The Rays turning a stretched-out reliever into a reliable starter is almost a yearly tradition. In 2021, the team experimented with Drew Rasmussen, which resulted in him becoming a workhorse for the team over the next season. In 2022, they created an arguably even more reliable rotation option out of Jeffrey Springs, as he seemed poised to become a dark horse Cy Young contender. Both pitchers are out for the season, and ace Shane McClanahan's status is currently up in the air. In response to this, the Rays have turned to a new reliever to give a starting pitcher’s workload, with this one being arguably the most unlikely choice thus far.
Zack Littell began his season in the Red Sox bullpen, but was quickly designated for assignment. The Rays took a flier on Littell, and he immediately demonstrated value to the team. His early success led to Kevin Cash deciding to use him as an opener in several games, and the steadiness he showed in these situations made the Rays believe he was due for a promotion.
The first traditional start for Zack Littell came against the high-octane Houston Astros. The Rays were coming off a brutal 17-4 loss to the Astros, so many Rays fans were not feeling super optimistic about the team experimenting with Littell the very next day. These concerns were put to rest almost immediately, as Littell looked sharp. He ended his day by only allowing two runs across five innings, representing a solid bounceback for the Rays’ run prevention.
Littell’s second start against the Tigers truly signified his blossoming into a starting pitcher. Littell cruised through six scoreless innings, only allowing four men on base. While Littell only had one strikeout throughout his 74-pitch effort, the contact management skills displayed were impeccable, not allowing any Tigers batter to barrel up the ball.
Littell’s command is likely the main reason the Rays considered using him as a starter. His walk rate is an absurd 3.9%, which per Statcast puts him in the 97th percentile of all pitchers. According to Location+ (a stat that rates pitch location with 100 being league average), Littell has a 107 rating, a very impressive mark for a player DFA’d to begin his year. This strike-throwing pedigree both prevents free baserunners and keeps pitch counts down.
Littell has always been good at generating groundballs, but with the Rays he has taken this element of his game to another level. It may be a small sample size, but Littell had a 57.9% groundball rate in his first two traditional starts with the team. The Rays' infield defense is one of the best in baseball this year, which we covered in our Marcus Stroman trade rumor article. Good groundball pitchers need good fielders behind them to help turn the plays, and the Rays might be the best team in baseball at preventing grounders from entering the outfield. The exit velocity numbers might not always be pretty, but when a pitcher like Littell can consistently manipulate launch angles, these hard-hit balls result in minimal damage.
Zack Littell may not be the flashiest option for a pitching rotation, but neither were Rasmussen or Springs. Littell’s combination of elite command and ability to get batters to ground out makes him the perfect fit for the Rays. Even in starts where he will struggle, he has shown the ability to pitch efficiently, which means at the very least he will be able to eat innings.