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  • Zack Littell Changes Role, Changes Mindset


    Seth Stohs

    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

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    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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    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.)

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    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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    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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    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.

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    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.

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    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!

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    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.

     

     

     

     

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    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.

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    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!

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    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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    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. 

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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. 

    Broad, I suppose.

     

    With Nathan the Twins were getting a 29 year old that SF had converted to the pen just the year before and was serving as the 7th inning guy in a stacked bullpen. He notched 1 lone save as a Giant, his rookie season, then boom, 44 his first year with the Twins. Aguilera was used only as a starter his first season with the Twins before moving to the pen season 2, although the Mets may have started that transition when the Twins acquired him.

     

    "From within" meaning they were here, acquired with multiple other pieces in big trades in which they weren't the principal piece, and they had very little to no history of being a big time closer. 

     

     

    Edited by Monkeypaws
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    "... honestly, whatever keeps me here and helps these guys win. Nobody doesn’t want to be a part of this."

     

    Double-negative aside, something about that quote just struck me and made me smile. I imagine that sentiment is so accurate. There's a team full of guys in Rochester (and probably quite a few in Pensacola) who are just dying to be a part of what the Twins have going this year.

     

    Sure, they ALL want to get to the Show, anyway. But this year, in particular, they all know (and several have seen first hand) that something special is going on at Target Field and they all want to be part of it. 

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    "... honestly, whatever keeps me here and helps these guys win. Nobody doesn’t want to be a part of this."

     

    Double-negative aside, something about that quote just struck me and made me smile. I imagine that sentiment is so accurate. There's a team full of guys in Rochester (and probably quite a few in Pensacola) who are just dying to be a part of what the Twins have going this year.

     

    Sure, they ALL want to get to the Show, anyway. But this year, in particular, they all know (and several have seen first hand) that something special is going on at Target Field and they all want to be part of it.

    Hey, it worked for Sara Lee.

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