How Zack Littell Became a Solid Reliever for the Twins in 2019
Image courtesy of © Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY SportsZack Littell had an excellent second half last season that was largely underappreciated because Rogers, Romo, May, and Duffey stole the spotlight. Littell was quietly right in the middle of that core of relievers with a 1.14 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 23 2/3 innings in the second half. Something just seemed to click for Zack once the Twins took him out of his normal starting role and tried him out of the bullpen. The most significant change in the bullpen was him becoming a two-pitch pitcher.
As you can see above, he basically dropped the sinker, curve, and changeup completely. In 2018 he threw them a combined 34.5% of the time, but that dropped to just 2.9% in 2019. Instead he relied completely on the slider (48.6%), and fastball (48.3%). This proved to be effective as batters hit only .200 with a .214 wOBA against the slider. Switching to this new approach in the bullpen also played a role in him going from 6.20 K/9 to 7.78 in one season.
Is his success sustainable?
Something concerning I found while looking at Littell’s number was that everything is pointing to a lot of regression. He was able to avoid it last season, but the secondary numbers are worrisome. For example, his ERA was an excellent 2.68 but his FIP was almost a full run higher at 3.62 and then his xFIP was another half run above that at 4.10. This also wasn’t the only number pointing to regression. From Statcast, his barrel% (9.5%), hard hit% (47.6%), and exit velocity allowed (90.7 MPH) were all significantly above league average but for some reason batters just weren’t getting their hits to fall.
At the end of the day, those stats don’t actually affect much of the success he saw in 2019 and they are just a good talking point towards his potential next season. With more experience under his belt and a seemingly clear role on the Opening Day roster, I expect Littell to continue to get better.
So what do you think of Littell going forward? Are you glad he was moved to the bullpen? He will likely be the Twins sixth or seventh option behind Rogers, Duffey, May, Romo, and Clippard so the Twins are looking pretty good in the bullpen.
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