides of Chicago, but if Gibson went deep enough into the game that meant Littell would get a start on the next homestand.
Gibson went five innings before manager Paul Molitor went to his usual assortment of relievers — Addison Reed, Taylor Rogers, Zach Duke, Trevor Hildenberger and finally Fernando Rodney — leaving Littell feeling confident that he’d make his second big-league start that next Thursday at Target Field against the Baltimore Orioles.
But when Rodney allowed the tying run in the ninth, Molitor was left little choice but to send Littell out there for the 10th — a task he sheepishly admits now he was ill-prepared for — with just him and a less than 100 percent Matt Belisle left out in the bullpen.
“We got to the 10th inning, and I would never admit that at the time — and I’m not super proud to admit this now — but I was not ready to pitch that day,” Littell said during the final homestand of the regular season. “Now I have to go into the game. And it’s tough to not be locked into the game like that, especially in my debut (in relief). I remember coming out there, throwing the two best breaking balls I’ve ever thrown in my life. The two curveballs buckled — against a kid making his debut, too (Nate Orf) — and I guess buckled on him too, and I thought ‘I got this.’
“Then a curveball hit a guy and then it just kind of spiraled out of there. I get it, we joke about it now, but that was so frustrating. I remembering sitting at my locker with tears on my face, talking to you guys, then going into Molly’s office being told I was being sent down.”
The curveball that hit a guy was an 0-2 curve that nicked Orf to start the inning. Manny Pina followed with a single and Keon Broxton walked to load the bases with nobody out. After Hernan Perez grounded into a force at the plate, Brad Miller brought home the winning run with a walk — capping a disastrous appearance for Littell.
Littell addressed reporters afterward and it was clear he was really upset with how his first MLB outing went.
“I was 22 years old,” Littell said. “I took pride in always being one of the younger guys (at most minor league levels) but not pitching like a young guy. Pitching like I was older, not like a 22-year-old with a deer-in-the-headlights look.
“(It was) not an outing I was at all proud of. Definitely not one to strive for. It was frustrating to come back and know that you are better than that, and go out there and perform like that. I just remember sitting in my locker as frustrated as I have ever been on a baseball field, and not knowing what to do.”
A few minutes later, Littell was called into Molitor’s office, and less than 10 hours after he’d arrived from Rochester, he was headed back.
Littell said it was at that time that he struggled with his confidence, and whether or not he belonged in the big leagues at that time at all.
“Your first couple outings in the big leagues, maybe as many as 10 — it’s different for everybody — you kind of still have those nerves,” Littell said. “It’s not the kind of nerves that are about having a lot of people in the stands, it’s more wondering ‘Am I good enough to be here?” At least it was for me, personally. I don’t know how everybody else feels.
“I struggled a lot with that early on — especially (in 2018). Not that I didn’t want to be there, but whether or not I was ready to be. Physically is one thing, but definitely from a confidence thing, coming off my debut, it wasn’t great. Coming off that, not having a lot of confidence with a big crowd and getting into a game like that with a good team at the time. It was probably not the best for my confidence going forward from there.”
But at that time it made sense. Through two MLB outings, he had an ERA of 18.90 and 13 of the 24 batters he’d faced had reached base. Littell came back in September and pitched respectably in 17 innings — 13-5 K/BB ratio, 3.71 ERA but an OPS against of .805 — but it wasn’t much of a surprise that he wasn’t on the Opening Day roster to start the 2019 season, either.
Littell wasn’t in Rochester for long, as he made his 2019 debut with the Twins with two scoreless innings against the White Sox on May 24. Six days later he had to eat one against the Tampa Bay Rays, allowing eight earned runs in 4.1 innings before being optioned out yet again.
At that point, his ERA stood at 11.37. Sure, a slight improvement on the year before, but nothing to write home about.
But when Littell returned almost three weeks later, it was with a more defined role — albeit with very little fanfare. The Twins decided to shift him to the bullpen full-time, and in his return, he pitched two scoreless innings to pick up the win in a 17-inning game against the Boston Red Sox at Target Field.
That dropped his ERA to 8.64, and it began steadily dropping the more he worked. It got down to 4.15 before he gave up two runs to the Oakland A’s on July 20, and down to 2.90 when he gave up a run against the White Sox on Sept. 17.
But that’s it. After allowing eight earned runs to the Rays in late May, Littell allowed just three earned runs total in the 30.2 innings afterward, spanning more than three-and-a-half months. From that game against the Rays forward, Littell had a 0.88 ERA and 27-8 K/BB ratio, and opposing batters hit just .222/.276/.361 against him.
In his final appearance in Kansas City on Sept. 28, he faced three batters, threw 11 pitches, fanned two and didn’t allow a baserunner — an outing that barely merits a shower afterward. But those became commonplace for Littell, who has become a trusted arm in Rocco Baldelli‘s bullpen along with the emergence of Tyler Duffey and Trevor May.
That’s what has allowed the Twins to stem the tide of losing Sam Dyson before he ever got off the ground following the trade deadline, and it’s also a big reason why since the deadline, the bullpen had a 3.78 ERA — fourth-best in the American League.
So what changed?
Like most pitchers, Littell got a velocity spike when he moved to the bullpen. As a starter in 2018, he averaged 92.5 mph on his four-seam fastball. As a reliever in 2019, he ticked up to 94.4 mph, according to Brooks Baseball.
