FORT MYERS, FLA. – Zack Littell figures he has been wasting his winters, so he made some radical changes this offseason.
No more throwing in a small-town gym to whatever high school catcher he could find. No more guessing about his effectiveness. No more wondering about his mechanics. No more cru — … wait, wait, he didn’t eliminate the Caribbean cruises. He’s not crazy.
“My family is a little cruise-happy, you might say,” Littell said. “It’s kind of become our tradition.”
His passport — stamped in ports such as Curacao, Aruba, Cancun and Martinique — reveals just how seriously the Littells take those customs. Thanks to baseball, the soft-spoken 24-year-old spent nearly eight months away from his rural North Carolina home last year. Thanks to Royal Caribbean, he also spent almost three months at sea.
“I got more than 80 nights [aboard cruise ships] this past year,” Littell said. “On New Year’s Eve, they told me it was my 84th night.”
And while more or less establishing himself as a major league reliever was certainly among his greatest achievements in 2019, that wasn’t the only status that Littell earned.
“I’m Diamond Level now,” he said proudly, a lofty stature that, like MLB employment, isn’t without its perks. “Free drinks from 4 to 6 p.m.,” he said with a laugh.
Now that he is back on dry land and safely tucked into the Twins bullpen, Littell is hoping his career is full of, ahem, similarly smooth sailing. He was a starter for six seasons in the Mariners’ and Yankees’ systems, and even the Twins, who acquired him for Jaime Garcia in July 2017, assumed he would someday join their rotation.
That plan was scuttled last May when the Twins, unhappy with a seemingly threadbare bullpen, started to make sweeping changes. Littell, who had been starting at Class AAA Rochester, came up to the Twins as a reliever.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was just happy to be up here,” Littell said. “It turned out to be a good move.”
It did, even though, due to the Twins’ constant need for fresh arms, he was sent back to Rochester four times. An eight-run, take-one-for-the-team outing in his second game trashed his ERA for much of the season — except he gave up only three more earned runs, in 30⅔ total innings, the rest of the way. Littell finished as one of four Twins relievers with an ERA below 3.00, giving up runs in only three of his final 27 outings.
“When Zack went to the bullpen, we saw a completely different pitcher. When we gave him an opportunity to come in in short bursts, we saw the stuff [velocity] really tick up,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We saw the reactions hitters were giving on the slider and the — whatever he calls it — the slider-cutter. But he’s also learned to play those pitches off each other. You end up with a real good bullpen arm, and a guy that can go out there against the best hitters in the game and compete very well.”
He kept up the changes in the offseason, first by marrying his girlfriend, Autumn Herring, whom he first met in high school in Haw River. (They honeymooned by cruising to Puerto Rico, of course.) Then he found Baseball Rebellion, a baseball academy in nearby Durham, to help him become more focused in his training and analytical in his pitching.
“I felt like I had been missing out. For six offseasons, I just threw bullpens and tried to figure out what felt right,” Littell said. “This offseason, I was able to get data after my bullpens and say, hey, this needs to be tweaked, this is causing this. Slo-mo [video] to help with mechanics. It was the most productive offseason I’ve ever had, and I’m really excited for this season.”
And yes, for the cruising season that comes after it, too.
A life at sea
The Littells’ love of the water began in 2003, when he was 7. That’s when his great-grandmother financed a reunion on a cruise ship, with 65 relatives on board, an extended-family vacation that’s become an annual event around New Year’s.
When his two younger siblings graduated from high school and moved out, “My mom was like, I don’t want to cook [Thanksgiving dinner] anymore. So she said, ‘Let’s go cruise,’ ” Littell said. “And now we do that every year, too. We’ve really started racking them up. And I don’t get to [attend] my wife’s family occasions very often, so we go on cruises with them. It’s a very tight-knit family.”
Add it all up?
“I’ve taken upward of 40 cruises now,” Littell said, including a couple of years in which he has gone on five separate trips. “It’s a good way to travel. I like going to bed in one place and waking up somewhere else.”
He has ridden horses in the Jamaican hills, scuba dived off the coast of Belize, his favorite destination, and zip-lined across the “central park” on the deck of a huge ship. He enjoys feeling cut off from the world, though he was stressed to discover he missed calls from Twins coaches Mike Bell and Wes Johnson while floating in the Caribbean in December.
Littell has been on so many, he sometimes recognizes the ships from previous cruises.
“I had these weird, vague memories of being here before, all these kid memories from when I was 8,” he said. “But I love it. I can honestly say I’ve never had a bad experience. It’s a great way to spend time with the family.”
Littell said he hopes to someday make a trans-Atlantic trip, from the East Coast to, say, Greece. But those trips are nearly three weeks long, and he can’t stop training that long.
“I’ll do that one after I’m retired from baseball,” Littell said. “Hopefully a long time from now.”