If you are a relief pitcher on a major league team’s 40-man roster with minor league options available, you better be prepared to travel. Just ask Zack Littell. The righthander was shuttled between the Twins and Triple A Rochester five times during the season’s first five months.
Through all the chaos, Littell has survived and thrived, steadily improving his performance to emerge as one of the Twins more reliable relievers. Drafted by Seattle in the 11th round back in 2013, the North Carolina native was dealt to the Yankees organization in 2016 and then to the Twins in 2017 as part of a package for starter Jamie Garcia.
Littell made his major league debut with the Twins last season, appearing in eight games. The 23-year-old carved out a bigger role in 2019, going 5-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 28 strikeouts against 10 walks in 33 innings over 25 games. I chatted with the quiet, unassuming 6-4, red-bearded hurler last week.
DZ: By my count you’ve been called up (to the big leagues) and sent down (to the minors) five times, I think? What is that like?
LITTELL: It’s just part of the game. And especially having options, it’s just one of those things. You come up here and when you’re here you try and do what you can to help the team and after that everything’s kind of out of your control. The couple times it was just a numbers game and being at the bottom guy is just how it happens.
DZ: Seems like just especially like today in modern baseball….when you’re a relief pitcher if you’re in the kind of Minor Leagues you have a really good chance getting caught and called up but then you also have a really good chance of going back down. So you kind of prepare yourself for that?
LITTELL: Yeah, I mean I think every time you come up here the mentality is not, “I’m gonna go back” it’s “I’m here to stay.” But at the same time when it happens and as the game progresses you kind of see how it’s going to happen and, but the mentality has got to be that you’re staying here every time otherwise it’s really hard to come up here and produce.
DZ: Cool. Do you ever wake up in a hotel or at home and just kind of forget where you’re at sometimes?
LITTELL: Yeah, absolutely. Especially after getting a really good night’s sleep, you wake up and you forget where you are. You don’t even remember what the hotel room you fell asleep in looks like and you just kind of roll over and you’re — it takes a second to kind of realize where you’re at. But yeah, it happens.
DZ: When you’ve been in the major leagues with this lifestyle and everything that comes with it, is it harder to play in the minor leagues after that?
LITTELL: I mean, I don’t think it’s harder to play it’s, you just want to be here. Once you kind of get up here you get a little taste and you don’t want to go back. It’s a little bit harder to give all it takes, you don’t have the same adrenaline. Especially coming out of the bullpen, you kind of have to get up there and really, really compete because you can’t rely on that adrenaline. Can’t rely on that little bit of a rush to kind of get you going so it’s a lot more of like go out there and compete.
DZ: There’s one last thing I was reading in 2017, it started with the Yankees and they were traded here. You went 19-1 in the minor leagues with an ERA in the low 2.00s, what was that like? You just feel like you couldn’t lose or?
LITTELL: I mean I played for three very, very, very good teams that year in Tampa, Trenton and Chattanooga. And all three of them went to the league championship and all three of them could swing it. I definitely threw the ball well, but there were some starts where I didn’t throw the ball well. I gave out four or five, six runs and you just kind of grind through five innings and you got a team that hits that well you end up giving a win anyway. So it was a lot of fun. It was great from a confidence standpoint to go out there and know you have a chance to win everyday, but at the same time it was one of those things where you like try not to read into it too much.
DZ: You kind of know at that point like hey, like making the Major Leagues is becoming like a real strong possibility?
LITTELL: Yeah, I mean at that year I didn’t necessarily think so. I believe that was my protection year for the Rule V (draft). And the goal was just to, wherever I was, to compete and show that I deserve to be put on 40-man roster somewhere. Again one of those things you just kind of can’t control. You just got to go out there and throw.
See more of David Zingler’s 2019 athlete interviews:
September 15: Ian Miller
September 5: Tyler Duffey
August 29: Jake Odorizzi
August 27: Mitch Garver
August 23: Trevor May
August 21: Sergio Romo
August 17: Sylvia Fowles
July 25: Max Kepler
July 20: Kyle Gibson
July 10: Alaina Coates
June 25: Taylor Rogers
June 19: Ryan Eades
June 16: Jason Castro
May 18: Seimone Augustus
April 24: Ryne Harper
April 21: CJ Cron
February 2: Caleb Truax