Sunday Notes: Zack Littell Knows a 20-1 Record is Relative

Two summers ago, I asked Greg Mroz — then a radio broadcaster for the Clinton Lumber Kings — which of their players I should interview and write about. He recommended Zack Littell. I proceeded to do so for a Sunday Notes column, despite never having heard of him. Not too many people had. At the time, Seattle’s selection in the 11th round of the 2013 draft barely registered a blip on prospect radar.

Mroz deserves some props, because Littell is now living large. Playing for two different organizations, at two different levels and for three different teams, Littell finished this season with a record of 20-1. The most recent of his victories came on Wednesday with Minnesota’s Double-A affiliate, the Chattanooga Lookouts, in the Southern League playoffs.

No one saw it coming — you can’t predict 20-1 — and the same could probably be said of his multiple changes of address. Seattle swapped Littell for James Pazos last November, and the Yankees subsequently traded him to the Twins as part of July’s Jaime Garcia deal.

“The first one was out of nowhere,” Littell told me. “I was at home, hanging out in the offseason, and got a call — one minute I was a Mariner, and the next minute I was a Yankee. Coming to the Twins… I got scratched from a start the night before, so I kind of knew something was up, but I thought I was going to the A’s because of all the Sonny-Gray-to-the-Yankees rumors. But when I got the call from (New York GM Brian) Cashman, he told me I was going to the Twins.”

The 21-year-old North Carolina native is smart enough to know that W-L records are to be taken with a grain of salt.

“This season has been a blast,” Littell said on Thursday. “I’ve played with teams that just win all the time, so my record speaks more to those guys than it does to me. There have been multiple games this year where I haven’t had my best stuff, but we just hit and hit and hit, and I ended up getting a win.”

While technically true, those words understate how good he was. Littell was 4-0 in games where he gave up four-or-more earned runs, but those were the only times he allowed that many all season. In 21 of his 25 starts, the humble hurler gave up two-or-fewer runs. His lone loss came in a game where he allowed just a pair, neither of which was earned. On the year, his ERA was a Lilliputian 2.12.

Littell isn’t overpowering — his heater sits 89-92 — but he’s stingy with walks (2.2 as a pro) and he pitches with a purpose. This year he added a slider to go with his two- and four-seam fastballs, curveball, and changeup. And while his pitching profile doesn’t suggest future big-league ace, 20-1 isn’t exactly something to sneeze at. The national attention he’s suddenly attracting is testament to that, but to his credit, he’s not letting it go to his head.

“If anything, it’s just more humbling,” said Littell. “In baseball, you can be on top of the world one day and on the bottom the next, so I’m just trying to stay the same person, on and off the field. People are kind of blown away by my record, but again, that says more about my teams than it does about how I’ve pitched. I’m not saying I didn’t deserve some wins, but I absolutely should have gotten more losses. Things just happened to go my way.”

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He’s been overshadowed by several teammates having superb seasons, but Ketel Marte has been a solid contributor to the Arizona Diamondbacks success. The 23-year-old switch-hitter has not only played a solid shortstop, he’s been productive at the plate. Since being called up in late June to fill in for the injured Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings, Marte is slashing .286/.368/.441.

Marte came over from the Mariners in last winter’s Taijuan WalkerJean Segura trade, which means he received Hall-of-Fame-quality hitting tutorials before arriving in Arizona.

Edgar Martinez was my hitting coach in Seattle last year, and he taught me a lot,” Marte told me in late August. “He would tell me that every time he would go to home plate, he would be looking to hit the ball to right field. He said if you’re thinking middle away, you’re going to be more closed and maybe you’re going to have a better swing. If you’re thinking middle away and they throw inside, you just react — you hit the ball to left field.”

Marte is suddenly showing an ability to hit balls over fences. The Dominican infielder had just 13 professional home runs coming into the season, and he’s nearly doubled that total. After totaling six in Triple-A Reno, he has five with the D-Backs in just 185 plate appearances.

Where is the power coming from?

“I don’t know, “ answered a smiling Marte. ‘I think I had the same pop last year, but I just have a better swing now. I try to put my best swing on every time. I just see the ball and swing hard.”

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Nicholas Castellanos has become a polarizing figure among the Detroit fanbase. Some like him — particularly his future — while others would prefer to see him shipped out of town. Each view is understandable. Four full seasons into his Tigers tenure, the 25-year-old third baseman remains unpolished and inconsistent. Even so, no one on the current roster has more hits, home runs, or total bases this season. Career-wise, Castellanos has 65 home runs and 896 total bases.

Lets look at a pair of players who spent their first several seasons at the hot corner.

Through his age-25 season, Hank Blalock had 95 home runs and 1,172 total bases. From his age-26 season onward, he had 48 home runs and 478 total bases.

Through his age-25 season, Edwin Encarnacion had 66 home runs and 740 total bases. Since turning 26, he has 278 home runs and 2,202 total bases.

Is Castellanos destined to become the next Encarnacion, or will he become another Blalock? My crystal ball says it will be the former, but given that I don’t have a soothsayer license, you may not want to take that to the bank.

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Chatting with Steve Cishek, I learned that he’s a fan of feel. The Tampa Bay Rays reliever lives and dies with his sinker, and he doesn’t rely on data to know what makes it dive — or not dive.

“For me, it’s all about life,” said Cishek. “With my arm angle, I feel I have the most success when I get good extension. I can tell the hitters are late on it. It’s 91, but they’re fouling it off, just battling. I’ll hear them say, ‘Hey man, that feels like it’s coming in harder than a guy throwing 96,’ and it’s because I’m able to get that extension. If my ball isn’t sinking, it’s usually because I’m fatigued. It’s a feel thing for me. I know what adjustment I need to make.”

I mentioned that Zach Britton monitors not only his arm angle, but also his spin rate.

“If I start worrying about spin rate… that’s just more stuff I’m putting in my head,” responded Cishek. “I have too much going on in my delivery to think about anything else. Zach Britton, I mean, if his spin rate isn’t where he wants it to be, and he makes the adjustment… if I was a pitching coach, I’d encourage him to keep looking into it, and I’d go over it with him. But if it’s an old-school guy — let’s say Tommy Hunter, who doesn’t like spin rate — you’re going approach him differently than a guy who wants to use TrackMan. I’m an old-school guy.”

———

Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland — a former closer at Mississippi State — threw a scoreless mop-up inning against the Orioles a few weeks ago. The following day, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter spoke of how you often see a lot of early swings when position players pitch: “Believe me, they don’t want to strike out. They want to put it in play, and if they make an out they make an out.”

Buck being Buck, he soon segued into different observational territory.

“I could tell Moreland wasn’t going to throw Chris (Davis) a breaking ball and have him say, ‘You didn’t challenge me,”’ said Showalter. “I was watching Moreland as Chris’s ball left the bat and… that’s a horrible trait I have, to look off the ball. I love watching off-the-ball stuff. Like (Eduardo) Nunez last night, how late he was covering the bag.”

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In September 2015, an American League manager answered the following question in one of my Notes columns: “If you could have any of (Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Kiermaier, Kevin Pillar), who would you want going forward? Qualifying that it was by a narrow margin, he chose Kiermaier.

Here are some of their numbers since the beginning of last season:

Bradley: .263/.343/.460, 41 HR, 20 DRS, 7.3 WAR.

Kiermaier: .261/.336/.429, 23 HR, 40 DRS, 6.0 WAR

Pillar: .260/.300/.389, 21 HR, 36 DRS, 4.9 WAR

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In this column two Sunday’s ago, Lee Stange — now 80 years young — shared his memories of three former Minnesota Twins teammates. Today, we’ll learn about the pitch that got Stange to the big leagues, and kept him there for parts of 10 seasons.

Stange told me his fastball was in the high 80s, “maybe 90 tops,” and he that primarily relied a pitch that was far less common then than it is now.

“I probably threw as many cutters as I did fastballs,” explained Stange. “You didn’t hear much about cutters when I played, so nobody knew what it was. I got accused of throwing a spitball a lot of times. The good ones only broke about four-five inches. It looked like a fastball, then it moved.”

The octogenarian displayed a good memory when I asked where he learned the pitch.

Dickie Harris, who was Bucky Harris’s son, was the GM in Wilson, North Carolina when I was there,” said Stange. “A friend of his, Bob Saban, had thrown a cutter, and he taught it to me in spring training. It took me a little while that year (1960), but once I got to throwing it right, I ended up winning 20 games. That was in class B, and I went to the big leagues the next year.”

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SEPTEMBER TIDBITS

Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Jon Duplantier — featured here in May — has been named MiLB Pipeline’s Pitcher of the Year. Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna was named Hitter of the Year.

Parker Dunshee, a 22-year-old right-hander out of Wake Forest, pitched 38-and-a-third scoreless innings for short-season Vermont. Oakland’s seventh-round pick did allow three runs in his lone outing in the Arizona rookie league.

On Friday, Justus Sheffield and Taylor Widener combined for a no-hitter as Trenton (Yankees) bested Binghamton (Mets) by a count of 2-0 in the Eastern League playoffs.

