When the Twins performed their trade deadline 180 and moved just-acquired starter Jaime Garcia to the Yankees, they convinced ownership to pay the rest of Garcia’s salary (about $4 million) in order to get better pitching prospects in return. Ownership’s approval to eat Garcia’s salary allowed the Twins to acquire 21-year-old starter Zack Littell from the Yankees, a highly regarded prospect who’s risen quickly through the minor leagues while putting up outstanding numbers.
There were a lot of rumors surrounding Littell in the lead up to the deadline; the A’s reportedly wanted him as part of the return for Sonny Gray. Littell, who was scratched from his start prior to the deadline, says he thought he was going to be traded, but was surprised at the destination.
“The trade to Minnesota, I was very surprised,” he said. “I kind of had an idea I was getting traded; I was scratched from my Saturday start. Everything I knew, I thought it was going to be Oakland, because of the Sonny Gray stuff. That’s what I was hearing from my agent. I woke up the next morning and was told I was going to the Twins.”
It was the second time Littell had been traded in the past nine months, with the Yankees acquiring him for reliever James Pazos last November. Littell said that trade helped prepare him for what it was like to change organizations.
Littell is an intriguing prospect not only because of his outstanding numbers, but because he’s putting up those numbers as one of the youngest pitchers in Double-A. This season, in High-A and Double-A, he’s 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA, 1.118 WHIP and 8.5 K/9. In the Southern League, where his new Double-A team, Chattanooga, plays, there are only two qualified starters below 21.
Littell has been able to put up those numbers despite not having overpowering stuff. He says his fastball sits 90-92 MPH, while his slider is 85-88, changeup 83-87, and curveball 73-78. What he lacks in velocity he makes up for with what scouts sometimes refer to as “pitchability.” With four quality pitches that he says he has confidence throwing in any count, he’s unpredictable, and has shown an ability to consistently repeat his mechanics. Littell seems to have a good understanding of the kind of pitcher he is.
“I think the biggest thing is knowing who I am,” he said. “I don’t necessarily have, by today’s standards, the best stuff. If you look at the velos they’re all very average. I can’t afford to make mistakes. I try to get as many groundballs as I can, let my 2-seamer and my slider work. I’m not a power pitcher, but I still think my stuff plays as well as anyone else.”
Littell’s approach works because of his strong command. His 2017 walk rate of 1.9 BB/9 and career walk rate of 2.1 BB/9 are both very low, and allows him to work deep into games and eat innings.
“I realized pretty quickly once I got into pro ball I wasn’t going be a power guy, I was going to have to rely on command,” he said. “I don’t like to walk people. Pound the zone. I’m looking to get the batter out of the box in 3 or less pitches, whether it’s a groundball or strikeout. If I get to 0-2 right away I’ll burn a pitch sometimes going for a strikeout, but really I try to be as efficient as I can.”
“I kind of think a quality start should be six innings and 2 earned runs,” he said. “One of my goals every year is to lead whatever team I’m on in innings. Go deep into games.”
Littell has done that, throwing 165.2 innings last season and 127 innings this season with a month to play. Those are high numbers for a young starter, and suggest he could eventually blossom into a 200 innings/year starter in the big leagues.
Just as he understands the value of eating innings and being a durable starter, Littell knows the long-term value that a command and control pitcher can have in the big leagues. He referenced Greg Maddux and John Smoltz–late in his career–as examples of pitchers he watched who relied on pinpoint command to have great careers. He also cited a familiar name to Twins fans, the ageless wonder, Bartolo Colon.
“Smoltz and Colon were both power pitchers at one time,” he said. “There’s always going be a debate, velo versus command, which one’s better. Command is sometimes underestimated. You can throw hard now, but if you’re playing 20 years in the big leagues your chances of throwing 100 at the end of your career are pretty slim. I pride myself on command.”