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Zack Littell Changes Role, Changes Mindset

When Zack Littell returned to Rochester at the start of the month of June, he was told that he should work out of the bullpen. Did he sulk? No. Did he make some alterations? Yes. Over the weekend, we caught up with the Twins right-hander about the changes he has made and why he has shown so much success of late.
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins Daily
In four games with the Red Wings before his most recent promotion to the Twins, Littell worked solely out of the Rochester bullpen. In 7 2/3 innings, he gave up just three hits, walked one and struck out 13 batters. Opponents hit just .115 off of him.

When Littell was optioned, Rocco Baldelli and Wes Johnson gave him some things to work on with the Red Wings. The big thing was that he should work in shorter appearances out of the bullpen, rather than go back to starting which is the role he’s played his entire career.

“Me and Rocco talked about it a little bit, working in shorter stints. They said I could go two or three innings, but usually just two.”

With that plan in place, it can sometimes be as much mental as physical. “Taking that, it kind of changes your mind set a bit. I can just go out there and give everything I’ve got. Don’t have to worry about pitch count. Don’t have to worry about grinding out six or seven innings.”

Included in their message to him for his time in Rochester was a plan to reduce the number of pitches he throws. “We talked “about shortening the repertoire. We’ve gone predominantly fastball-slider, with a few changeups as well.”

That all makes sense, and if you stayed up and watched his impressive two-inning performance on Tuesday night (and Wednesday morning), you saw him airing it out. You saw a fastball at 95 to 97 mph. There were sliders at 89 to 90 mph. The fastball was effective up in the zone and the slider was good, especially when it was darting to the knees on the corners of the zone.

When the Twins acquired Littell from the Yankees on July 31, 2017, he was known for his curveball, and at times it has been quite good. But not lately.

“The curveball is a pitch that has been with me since the start. I always felt it was best pitch, always had the most confidence in it. The curveball is a great pitch if I’m throwing it for strikes, and I wasn’t doing that. It doesn’t do me any good, especially with the way I use my fastball up in the zone, there’s no point in throwing a curveball out of the zone being that it doesn’t tunnel at all. We were having some issues with that. General command issues.”

However, while he has struggled with his curveball, his slider has become a very effective pitch for him. And, he’s been shown the analytics to back it up.

“Developmentally, the slider has gotten ten times better. If you look at the numbers - swing and miss, hard contact, stats like that - the slider has been the better pitch. I think that boils down to throwing it for strikes.”

While the numbers are there, Littell stresses that it is about his mindset and aggressiveness. “I think the past ten to twelve days are pretty much just a mindset thing. Being able to go out there and attack hitters right away and give everything I have, be more aggressive and not worry about pitch count.”

Littell is just 23 years old, so the question has to be asked; Are his days as a starter over? Is he now deemed a relief pitcher going forward?

Littell said, “They were very clear… this is just what we need now and a way to help the Twins win this year. And honestly, whatever keeps me here and helps these guys win. Nobody doesn’t want to be a part of this. Whatever keeps me here.”

Outings like last night when he worked two scoreless innings and picked up his first MLB win (and showed off that 97 mph fastball) certainly help make his case.

Of course, the business side of baseball isn’t always so kind, and Littell has been a part of that a couple of times already this year. Littell and Tyler Duffey are the two relief pitchers with options on the current Twins staff. It is entirely possible that if the front office decides that a fresh arm is needed on Wednesday night when the Twins play the Red Sox again, one or both of those two right-handers could find themselves back with the Red Wings.

But it is clear that Littell can help the Twins in 2019, and he will (and should) continue to get opportunities. He’s just got to maintain that mindset.

He will turn 24 on October 5th, and I’m sure he’d like nothing more than to be on the Twins October roster, pitching out of the bullpen in some playoff games!

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29 Comments

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Aerodeliria
Jun 19 2019 01:06 AM

Littell pitched an amazing two innings against one of the best hitting teams on the planet. Mega-kudos to him, and of course, the faithful here at Twins Daily are pulling for him. (I liked his approach against the BoSox. Just come right after the hitters. Let the 97 mph fastball do its work. He deserved the win just as much as anyone else and I'm glad he got it.)

    • Carole Keller, nicksaviking, DocBauer and 8 others like this
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Soft Tosser
Jun 19 2019 03:19 AM

His stuff looks good, and I really haven't noticed his curve. He'll develop into a good mlb pitcher, I have little doubt.

    • nicksaviking likes this

I've always liked Littell.He looks in control on the mound.His execution hasn't always been great, but I'll let that slide because he's young and still has to learn to pitch in the Bigs.Someone else I've like, though not a prospect is Baxendale.He's been up a couple time in the Bad year and he gets the ball and throws the ball never being to fancy.I like that in a relief pitcher.Also, I'd like to see Eades again.  