Like many relievers do as well when they transition, Littell also pared back his repertoire. He completely dumped his sinker, curve and changeup and became exclusively a fastball-slider guy, and the results back up that change. His swinging-strike rate on his four-seam fastball was a terrific 13.7 percent — the average is usually 10 percent or so — and his slider was a very solid 17.6 percent, as well.
Littell said the most surprising thing he’s noticed from the change has been his ability to throw his slider, which he admits is an unconventional pitch.
“I added the slider last year; it was kind of a cutter,” Littell said while noting the difference between the two. The cutter is faster and breaks less, while the slider is slower and moves more. “When I got in the bullpen, I kind of tweaked my mechanics a little bit. We shortened the arm up a tiny bit, trying to really sink in that glute and get more of a drive. It became a lot easier for me to spin the baseball and get like a true depth slider.
“I know on TV it doesn’t look huge, but we talk about east-west guys and north-south guys. You have a guy like Randy Dobnak or Kohl Stewart, these guys that sink the ball and slide it in the other direction. Then we have guys like me, Martin (Perez) and Cody (Stashak). Looking at tunnels, I’m not an east-west guy. I don’t want that true slider, where we are getting a lot of lateral depth. I want like a harder curveball, a 12-6 with much less depth, straight down. I don’t want it to look slurvy, where all of a sudden my fastball is here and it comes out of my hand and looks this way. I want it straight out and down.”
The concept of tunneling was introduced to Littell in New York — before he was traded to the Twins — but it was treated more like an industry secret than an old family recipe like he has experienced with Minnesota.
Tunneling, for the uninitiated, is the concept of pitches staying in the same general area out of a pitcher’s hand before finishing whatever path they’re taking to the plate. For sinker-slider guys like Littell mentioned, that’s throwing each pitch along the same trajectory as far as possible toward the plate before the ball moves with the desired action.
“Here, if you want some information you just have to go ask,” Littell said on the difference in the flow of information with the Twins compared to the Yankees beforehand. “(If) they see something, they are more than willing to share it. The Yankees didn’t. Everything they did was to work towards these numbers, but they weren’t open to sharing the concept behind it. When I got here, coming into spring training last year, it was more and more, it was just there.”
Milwaukee that July wasn’t the last time that Littell had to swallow the tough pill of being sent back to Rochester.
Littell was sent back to Triple-A in late July, and was also sent back to Rochester on Aug. 19 last season in the midst of his hot streak, as the team needed to make room on the roster for a returning Nelson Cruz. At that point, Littell had thrown scoreless outings in 16 of his last 17 appearances with an ERA of 0.96 over that stretch.
“It’s different,” Littell said about the contrast in being sent out in 2018 versus 2019. “(In 2018) when I got optioned (twice), it was ‘You didn’t perform well.’ You understand and you get it. And you understand they need arms; I understand how the bullpen works. Especially now that I’m in the bullpen, I understand how sucky it is to be down there and just, like have been used three days out of four, or four days out of five, and you might not be feeling good, and knowing you might have to pitch that day, and needing that fresh arm. I understand that. When you don’t perform well, you are like OK, I get it.
“But when you are throwing the ball well, you are in a good place, and you feel like you are helping a good team win, it’s tough. You know what’s coming. Wes coming down, he’s not coming down to pat you on the back. What helps is Wes and Rocco have been very honest and straight forward with me this year. Not that people in the past have jerked me around, but they’ve been like ‘This isn’t something we want to do, this is something we have to do.’ You realize it is a part of the game. I know the last one this year, the one you are talking about, was the worst one by far.”
To Littell’s credit, he didn’t sulk at Rochester either time he was sent back in 2019. He kept doing what he was doing in the big leagues, allowing just one earned run in 5.1 innings (1.69 ERA) with a .439 OPS against the second time while allowing zero earned runs in a similar sample size in July.
And once he got back to the big leagues the last time, he was as red-hot as before. He allowed just one earned run over the final 12 innings (10 appearances) in the regular season, comfortably asserting himself in the late-inning amalgamation with Duffey, May and Sergio Romo in front of Taylor Rogers.
That sort of acclimation will endear a pitcher to any manager when he’s making late-game decisions.
Littell admits he doesn’t know what the future holds. He’s enjoying the ride as a reliever — relieving in the big leagues is far better than starting in the minors, for instance — but doesn’t feel like the door has closed on his career as a starter either, necessarily.
“Nothing is out of the question,” Littell said, “but just strictly from my experience of going from starting to relieving, I think it was not nearly as hard as going from relieving to starting would be. Going from stretched out to short would be a lot of easier than going short to being stretched out.”
This was also more apt when considering the Twins were facing 60 percent turnover in their rotation — before Jake Odorizzi accepted the qualifying offer. Now with the team flush with starting pitching depth, it’s much less of an issue.
“You can go out there and get outs and not feel great,” Littell said of the way relief work differs from that in the rotation. “As a starter, it’s tough to pitch like that. When something feels off, and there are days where you just can’t find what it is. You just don’t have that luxury in the game. As a reliever, we can kind of get away with those things. Guys chase pitches a bit more, so and so.
“I’m not saying relieving is easy by any means, but the transition from starting to relieving is easy in comparison.”
But if Littell does return to starting at any point, he’ll institute some of the changes he’s made in the bullpen, most likely.
“I think this usage is working,” Littell said of his new-look repertoire. “I think I would throw the changeup more, if nothing else as a show pitch. I think it’s a good pitch.
“But I like how every pitch tunnels right now; I like how every pitch comes out of my hand. I like the velocity on all of my pitches. If I did come back to starting I don’t think I would add anything. I think what I have right now is plenty good.”