Every season, a couple of players get called up late in the year, flash some brilliance in a small sample size and become a hot commodity during the off-season. This is the case for Houston Astros Starting Pitcher Josh James. With James, unlike a lot of other players, I not only think he’s worth his current ADP (209 overall since Jan 1 according to NFBC) but that he’s even more valuable.
The 25-year-old came on the scene strong at the end of 2018 and pitched in a handful of meaningful games. In the regular season, James lived up to the hype, pitching 23 innings with a 2.35 ERA and an 11.35 K/9. Sporting a three-pitch repertoire, James not only had great surface stats in the small sample size but he also had great peripherals.
|James||34.3 %||62.2 %||46.1 %||49.3 %||83.7 %||68.9 %||42.4 %||65.9 %||14.3 %|
|MLB Average||30.9 %||67.3 %||46.6 %||62.8 %||85.5 %||77.0 %||43.0 %||60.6 %||10.7%|
Lets break down his approach and then discuss the opportunities he will see in 2019.
We will start by taking a look at James’ best pitch, his Fastball. Sitting in the 98th percentile of Fastball Velocity at 97.5 vFA (max VEL of 101.2), the young right-hander is worthy of the nickname “La Flama Blanca.”
The way James uses his heater against LHH is something most young guns take years to get a grasp on. Ideally, pitchers want to keep the ball away and off the middle of the plate (like the pitch to Seager above) while at the same time changing eye levels. James has had tremendous success with this pitch. Facing LHH, James generated a whiff rate around 20% and a BAA of .182. The four-seam has found success against RHH as well, allowing just 2 XBH and a 0.77 ISO in 26 at bats. Clearly, it is an elite pitch that has the potential to be even more deadly over time.
It’s always nice to see young pitchers adapt on the fly and add more to their repertoires, especially in the case of a talent like James. It was promising to see him get more comfortable throwing his CH as he started to gain more experience in the majors.
James came into the league throwing gas almost every pitch. As he got more comfortable, he flashed his changeup more often, which turned out to be a pretty good out-pitch for him. Keep in mind the vCH hovers around 88.8 mph and take a look at the change piece below…
Imagine being Nelson Cruz here. This pitch sequence made him look silly. A 97 MPH FB middle away, 89 MPH CH low and away and then the pitch you see above, a 89 MPH CH below the knees. The success of the CH for James is primarily against RHH who have a .000 BAA the pitch (yes, .000). While LHH are hitting .400 against the CH, and it is a small sample size, it usually hurts him while he’s ahead in the count, which is definitely something to work on. Not everybody’s perfect, especially with just 23 major league innings under their belt.
While it doesn’t seem to be James’ favorite pitch to throw, his slider is still very effective. After seeing five fastballs and two changeups, the last thing Segura was expecting was a slider. In my personal opinion, his slider could end up being the plus pitch that he needs to take the next step. You couldn’t tell by the pVAL, but you can’t argue with the results. James racked up 9 of his 29 strikeouts last year by way of slider, even though he threw it 25% less than his other two pitches with 2 strikes. The vSL was 85.6 last season and I would love to see him mix in more sliders in 2019.
I am fully aware that a rotation spot will not come easy for James. Framber Valdez is also competing for a spot in the rotation, while Forrest Whitley and J.B. Bukauskas are knocking on the door. Also, the possible re-signing of Dallas Keuchel will play a big role in what the Astros decide to do. While I am a fan of Valdez, I don’t believe he has the swing-and-miss stuff to cement himself in a rotation yet, and I think James will have a firm grasp on the job and never look back.
Will James be a top 50 SP in 2019? That will depend on many different variables. He must maintain the excellent control he displayed in the majors in 2018, something he had issues with in his previous minor league seasons (a lot of his minor league transgressions can be attributed to his battle with sleep apnea two off-seasons ago). Another key factor will be his slider usage, trusting that pitch more and using it as another weapon in his arsenal. Something as small as adapting like he did throughout the course of September-October at the major league level shows the kind of baseball IQ that he has.
Josh James is a risk I’m willing to take. You cannot convince me that he is the 57th best SP in baseball. I believe he easily cracks the top 50.