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Spin rate, 'pitchability' make Zack Littell an intriguing prospect for Twins

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Zack Littell. Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Zack Littell heard nothing but positives upon getting optioned out of his first Twins spring training on Wednesday morning.

"I told him he had an impressive camp," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "Complimented the work ethic and mound presence. It was nice to put eyes on him and build him up because I felt good about what he did here."

Littell, acquired along with lefty Dietrich Enns in the July 31 trade that sent veteran pitcher Jaime Garcia to the New York Yankees, is best known for his 19-1 record at three levels last summer. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the right-hander from North Carolina should open the year at Triple-A Rochester.

"He's got a little different style," Molitor said. "His fastball plays and it's not very hard. He's got deception, the ability to hide the ball and pitch up in the zone. He hit 90 (mph) a few times. I know he can cut it, I know he can spin it, I know he can slow it down. He seems to have a good feel of how he can get people out."

The scouting term for that is "pitchability," a label that has followed Littell since he signed for $100,000 out of the 11th round with the Seattle Mariners as a high school draftee in 2013. Already traded twice by age 22, the easygoing Littell smiles when asked what "pitchability" means to him.

"It's really having to be a pitcher, you know?" he said. "A lot of the guys who throw really hard are incredible pitchers but they can get away with a little bit more just based on 'velo' and pure raw stuff. I just don't have it."

Littell might touch 92 mph with his fastball, but it's really more about carving up the zone into four quadrants, changing hitters' eye levels and keeping them off balance with a full pitch mix that includes a solid changeup and a 72-mph curveball.

"I think I learned pretty quickly I had to find a way to get it done," he said. "I think 'pitchability' is a term to describe just finding a way to get it done. It's not necessarily a compliment, but it's not an insult by any means. It's just what you are."

He learned from two of his Mariners pitching coaches, Rich Dorman and Jason Blanton, the value of pitching inside to open up the outer half of the plate.

"It was just an organizational philosophy," Littell said. "It was having that mentality of, 'You own the mound while you're out there, and anybody who steps in the box is doing it at their own risk.'"

Littell isn't a headhunter but he has averaged seven hit batters in his four full professional seasons. That might be one reason, despite modest stuff, he has averaged just 5.8 homers allowed in that same span.

There's also the matter of his spin rate, especially on his four-seam fastball, that allows him to pitch up in the zone with success. His nine-inning strikeout rate is a shade under eight for his first 538 pro innings, and last year at Double-A with the Yankees it spiked to an eye-popping 10.6.

A high spin rate will cause hitters to swing under the ball, which was something Matt Belisle used to his advantage out of the Twins' bullpen last year.

"It definitely helps," Littell said. "That's the idea, at least. When I got to the Yankees, they started really looking at those numbers and sharing them with us. That's when I guess I realized I might have a little bit better (spin rate) than some guys."

The first time Littell even heard the term "spin rate" was in 2015 while pitching in the Midwest League. The TrackMan system was installed that year at the Mariners' Class A affiliate in Clinton, Iowa, but the data wasn't readily shared with the pitchers.

Littell, who has never thrown with a Rapsodo machine recording his data points, has no idea if he's always had high spin rate on his riding fastball or if it took a leap forward at some point in his development.

"I honestly don't like to look into a whole lot of that kind of stuff," he said. "I overanalyze a little bit. I try and stay away from as much as I can. A lot of that I can't control, regardless. I can't make it any better or any worse."

Even as he was recruited out of high school, first by Appalachian State (where he signed) and later by Duke after hiring away two Mountaineers coaches, Littell didn't hear much about his spin rate. Notably, new Twins minor league pitching coordinator Pete Maki, who later moved from App State to Duke, convinced Littell to re-commit to App State after six attempts at improving his SAT score (which he did).

"That level of analytics is fairly new," he said. "The research definitely wasn't there to back it up (in 2013). Maybe I did have it then. Maybe I didn't. You just never know."

The important thing is he has it now.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service