The Indianapolis Indians led all minor leagues in attendance this for the second-consecutive year. Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate drew 641,141 fans to Victory Field, an average of 9,159 per game.

Tim Tebow slashed .226/.309/.347 in 486 plate appearances between low-A Columbia and high-A St. Lucie.

Going into last night, Anaheim’s Albert Pujols had seven hits in his last eight at bats with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Pablo Sandoval went 39 at bats without a hit — the longest such streak in San Francisco Giants history — before homering on Friday night. The MLB record for consecutive hitless at bats by a non-pitcher is 46 by Eugenio Velez.

On Friday, Ichiro Suzuki became the sixth player in MLB history to record 2,500 singles. The other five are Pete Rose (3,215), Ty Cobb (3,052), Eddie Collins (2,643), Derek Jeter (2,595) and Wee Willie Keeler (2,539).

On Wednesday, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Indians became the first teams in MLB history to have simultaneous win streaks of at least 13 games.

The Indians are 80-42 against American League competition, and 6-14 against National League teams.

———

Prior to talking to Danny Jansen last month, I assumed we shared the same NFL allegiance. I’m a Packers fan, and the Toronto Blue Jays prospect grew up a stone’s throw from Green Bay in nearby Appleton, Wisconsin. It turns out I was wrong.

“I’m actually a Bears fan,” Jansen told me. “I was born in Chicago, and while I only lived there for two years, I stuck with the family.”

Rooting for ‘Da Bears’ isn’t exactly a good way to make friends in cheesehead country. What has that experience been like for the 22-year-old backstop?

“High school was pretty hard,” admitted Jansen. “There were only a couple of us who weren’t Packers fans. And I definitely get a hard time about it now, with the Bears not being very good. It’s still a good time, though. It’s fun having that game to look forward to every Sunday.”

———

Logan Morrison got to watch his favorite football team on Thursday. LoMo is a Kansas City Chiefs fan, and they opened the NFL season by upsetting the New England Patriots by a count of 42-27. Needless to say, he was pleased with the result.

“If their offense can do that every week they’ll go undefeated, but that’s not going to happen,” said Morrison, whose father played football at the University of Kansas. “Getting (Reggie) Ragland back will help boost against the run. Losing Eric Berry was a big blow, but I really liked what I saw of Kareem Hunt. I really liked what I saw of Tyreek (Hill) and Alex (Smith) pushing the ball down the field. Obviously a great start.”

Which position would the Tampa Bay Rays slugger play if were to suit up for the Chiefs?

“They’re a 3-4 team, so I’d probably be an outside linebacker, like Justin Houston,” proposed Morrison. “He’s really good though, so I don’t think I’d play. I’d be on the bench.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The SABR Defensive Index has been updated for games through August 27.

At The Miami Herald, Barry Jackson wrote about Miami Marlins senior director of analytics — and former Baseball Prospectus writer — Jason Pare.

On assignment for The Sporting News, Graham Womack talked to St. Louis Cardinals players about Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame worthiness.

At The Daily Herald, Bruce Miles wrote about how the first regular-season Friday-night game in Chicago Cubs history likely won’t be the last.

Pirates legend Kent Tekulve is stepping away from baseball, and Joe Starkey explained why at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

According to The Boston Globe’s Bob Hohler, the 1948 Indians stole signs with a high-powered telescopic gun sight, and Bob Feller admitted as much, saying that all’s fair in love, war, and a pennant race.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Pete Rose (four times), Joey Votto (twice), and Shin-Soo Choo (once) are the only players in Cincinnati Reds history to reach base 300-or-more times in a season. Votto has reached base 281 times so far this year, the most in MLB.

Nomar Mazara, who turns 23 next April, has 39 career home runs. Nomar Garciaparra didn’t have any home runs prior to his 23rd birthday.

On September 9, 1979, Red Sox catcher Bob Montgomery became the last player to hit without a batting helmet.

On September 9, 1977, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker went a combined 5 for 8 while making their MLB debuts with the Detroit Tigers. The following day, they turned their first double play together.

On September 13, 1946, Ted Williams hit an opposite-field, inside-the-park home run in the first inning as the Red Sox beat the Indians 1-0 to clinch the American League pennant. It was the only inside-the-park home run of The Splendid Splinter’s career.

For those of you who like to plan ahead, the 2018 SABR Analytics Conference will be held March 9 -11, 2018, at the Hyatt Regency Phoenix, in Phoenix, Arizona.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Zack Littell Knows a 20-1 Record is Relative by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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