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Giants’ newest bullpen option is throwing harder and has a new weapon

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Giants director of pitching Brian Bannister took a look at Zack Littell and thought the body mechanics, the arm slot, the overall look would be conducive to a pitch that the righty was not throwing. What he did not realize was that Littell already was toying with a splitter.

Last year, his final one with the Twins, Littell overlapped with veteran reliever Tyler Clippard, “who has made a lot of money over the years throwing a splitter.” Clippard had the same idea as Bannister, and the two relievers worked on the diving pitch together. After his injury-filled struggle of a shortened 2020 campaign, Littell bought a Rapsodo so he could get some of the data into the pitch and continued honing it through conversations with Farhan Zaidi, who had begun recruiting him.

He talked with Bannister, who suggested using a splitter.

“Lucky enough, I had already started,” the 25-year-old said over Zoom on Saturday.

Littell signed with the Giants as an non-roster invite to major league camp, scrapped his changeup and debuted his splitter in spring training. He impressed, impressed again at the alternate site and then debuted the pitch in actual MLB action Friday night, when he was added to the roster for a club that has been searching for another effective righty out of the bullpen since last year. He only used the splitter once, but he pitched a quality seventh inning in which he retired Tommy Pham, Fernando Tatis Jr. (on a four-pitch strikeout) and Manny Machado, pitching around a Trent Grisham walk.

The fastball for the former starting pitcher especially stood out. After some mechanical adjustments “and a change in intent” since becoming a full-time reliever in 2019, his heater has gradually increased and averaged 94.7 mph Friday, throwing it harder than he ever has. That will help get major league hitters out, and he hopes the splitter will get lefties especially out.

Lefties have troubled him, batting .292 against Littell in his now four-year big-league career.

“We wanted to add something to try and combat that and get left-hand hitters out, and we felt like a splitter was the best one,” said the former Mariners and Yankees prospect before he got his chance with the Twins. “So it’s what kind of came natural to me, and I think it has the potential to be a really, really, really good pitch.”

The Giants love the potential in Littell, who was excellent in relief in 2019 (2.68 ERA in 37 innings) before an ineffective 2020, when he also hit the IL with right elbow inflammation. He was DFA’d midseason and not claimed by anyone, winding up back at the Minnesota alternate site, where he “wasn’t in a great place” mentally, he said. He spent a few weeks there (with now Giants assistant pitching coach J.P. Martinez, who ran Minnesota’s site last year), and the monotony of it all got to him, too. He was happier in Sacramento this year, where they could scrimmage the A’s alternate site.

“We were winning a lot of games against Oakland,” Littell said before the Giants played a second game in their series at Petco Park. “It definitely made it a lot more bearable. The last month has definitely gone by a lot quicker than two weeks last year.”

He pitched his way out, getting a chance for a team that churned through Trevor Gott and Sam Coonrod last year before Matt Wisler and Gregory Santos have struggled this year. The first look was a promising one.

And for Giants fans, the first look was a familiar one. Yes, he has a bushy red beard that belongs in a George R.R. Martin book, virtually the same one that Giants lefty Conner Menez sports.

Whose beard is better?

“Depends on the day,” the North Carolina native said. “Menez takes better care of his for sure. He keeps his groomed a lot better. It just takes so long — I’m not going to lie, I just am lazy sometimes. Get out of the shower and just hope for the best.”


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