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How ‘fearless’ Zack Littell has success for Rays doing things hard way

BALTIMORE — Since Zack Littell was moved — somewhat out of desperation — from a fringy role in the Rays bullpen to their rotation last July, he has been arguably their best starting pitcher, throwing the most innings while posting a 3.52 ERA that leads the group.

He has done that without the experience, without the reputation or name recognition, and definitely without the paycheck that top starters typically carry.

Even more impressive is how he has done so featuring a skill-set that seems incongruous to success.

Consider these things that are all true about Littell:

He doesn’t throw overly hard. He gets the ball over the plate often. He induces a lot of swings, and some misses. He gives up a fair amount of hits. He doesn’t allow much hard contact. He rarely walks anyone. He doesn’t get scored on much.

“Yeah, in theory some of them kind of contradict each other,” Littell said. “Like having not overpowering stuff constantly in the zone while still getting swings and misses. And not walking guys. I mean, like any of those two, technically, don’t usually go together.”

What makes it work is the confidence and conviction that Littell has to pitch that way and to keep doing it, essentially throwing the ball over the plate routinely and daring the men holding the bats 60 feet away to take their best cuts, knowing they’ll often get themselves out.

“Probably one of the biggest reasons for the success that he has is the approach that he’s just willing to get hit every pitch he throws,” seventh-year Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said.

“There’s been a pretty rich pitching history here in Tampa Bay for a long time, and he’s willing to get hit before two strikes more than anybody in my time here. And I’d probably put him up against almost anybody that’s been here.

“He just fills the strike zone.”

What Littell tries to do, Rays manager Kevin Cash said, is “definitely very hard.”

But he has his tricks. Former Ray Ryan Yarbrough is among those who had success at times with a similar style of pitching to contact.

With a fastball that averages 92.4 mph, Littell makes up for what he lacks in power with polish, tossing in a dose of deception and a quick pace that keeps batters from getting comfortable.

He has an assortment of five-plus quality pitches (four-seam fastball, sinker, splitter, cutter, sweeper) that he sequences differently to keep hitters guessing and off balance.

Littell leverages the movement of his arsenal, with pitches going all different directions after appearing to start from a similar release point, which makes them difficult for hitters to recognize.

“He’s got some stuff that is not appreciated,” Cash said. “He’s very deceptive. He’s got a lot of late movement on his pitches. He’s got them going different ways ... and it’s late, darting action. You can make contact on it, but generally speaking, it’s a lot of weaker contact.”

He maximizes location within the strike zone by changing eye levels — such as the vertical separation between the four-seam fastball he throws at the top and the splitter that drops out of the bottom — and occasionally making hitters move their feet. When he gets to two strikes, and occasionally sooner, he seeks to lure hitters into chasing pitches off the plate.

“Not getting hit in the zone is a product of mixing (pitches), but, also, I do expand (the zone). I’m not just straight up all the time in the zone,” said Littell, who faces the Orioles on Sunday.

And he does it all consistently well.

“There’s art to what he does,” Snyder said.

Where some other Rays pitchers try to work the edges, Littell often prefers to get to the heart of the matter, as well as the plate.

“He puts the ball in the white,” Cash said.

Why live dangerously?

Why not?

“A great word for him is fearless,” fellow starter Zach Eflin said. “He doesn’t care what’s going to happen, the result. You can never be worried about the result. It’s all about the process and the execution.

“Clearly, he’s not scared of anything, which is the recipe for a great starting pitcher.”

Littell said he started to figure out that was the way to go when he got his first extended major-league opportunities in 2019 working as a reliever for the Twins and in 2021 pitching out of the Giants bullpen.

He learned his own spin on the coaching cliché of “trusting your stuff,” which basically means to believe it’s good enough to throw over the plate and get outs.

“There’s trusting your best stuff is going to play, and there’s trusting your stuff all the time,” Littell said. “When I got to the major leagues, I really struggled with feeling like I had to have my best stuff every time I went out there, or else I was going to get hit.

“As soon as that little bit of doubt kind of creeps in, it’s really hard to go out there. You’re warming up in the bullpen and you’re just spraying balls, or you don’t feel right, and you’re like, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to get anybody out tonight.’ ”

Littell, 28, said there was no revelatory moment, just his eventual acceptance and embrace.

“A big hurdle for me in my career was getting to a point where I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter, I can throw balls in the zone and hitters are still going to get out,’ ” he said. “Another cliché is that hitters are going to get out seven of 10 times — and in today’s world it’s probably more often. Hitters are going to get out. You watch them take (batting practice) and they get out. It’s just a matter of going out there and believing in yourself all the time versus believing in your best stuff.”

And then showing it — by throwing it right over the plate.

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