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SgtSchmidt11
Jun 19 2019 06:21 AM

He would not be the first failed Twins starter to come back and be a worthy relief pitcher.

 

Hopefully the Twins actually keep one of them around this time!

    • Danchat likes this

Always felt Littell had good movement on his pitches.With all that movement I was a bit surprised how hittable he was as a starter.Here's hoping that he finds the mix he needs to be a very good reliever.We need someone to step up and soon.

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Original Whizzinator
Jun 19 2019 06:39 AM
He and Duffy seem to be some development success stories. If those two and May can pitch the way they did last night it'll take some pressure off the blue chip fireman they bring in on a trade!
    • nicksaviking, rdehring and Jack like this
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Tom Froemming
Jun 19 2019 06:49 AM

I know Twins fans haven't come away impressed with his prior performances with the big club, but he's been doing his thing down on the farm. Here's where he ranks among the 86 Triple-A pitchers with at least 50 innings this year:

 

ERA: 17th

WHIP: 13th

K%: 8th

    • Carole Keller, Dman, IndianaTwin and 3 others like this
If he can maintain that velocity as a reliever, he should stay in the pen. Very encouraging outing last night.
    • Carole Keller, Twins33, nicksaviking and 5 others like this

 

I know Twins fans haven't come away impressed with his prior performances with the big club, but he's been doing his thing down on the farm. Here's where he ranks among the 86 Triple-A pitchers with at least 50 innings this year:

 

ERA: 17th

WHIP: 13th

K%: 8th

I haven't been disappointed in his performance, Tom.Yes, he had that ugly inning or two when he sucked it up and gave the Twins many innings in that one ugly loss.  

 

But I remember what I think was his first appearance.Saw him pitching in the mid 90's and even touching 96...if memory serves.Watched him and thought could this kid develop into something like Joe Nathan was?Still don't know what his future holds, but I am hopeful.Will he be an answer this year, maybe part of the answer.

    • IndianaTwin and MN_ExPat like this

Great to see Littell come through last night!

    • Sconnie likes this

Interestingly, a pitcher from the other Jaime Garcia trade (Huascar Ynoa) just made his MLB debut this past Sunday, with two scoreless innings in a blowout.

 

Ynoa hasn't pitched particularly well in the minor leagues, but he sure has marched up the ladder this year -- he started the year in high-A!

    • Danchat, Dman and Tom Froemming like this
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nicksaviking
Jun 19 2019 08:11 AM

I never thought much of Littell.

 

Until I saw him throwing 97 MPH, wow, that was unexpected. I now I'm very encouraged about the possibility of him becoming a Rogers-ish organizational after-thought turned bullpen standout.

 

Added bonus if the Twins end up being able to pull one over on the Yankees.

    • Original Whizzinator and Jack like this

Well, you make it to the majors as a starter or a bullpen arm. We forget names like Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Glen Perkins amongst others were initially rotation guys. 

 

And if your stuff shines, you can be a closer candidate.

 

Littell is still so young (there are guys close to age starting their careers at Eliz right now). 

 

Now, fix Romero!

    • MN_ExPat, Original Whizzinator and rdehring like this
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Alex Schieferdecker
Jun 19 2019 08:27 AM

Add Littell to the stable of Twins relievers that includes Duffey and May. Mid-90's fastball and a good breaking pitch. If they can throw these for strikes, they will be tremendous assets out of the bullpen.

There is a rich tradition in the Twins organization of getting their best relievers from within, and often by converting starters to relief roles: Perkins, Guardado, Nathan, Agiuilera. 

 

I don't think anybody predicted the success the above 4 had as closers after they got their first save, so who knows how far Littell, Rogers, May and Co. can go.

 

 

 

 

    • Twins33, nicksaviking and MN_ExPat like this

I wasn't impressed with him earlier but looks like he might have turned a corner. Really good sign if he did. Good for him in putting in the work.

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Aerodeliria
Jun 19 2019 08:40 AM

Add Littell to the stable of Twins relievers that includes Duffey and May. Mid-90's fastball and a good breaking pitch. If they can throw these for strikes, they will be tremendous assets out of the bullpen.


That's the key. Last night he went right after the hitters.

Har, Littell looked very, very good last night. I like the cut of his jib, the luff of his spinnaker, the twist of his marl! Salty sea dog look, has he. Hard tack and brine for breakfast! Salt pork and a swig o rum! He's a yeoman, says I. Yo man, toss that ball past yon scalawag, the Boston boy wavin' a stick at yer mates, and so he did, and it whiffed like wind through scaffold! Littell's got the look of a man wants work, says I. Put him to work, and see how he fares!

    • by jiminy, Danchat, Monkeypaws and 6 others like this
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stringer bell
Jun 19 2019 09:08 AM

 

There is a rich tradition in the Twins organization of getting their best relievers from within, and often by converting starters to relief roles: Perkins, Guardado, Nathan, Agiuilera. 

