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Zack Littell: Champ or Chump for Fantasy Baseball?

Zack Littell - fantasy baseball draft sleepers DFS MLB injury news

Most fantasy managers think they do a good job following news around the league. We know who has an everyday job, most of the players on terrible teams, and each club's bullpen situation. We're also constantly looking for breaking news that might be actionable in our fantasy leagues.

In this author's experience, the Tampa Bay Rays are the exception to this rule. We know they're good, and we know a handful of player names. However, we also try to avoid rostering them. Why? Sometimes it's because the team uses four-dimensional chess platoons. Other times because it seemingly sprinkles magic pixie dust on run-of-the-mill arms whenever they need another pitcher.

The latest example of these pitchers is Zack Littell, a guy who has gone from a nondescript reliever to a regular starter on a playoff team. Can Littell help in fantasy? Let's find out!

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Who the Heck is Zack Littell?

When a name you're unfamiliar with starts pitching for the Rays, the assumption is that it's another one of their young flamethrowers who throw 97+. Zack Littell isn't that guy though. Instead, he's a 27-year-old drafted 327th overall by the Mariners in the 2013 amateur draft. He was traded to the Yankees and then the Twins, for whom he made his MLB debut in 2018 working primarily as a middle reliever.

Littell has thrown major league pitches in every season since, joining San Francisco from 2021-2022 and pitching three innings for Boston after signing a minor league deal with Texas earlier this year. The Red Sox waived Littell and the Rays claimed him, which is how he ended up a Ray.

Littell was never a huge prospect and doesn't light up the radar gun, so prospect hounds never came across him. Likewise, working as a nondescript middle reliever isn't a role with inherent fantasy value, especially if you aren't posting elite ratios or strikeout totals. He never sniffed the ninth inning either. Why would we pay attention to this guy?

We still aren't if his 12% roster rate is any indication, but that might have to change.


Zack Littell Walks No One

The Rays made Littell a starter because the rest of their rotation is on the IL, and it's kind of working. He has a respectable 4.10 ERA over 41 2/3 IP. xFIP suggests he's much better (3.58) while xERA argues he's much worse (4.81). His first few starts were of the opener variety since his arm wasn't stretched out, but he's gone at least five innings in his last three starts and six in his last two. Across those three starts, he has two wins and two quality starts.

Littell's game plan is an interesting one. His 20.2 K% isn't special, but his 3.4 BB% is microscopic. Amazingly, an analysis of his repertoire suggests that Littell deserves that BB%.

He's a three-pitch guy who features a slider, fastball, and split. The slider is his most-used pitch at 39.6%, but it doesn't behave like a typical slider. Instead, it has a 60.2 Zone% and a 9.0 SwStr%, effectively making it a strong fastball rather than a secondary offering. Hitters have a .304/.328/.464 line against it and seldom fish for it (22.7% chase rate) as they have to hit their way on.

Littell's fastball is thrown 38.1% of the time and tells a similar story. Its 65.1 Zone% and 8.9 SwStr% are both excellent for a heater, forcing hitters to hit their way on base. Batters have a .317/.339/.467 line against it, which means they make an out approximately seven out of 10 times. The pitch also has a low spin rate of 2,069 RPM, giving Littell some contact suppression skills.

Littell's splitter is his strikeout pitch, but its 15 SwStr%, 47.5 Zone%, and 36.5% chase rate are all underwhelming for a put-away offering. It does limit opposing hitters to a .205/.222/.364 line.

The Rays must have looked at these pitches and decided to play a numbers game. Littell is allowing a .336 BABIP this season, meaning that one out of three balls in play turns into a hit. Littell strikes out one in five, and you generally need two or three hits in an inning to score a run. The bet is that Littell gets three outs before the other team scores since every proverbial roll of the dice favors him.


Is Zack Littell Sustainable?

Littell lives and dies with balls in play since he doesn't hand out walks or accumulate strikeouts, and Tampa Bay is a good environment for that. The team plays in a pitcher's park, which limits home runs while suppressing batting average. Likewise, the Rays are a great defensive team, ranking 10th in Outs Above Average (OAA) with 10. Littell has taken full advantage of his defenders, enjoying six OAA behind him.

You might be concerned by his .299 xBA (.287 actual) and .464 xSLG (.439 actual), but those stats don't take Tampa Bay's glovework into account. Likewise, they hold Littell's 24.4 LD% against him even though LD% is a largely random stat that he never struggled with before (21% career). With positive regression, Littell will probably need less defensive support to maintain his current pace.


The Verdict on Zack Littell

Whether Littell belongs on your roster depends on what you're looking for. The Rays still have one of the best records in baseball even though Baltimore has passed them in the standings, so rostering their starters is a good idea if you're chasing wins. Likewise, Littell's approach should keep his pitch counts low so he can work relatively deep into games. If you're searching for bulk innings, Littell could be a prudent pickup.

Littell's strikeout rate is mediocre, so managers searching for strikeouts should look elsewhere. Likewise, his WHIP could prove problematic since giving up hits is part of the game plan.

Littell is scheduled to face the Giants in San Francisco tonight and then the Angels in California on August 20. San Francisco should be a good environment for Littell, and the Angels have been in freefall since the trade deadline. The schedule favors Littell in the short term. He probably belongs on someone's roster in more than 12% of leagues, so we'll call him a Champ. Just know there is some risk here.

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