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!