BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — If it weren’t for Zack Littell, the Bakersfield Blaze would have been contracted out of existence a week early.
On September 8, facing elimination from the first round of the California League’s playoffs against the San Jose Giants and just hoping for one more game before contraction, the Blaze put the ball in the hands of the 20-year-old North Carolinian for a home game at Sam Lynn Ballpark. Put bluntly, Littell was arguably the most dominant he’d been all season: in 7.1 innings of work he allowed just one run on four hits and a walk with 11 strikeouts.
That stellar start guaranteed the Blaze would play Game 3 against San Jose the next night, and a win there pushed them into the Cal League’s North Division finals against Visalia. Unfortunately for the club, a sweep at the hands of the Rawhide ended Bakersfield’s final-year title hopes, and contraction finally came for the outlaw affiliate. But for Littell, that dominant postseason start wasn’t a coming-out party but rather a continued statement—a repeat of what he’d done again and again all summer long, first in Low-A Clinton and later in Bakersfield—on a larger, brighter stage.
Including that playoff start, across 29 games/28 starts in 2016, Littell was 14-6 with a 2.60 ERA, two complete games, and 167 strikeouts against just 35 walks in 173 innings pitched. And while he’s still just 20 years old, this dominant summer has been a long time in coming for the righty, who debuted in pro ball fresh out of high school in 2013 to adversity: an 0-6 record with a 5.94 ERA in 10 games/seven starts for the Mariners’ rookie ball affiliate in the Arizona League. Scrolling through the pitcher’s MLB Farm page, old tweets about his 2014 season, which he spent with Pulaski of the Appalachian League, give insight to the long development process he’s undertaken the last few years:
Zack Littell 88-91 T92. Big kid, works downhill. Rolling CB 70-71 needs a lot of work.
— Nathaniel Stoltz (@stoltz_baseball) July 28, 2014
Littell gets pulled after 4 2/3 innings. 87-91 T92 with some life, 69-72 CB and 83-85 CH need plenty of work.
— Nathaniel Stoltz (@stoltz_baseball) July 29, 2014
Two years later, as we’ve seen in our own scouting report of the righty from his time in Bakersfield, those concerns about his stuff—specifically his curveball—are being put to rest thanks to Littell’s hard work and the Mariners’ smart development process. In Bakersfield alone this summer, he was nearly perfect: 9-1 with a 2.39 ERA in 13 games/12 starts, with 72 strikeouts in 75.1 innings pitched. That’s the California League, remember—the circuit where ERAs go to die.
Maybe somebody forgot to tip off Zack Littell about that.
“To be honest with you, I haven’t made much of an adjustment being here,” Littell admitted about the Cal League when Today’s Knuckleball spoke to him about how well he transitioned from Low-A Clinton to Bakersfield.
“I threw the ball well in Clinton, and everybody I talked to was like, ‘just keep doing what you’re doing, you are going to get guys out.’ So I just kept sticking with my approach trying to working quick and get contact, and it’s worked. The defense behind me has really worked well.”
That’s really the crux of what Littell does; yes, he might have the makings of a hammer curveball (as expected, he’s come a long way from those 2014 tweets), and yes, he has the command and control to dial up a strikeout when he needs one, at least at this level, but as a starting pitcher trying to see an opposing lineup three times in a game, he’s quickly learning the payoff of getting hitters out of the box early and getting his defense involved behind him often.
“The defense will always work better when it’s a fast-paced game,” he noted. “It kind of keeps them on their toes, and I don’t want to be out on the mound any longer than they want to be out there, so I’ve been trying to work hitters quick and get back to the dugout quick.”
The curve is a nice pitch that, when thrown just a little bit harder, should develop very well against better and better hitters later in his career, but it’s his darting, late-moving two-seamer that is the main reason he’s getting quick innings and lots of ground balls. Good arm-side run and sink on the two-seamer make it a ground ball machine, and it’s arguably the one thing above all else that carried Littell to so much Cal League success in the second half of 2016.
“When I need a ground ball, or when I need a quick out, I just throw that in there, and it’s not so much that I’m trying to get a swing and miss as much as I am trying to miss a barrel,” he said.
He also noted he threw a poor two-seamer in high school only to have it come to life with the Mariners thanks to his pitching coach in Pulaski in 2014, Jason Blanton, who helped Littell find the feel for it against professional hitters.
And it’s not just Blanton—who’s now the pitching coach of the independent New Britain Bees—that helped Littell get the feel for what is now his best pitch; the righty was quick to call out a fellow Mariners pitching prospect that Today’s Knuckleball knows very well as one who significantly pushed development of the two-seamer.
“Me and Tyler Herb did quite a bit with it, we actually talked a lot about it last year when we were playing together, just working with two-seams and trying to learn a little bit from each other,” Littell admitted of his fellow starting pitcher, who wrapped up 2016 in Double-A Jackson. “And because of that, it’s definitely become a big pitch for me.”
That’s an understatement, but it’s understandable Littell would leave it at that. He struck me as extremely soft-spoken, more content to let his arm do the talking on the field than anything. And yet as quiet as he may be, it’s that arm—and the numbers it put up in 2016—that find him rising rapidly through the Mariners’ system.
Take his MLB Pipeline ranking, for one; non-existent among the club’s top-30 during spring training, he shot up to 14th-best in the organization by midseason. In 2016 alone, he earned a Pitcher of the Week honor in Clinton in June, then earned the Cal League’s Pitcher of the Month after his promotion to Bakersfield in July, and followed it up with another Pitcher of the Week nod for the Blaze in August.
None of this has come to him by accident—and yet none of it has phased Littell to this point, either.
“I think at the end of the day I just have to keep playing,” he said, shrugging off the notion of being ‘on the radar’ now that he’s had such a good summer for the Mariners. “I don’t really think much of it. It’s there, I’ve seen it, everybody here has seen it, but it doesn’t change anything, I still have to go out and pitch every day. I don’t feel any higher expectations, I just have to focus on the same thing, and that’s staying to my approach every single night.”
To Littell’s credit, that’s a pretty astute cliché for a young prospect to use in pushing away personal attention from the media and fans, but because he’s proven such a good-natured and affable guy, I decided to push back a little bit on that point. He’ll most likely be in Double-A next summer, and if his stock continues to rise there, in a best-case scenario, he might be fighting for a spot in the Mariners’ big league rotation a calendar year from now, right?
Littell smiled, but didn’t budge on the greater point.
“[The future] crosses your mind, but it’s one of those things where you just kind of have to stay in the moment, and I really try not to think about it,” he said before turning things back to the team’s goals. “It’s there, but at the same time, we have this playoff push and when it comes down to it, I just want to be pitching, it doesn’t matter what league it is.”
He paused, before repeating himself for emphasis.
“I just want to be pitching.”
After watching him flourish as a 20-year-old in a difficult environment this summer, you can’t help but feel like Zack Littell will get that wish for years to come.