Davenport: The Littell Engine That Could

Always at the forefront of baseball’s cutting edge, the Tampa Bay Rays have always been looking for ways to create value and best utilise the tools available to them in order to create a winning product on the diamond.

In the Kevin Cash era alone, the Rays have made headlines with their unconventional practices through various experiments. On the top of this list is the opener – where less confident starting pitchers were given the opportunity to settle into a game more easily by avoiding the top of a team’s lineup. This was done by instead using a relief pitcher in the first inning or two before going to what was known as the ‘bulk’ pitcher that would take over for the next four to six innings. This allowed pitchers like Ryne Stanek and Diego Castillo to find their stuff as quality relief options and players like Ryan Yarborough and Josh Fleming to find their feet when arriving to the big leagues.

Also at the cutting edge of defensive positioning, workload management and bullpen usage, the Rays have continued to baffle and confound baseball with their unique brand of baseball. Their most recent trick, however, is perhaps their most impressive yet. It has been known in the past for struggling starters to be converted into excellent relievers. This seems to follow a logical pathway, as being effective for one inning is far easier to do than for five or more. But, somehow, someway, the Rays have started to magically pull off this process in reverse – turning struggling bullpen arms into outstanding starters.

The first player that the Rays successfully converted was right-hander Drew Rasmussen. Acquired from the Brewers in the Willy Adames trade in 2021, Rasmussen was an arm that seemed to have a high-octane fastball that was complimented by a wipeout slider. The problem was that he was inconsistent with his command of these pitches and could often find himself walking himself into trouble.

Since coming over to St. Petersburg, the Rays urged Rasmussen to move away from his fastball and rely more heavily on a cutter, a pitch that was considerably slower but easier to control. This was a pitch design to move away from Rasmussen’s typical modus operandi of aiming for strikeouts and instead focus on efficiency – keeping hitters off-balance and yielding soft contact. Rasmussen’s cutter is an interesting pitch as it barely has any vertical movement at all, giving it a rising effect to opposing hitters which is a novelty that gives hitters a tough time trying to barrel consistently. They also taught him a sweeper, MLB’s new in-vogue pitch that acts as a slider that tumbles downward alongside its already strong lateral movement.

Before suffering a season-ending injury in April, Rasmussen had turned into a more than dependable member of the Rays rotation that was heralded for his pitch efficiency and ability to work quickly through innings – an entirely different pitcher than the one that arrived two years earlier.

The next to receive Kyle Snyder’s divine blessing was Jeffrey Springs. After a pair of disastrous seasons with the Rangers and Red Sox, the Rays acquired Springs at the end of 2021 Spring Training alongside fellow reliever Chris Mazza. While Mazza continued to struggle with the Rays, Springs proved to be a top-notch lefty option out of the ‘pen despite not making any significant changes to his pitch mix. In 2022, the Rays slowly stretched him out an inning at a time until he became a seemingly automatic 5 inning, one run allowed guy every single time he toed the rubber. To begin the 2023 campaign, Springs seemed to emerge as one of the best starters in the entire league, cutting down on his so-so slider and relying more heavily on his elite changeup to generate swings and misses and keep hitters away from his deceptively active fastball, which generates a sneaky amount of movement to the arm side.

Due to injuries to both of the above pitchers, the Rays were left scrambling to find innings in a rotation short on quality depth. Cooper Criswell looked to be the next in line for being converted to the way of the starter but ended up struggling to get consistent playing time and suffered the yo-yo treatment that can often befall many pitchers in the Rays organisation.

And so, we find ourselves with Zack Littell. Initially trialed as a starter by both the Twins and the Giants, Littell was never allowed to get settled into that role and was instead used mostly as a reliever. He suffered from major consistency problems, posting ERAs of 2.68 and 2.92 in 2019 and 2021 respectively, but posting underwhelming numbers in all his other seasons from 2018 to 2022. The 27-year-old started the year on a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers before being traded to the Red Sox in May. Four days after being called up to Fenway, he was designated for assignment and claimed by the Rays. He would mostly appear in mop-up roles or other low-leverage situations out of the Rays bullpen. But something must have clicked with the Rays’ coaching staff and front office, as on June 29th, he was declared an opener as the Rays prepared to face the Diamondbacks in Phoenix.

In the start, he threw two scoreless innings with three strikeouts. He was then routinely used in 2 inning stints, sometimes opening, sometimes not. Results were pretty mixed too, and many fans believed he was just there as a guy to eat innings while we waited for the return of various injured players. But then, everyone had their heads turned by a truly unexpected performance. Littell, despite never going more than 3.1 innings previously, threw a very Springs-esque five-inning, one run allowed start against the reigning world champions – the Houston Astros.

That was followed up by six shutout innings against the Tigers, and all of a sudden, the Rays had found their new starter.

So, what makes Littell so effective and why was he chosen from the masses to receive the starter conversion therapy? Firstly, I tried to see if there was a connecting factor between Littell, Rasmussen and Springs to see if there was a common quality that the Rays look for before attempting the transition, but there didn’t really seem to be one, therefore it must be on a case by case basis – so let’s look at Littell specifically.

If you look at Zack Littell’s Baseball Savant page, it’s a mess. It tries to scream that he is a terrible pitcher. He has an extremely high average exit velocity against him, barely misses any bats and is often barrelled up. The one good thing that jumps out at you is his masterful command of the strike zone and ability to limit bases on balls. He is in the 99th percentile in walk percentage, which is truly elite. This fits right in with the Rays’ current priority of championing strikes over most other things.

Next, his pitch tunneling is outstanding. For those who don’t know, pitch tunneling is the art of releasing the ball from the same point every time you throw, regardless of what pitch type you are throwing. This is a useful trait to possess as it means that opposing hitters can’t gain hints on what type of pitch is coming from your release point. In short, the better you are at pitch tunneling, the less likely you are to have your pitches getting tipped. Tunneling becomes especially useful if you utilise a pitch arsenal that can have the ball move in various directions, keeping the batter guessing on if he has to adjust to the inside or outside half of the plate. Littell has just that. Take a look at the below graph which illustrates how his pitches moved in his start against the Tigers:

(Source: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/player-scroll/game?gamePk=717135&player_id=641793#pitch_movement)

As you can see, his arsenal can dart in almost every direction, making it very hard for a hitter to predict what is coming at them, especially when Littell’s tunneling is already so strong. He is also throwing from a very high release point, which, when coupled with his lanky 6”4’ frame, means that he creating a lot of downward momentum on his pitches which means hitters are having to force more uppercut swings on Littell. This makes it much harder for hitters to make consistent quality contact against the righty.

All these factors come together to make a perhaps less aesthetically pleasing watch than pitchers with elite stuff like Tyler Glasnow or Shane McClanahan, but it does the just as effective job of giving hitters an awkward and unique experience in the box, leading to swings of a similar quality.

Right now, there are still concerns about Littell’s long-term future in the role, as it seems likely that he would not be getting this look if the rotational regulars were fit. The Rays will likely want to continue to tinker with his pitch mix, as his slider has been rather flat and easy to barrel. The sweeper will also likely become more prominent, and his ability to gain consistent control of said pitch may play an important factor in his performances down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how he will be utilised in the postseason, and whether he will start or relieve.

One thing is for sure, though. Littell deserves many Rays fans’ thanks and appreciation, as he has stepped into an extremely tough job and done the less glamourous, but vital inning eating that every team craves at this point in the season. So thanks Zack: your role on this team is much larger than your name suggests.