Perhaps the easiest way to explain Zack Littell’s rise from quad-A guy to successful relief pitcher is to contrast the following stat lines:
- A: 4.05 ERA, 5.56 FIP, 1.58 WHIP, 1.35 HR/9, 1.80 K/BB.
- B: 4.91 ERA, 4.47 FIP, 1.42 WHIP, 1.47 HR/9, 2.83 K/BB.
- C: 2.68 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 1.16 WHIP, 0.97 HR/9, 3.56 K/BB.
- D: 0.48 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 0.91 WHIP, 0.48 HR/9, 5.00 K/BB.
In 2017, the Twins acquired Littell and Dietrich Enns (remember him?) from the Yankees in exchange for Jaime Garcia and the well-traveled Cash Considerations. Littell spent the rest of 2017 in the minors and was added to the 40-man roster after the season; he would indeed receive his first MLB call-up in 2018. But aside from two one-game cameos, Littell’s major league experience in 2018 was limited to expanded September rosters, and in eight games, he produced stat line A.
The first half of 2019 looked to be more of the same. Littell started the year in Rochester and ping-ponged back and forth between the Red Wings and Twins, getting called up separately in each month from May through September. Through the end of July, by which time Littell was again a Red Wing, his Minnesota numbers were stat line B.
Though his August call-up spanned just two weeks and five appearances, Littell pitched a shutout against major league opponents. In 6.2 innings, Littell allowed just four hits and one walk, striking out five while keeping the plate untrampled.
Brought back to Minnesota as part of September’s roster inflation, Littell would pitch in 10 games during the last month of the season, in which he continued to dominate, allowing just one earned run on 10 hits, walking two and whiffing 10. Littell’s August and September numbers, stat line D, brought his final marks of 2019 to a 6-0 record and stat line C.
Littell faced just three batters in the 2019 ALDS. Entering the fifth inning of Game 1 with the Twins holding a 5-4 lead, he walked the first batter and hit the second before being removed; when both Yankees came around to score and the Twins never tallied again, Littell was tagged with his only loss of 2019. In Game 2, Littell closed out the eighth inning by inducing a flyout.
Despite that postseason hiccup — face it, most of Minnesota fell over in the postseason — Littell’s finish to the year was highly encouraging, He’ll be in line for a role in the bullpen to start the season, and if he can continue to pitch as he did in August and September, his role may be more than just a Littell one.
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Overall Grade: B+
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