 

I don't think anybody predicted the success the above 4 had as closers after they got their first save, so who knows how far Littell, Rogers, May and Co. can go.

Pretty broad use of "from within". The Twins traded for both Nathan and Aguilera and to my knowledge, they were always used out of the bullpen for the Twins. I know Aguilera left Minny as a free agent and was used as a starter after he had done well here. 

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stringer bell
Jun 19 2019 09:12 AM

I really liked what I saw out of Littell last night. He had trouble, not totally of his own making, in both innings and worked around it.The velocity and breaking pitch were both noteworthy and he showed good command. Finally, he didn't "pitch scared", which is what I've seen out of the pitchers who haven't succeeded for the Twins this year. 

    • USAFChief, Dman and Original Whizzinator like this
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nicksaviking
Jun 19 2019 09:21 AM

 

Well, you make it to the majors as a starter or a bullpen arm. We forget names like Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Glen Perkins amongst others were initially rotation guys. 

 

And if your stuff shines, you can be a closer candidate.

 

Littell is still so young (there are guys close to age starting their careers at Eliz right now). 

 

Now, fix Romero!

 

Not just the Twins. I love starters turned relievers, the Twins should be targeting these guys from other clubs.

 

Some were only perceived to only have iffy stuff or control at best, some were busted prospects, some were forced into the role, but just some of the guys who came up as starters or were starters in the minors just prior to their call up: Josh Hader, Brad Hand, Will Smith, Raisel Iglesias, Edwin Diaz, Zach Britton, Blake Treinen, Hansel Robles, Felipe Vazquez, Roberto Osuna, Andrew Miller, Delin Betances, Wade Davis, Ian Kennedy, John Gant, Trevor Rosenthal, Jake MaGee, Jeurys Familia, Alex Colome.

 

The Twins should never be letting a guy like Liam Hendricks out of the building before seeing what he has out of the pen first. The list of top bullpen arms is a who's-who of former starters.

    • Original Whizzinator likes this
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IndianaTwin
Jun 19 2019 09:31 AM

 

I haven't been disappointed in his performance, Tom.Yes, he had that ugly inning or two when he sucked it up and gave the Twins many innings in that one ugly loss.  

 

But I remember what I think was his first appearance.Saw him pitching in the mid 90's and even touching 96...if memory serves.Watched him and thought could this kid develop into something like Joe Nathan was?Still don't know what his future holds, but I am hopeful.Will he be an answer this year, maybe part of the answer.

 

Aw, shucks. I thought I was going to be the first to come up with a Joe Nathan comparison, but you beat me. 

 

Crucial question -- does Littell do that bpbpbpbpb thing with his mouth when he exhales while he's getting the sign like Nathan did? Because if he does, I am completely on board.

    • ScooterDance and MN_ExPat like this

 

Aw, shucks. I thought I was going to be the first to come up with a Joe Nathan comparison, but you beat me. 

 

Crucial question -- does Littell do that bpbpbpbpb thing with his mouth when he exhales while he's getting the sign like Nathan did? Because if he does, I am completely on board.

If you can go back and find my comment, I actually used that comparison after his first outing whenever that was.Something about the way he acted on the mound, getting his fastball into the upper 90's and being a former starter hit a note that said Nathan to me.Probably also some wishful thinking, but what the heck.

    • IndianaTwin and MN_ExPat like this
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drivlikejehu
Jun 19 2019 09:59 AM

 

Not just the Twins. I love starters turned relievers, the Twins should be targeting these guys from other clubs.

 

Some were only perceived to only have iffy stuff or control at best, some were busted prospects, some were forced into the role, but just some of the guys who came up as starters or were starters in the minors just prior to their call up: Josh Hader, Brad Hand, Will Smith, Raisel Iglesias, Edwin Diaz, Zach Britton, Blake Treinen, Hansel Robles, Felipe Vazquez, Roberto Osuna, Andrew Miller, Delin Betances, Wade Davis, Ian Kennedy, John Gant, Trevor Rosenthal, Jake MaGee, Jeurys Familia, Alex Colome.

 

The Twins should never be letting a guy like Liam Hendricks out of the building before seeing what he has out of the pen first. The list of top bullpen arms is a who's-who of former starters.

 

All clubs are aware of this - most MLB pitchers by definition were good enough to start at lower levels of play. Pitchers throw short bullpen sessions as part of their routine, so management knows if someone looks sharp in short stints. Sometimes a guy like Hendriks just improves after he moves on to another organization. 

 

The actual exception is when a minor league reliever pans out - they are generally seen as dubious prospects.

    • Original Whizzinator likes this
Atta Littell.
I hope he continues to deserve to be here.

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