FORT MYERS, Fla. — Zack Littell finished last season with a 2.68 earned-run average. He gave up just one earned run in his last 16 appearances of the season, good for a 0.47 ERA across 19 innings. While doing that, he established himself as a reliable bullpen arm for manager Rocco Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson.
So why, then, did Littell report to spring training believing that he must win a job on the team when his spot seems more solidified to those on the outside?
“We’ve got super talented younger guys and guys that are all pushing for a spot. So the mentality coming into camp every year, and I hope it’s like this in 10 years whether I’m an everyday guy or not, is that you’re competing for a spot,” Littell said. “I wouldn’t be doing myself any favors if I came in here and said, ‘I’ve got a spot locked down.’”
So instead, Littell got to work this offseason — earlier than normal, no less, after being converted to a reliever last season. Littell finished 2019 with 100 total innings, nearly 50 less than he had thrown the year before. As a result, his arm felt fresh, and he started working out about a month earlier than he normally would.
He also moved facilities this offseason, leaving behind his high school field to train at Baseball Rebellion in Durham, N.C., about 20 minutes away from his home. There, Littell had a chance to use more of the technology that he had become accustomed to using in the big leagues.
“There are these checkpoints, whether it’s performance or just the way you feel that you’re trying to reach and know, ‘Hey, I’m ready to go to spring training,’ ” Littell said. “It was just nice to be able to throw a bullpen and say, ‘Hey, these are the numbers that we’re looking for,’ or ‘Hey, these aren’t the numbers that we’re looking for, and you might need to tweak something.’ To be able to go look at video was nice.”
While Littell said Johnson sent him home with some things they thought would be beneficial for him to work on before camp started, there wasn’t a major change that he went into the offseason trying to implement.
There is one thing he’s trying to do, though.
Last year, Littell joked with Johnson that he thought he could hit 100 mph on the radar, and that goal remains in his mind. While he’s not sure if it’ll even be this year — the fastest pitch he threw last year topped out at 97.3 mph — he did see his velocity bump up when he moved to the bullpen, and he’s been working on some mechanical changes that he hopes will produce the desired effect.
“When we really shortened him up … we saw the stuff really tick up. We saw the reactions the hitters were giving on the slider and, whatever he calls it, the slider-cutter. But he’s also learned to play those pitches off of each other better than he had been,” Baldelli said. “So when you combine both of those things and just the fact he adapted well to the bullpen, I think you ended up with a real good bullpen arm and a guy that can go out there against the best hitters in the game and compete very well.”
That’s high praise for a guy who believes he’s competing for a spot. If this spring truly is an audition, Littell has made an impression. He has thrown six scoreless innings in his four appearances. Opponents have managed just two hits against him, and he has struck out nine batters.
“Regardless of what the scenario is, I absolutely came into this camp trying to win a job, and I definitely don’t want to be up just because of last year’s results, either,” Littell said. “I don’t want to be just thrown in the bullpen because last year was good. I want to come in here and throw the ball well and people look at me and say, ‘This guy belongs there.’ ”