By: Greg Levinsky
FALMOUTH – Newport, Rhode Island is known as a summer vacation spot. However, Jack Little’s trip to the “City by the Sea” was strictly for work.
After enduring a freshman season at Stanford in which he was “not too pleased with,” Little rebounded with a vengeance and ultimately turned himself into one of the nation’s best closers this past spring during his sophomore campaign.
“I took it as an opportunity to work on things on my own and try figure out what worked best for me,” Little said of his summer in Newport.
The Cardinal were in the midst of a coaching change, with Little free to experiment on his own with the Newport Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Over the summer of 2017, he totaled a 5.04 ERA and 1.32 WHIP, striking out 30 batters in 25 innings.
Numbers neither impressive nor paltry, but better from the past spring in which appeared in four games as a freshman, totaling four strikeouts in 2.0 innings. Little struggled, allowing 11 base runners and six earned runs. The strikeouts were there, the command wasn’t. His small college sample size led to a 23.14 ERA.
A new season and new pitching coach for his sophomore campaign helped Little make an unparalleled ascension to dominance in the spring of 2018.
Stanford assistant baseball coach Thomas Eager handles the pitchers, and said Little’s rise to stardom came quickly after a role change. In the fall of 2017 Little started games, but was named the team’s closer this spring.
Eager joined the Cardinal ahead of Little’s sophomore year and began to work with him on a clean slate. The pitching coach said he became aware of Little while in high school and liked what he saw. They soon met at Stanford after Eager came from the University of California.
“When I first got in, I said ‘hey man, I heard a lot of good things about you when you were in high school, and last year was last year,” Eager said. “I said ‘I’m not going to change you or do anything, but now’s the time to do what you think is best and let you run with it.”
They decided to add a curveball and continue to develop his slider. Little continued to use his changeup and found success with the multi-pitch mix. His fastball is in the low to mid 90’s. Not overpowering stuff, but it works.
“Once he got going we just let him go, and he ran with it,” Eager said.
“It was a clean slate, and I went to go out and show them what I’m capable of,” Little said.
He burst onto the collegiate baseball scene in 2018, tying the Stanford single-season save record with 16. With a diminutive .61 ERA, Little went 3-0 and struck out 56 batters in 44.0 innings pitched.
A list of postseason honors included a spot on the 2018 D1 Baseball first-team All-America, Baseball America first-team All-America, Perfect Game first-team All-America, NCBWA first-team All-American, ABCA first-team All-West Region and first-team All-Pac-12 nod. A finalist for the NCBWA Stopper of the Year trophy, Little helped the Cardinal (46-12) end the regular season as the second ranked squad in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
All of these awards came from Little learning to stay in the moment. A changed mentality and sharp focus brought success.
“Staying present, you’re not focused on the result,” Little said. “You’re focusing on what you can control which is giving total effort and having no regrets.”
Stanford catcher Maverick Handley, who is also Little’s teammate on the Falmouth Commodores, said it was just a matter of time until things clicked for Little.
“He’s back to locating, and after two years of development he’s throwing harder,” Handley said. “It wasn’t that it was out of the blue. I always knew it was in there.”
Little, a Stanford rising junior, is a Falmouth Commodore – for now. After an improbable rise to collegiate baseball lore this spring, he will join Team USA for a three international friendship series and leave on June 25.
His stint in Falmouth is no more than a pit stop, but the 6-foot-4, 190 pound right-hander, is honored to spend time in the Cape League.
“This is always something I’ve always dreamed of, to come out here and play in the Cape Cod summer baseball league,” Little said. “I’m just really looking forward to the opportunity and cherish it while I’m out here.”
Little was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but attended Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. The co-valedictorian of his high school class, he earned Pac-12 All-Academic second team honors this spring.
He brought his WHIP down to 0.74 and demonstrated improved command with a 1.62 walks per nine in his sophomore season. His seven-to-one strikeout to walk represent one of the many numerical statistics behind his emergence as one of the nation’s top closers.
“When there was a save situation, you were like ‘okay, ball game over,'” Handley said. “If we could get it into his hands, he was about as dominant as any closer in the nation.”
Upon hearing the news he would close games early in the spring of 2018, Little did what most adolescents do when they need help. He called his mother. Little never came out of the bullpen and certainly didn’t see himself as a closer at first.
They discussed the “closers mentality,” which Little now has down pat. It took some coaxing, as the one time starter converted to a relief role for the first time in his life.
Now Little is one of the nation’s best.
“After the year I had freshman year, and to be someone who was so relied on for the team and be so consistent, and to feel like that I was actually able to contribute and help the team was really amazing,” Little said. “It’s something exciting to be a part of.”
Greg Levinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregLevinsky