Debut Review: Josh James Is The Next Ascendant Astro

Consider this: there is a prospect who starts the season in Double-A. He shoves, and is promoted to Triple-A. He shoves there, too. Naturally. He totals 171 strikeouts across both levels in just 114.1 innings with easy mid-to-high 90s heat and a sharp, horizontal slider. He’s bound to catch some eyes around the game, right?

Except if your Big League club happens to be the Astros, who have spent the majority of the season in first place, and largely because of an historic rotation. In that case, you might not be catching many eyes at all, because the team that could use you most hasn’t had to even really think about it. And so it went for Josh James through August of this season.

But as tends to happen, the grind of the schedule eventually knicked up a couple Astros starters. Between that and rosters expanding, James has gotten his shot. And he’s cashing in.

He debuted on September 1 against Mike Trout and the Angels. He delivered nine strikeouts over just five innings and 91 pitches. His velocity peaked at 101.1 mph. It wasn’t all roses, as he also gave up three free passes and three earned runs. If you were to only scout the statline, you might walk away neither underwhelmed or overwhelmed, but merely…whelmed.

That wouldn’t tell the whole story, though. For one thing, he threw 52 of his 91 pitches in the first two innings alone. Getting through the final three frames with just 39 pitches shows, at the very least, that James settled in. If we look at where he was spotting his Ks, it could tell us more.

James Ks

The red dots are fastballs. The yellow ones are sliders. Six of his nine punch out pitches hit the edges of the strike zone. One coaxed a chase out of the zone. James managed five swinging strikeouts and four called strikeouts. In his first game he threw 101, painted edges, got batters to whiff, and fooled them into taking pitches they should’ve cut at.

If we look at the low points in that start — the three walks and three runs — there are a couple dots to connect. All three runs came on a pitch laced middle-in to the left-handed Kole Calhoun, who rocketed it over the fence and into space for a monster dinger. One of the three walks came in Calhoun’s next plate appearance in a full count. It appeared as though James didn’t even want to throw anything only Vlad Guerrero could hit at that point. That’s not exactly brilliant or anything, and probably shows that James has steps to take in order to get better. But stacking it all up as it happened makes it a pretty darn good debut.

After his electric first outing, James was moved to the bullpen because of Houston’s remarkable depth. He’s appeared in two games since then. In the first, he went two and two-thirds innings in Fenway against the Red Sox, gave up only one hit, walked none, and struck out four. Then in his next outing, against the Tigers in Detroit, he went another three innings. He struck out four, walked one, and hung a slider that Nicholas Castellanos took yard. What we’re seeing here is a lot of talent and a relative amount of volatility that might need something to give it a boost.

Enter James’s changeup. In his first appearance it didn’t have much shape. Maybe he was gripping it too tight, or releasing it from a funky spot, but it was a pitch that daggered to its location and wasn’t particularly useful. In each of his two relief appearances, he’s gotten a strikeout with it, and, per Pitch Info on FanGraphs, it’s had at least another half inch of drop and three inches of fade. One of those strikeouts was against fellow righty Mookie Betts in a 2-2 count, showing confidence in the offering.

Now, yes, we’ve gotten particularly granular. We’ve analyzed each of the three pitch types James throws, against specific hitters, over only 10.2 innings and three appearances. We’ve considered results that aren’t necessarily sticky, and certainly aren’t over such a small sample size. But we’re also seeing data that we couldn’t publicly see on James from the minor leagues. These three appearances have proven useful in whether to buy into his breakout or not. We can see that he’s got a fastball he can pound the zone with, a breaker he can throw against righties, and an off-speed offering he can throw to lefties. He’s shown a willingness to throw all three in different counts and contexts, as well an ability to locate them.

If he stays what he is, Josh James is already another incredibly useful asset for the Astros. He can go multiple innings out of the bullpen getting whiffs just like Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh have for the team in the last two years. If he continues to develop some nuance in his repertoire, he’s the kind of starter built for modern baseball. Either way, he provides depth for Houston and can help them sustain their success moving forward. He still might not be drawing the amount of eyes his talent should, but he probably will soon. Keep yours peeled.

Strikeout chart, velocity, and pitch data from Baseball Savant. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle

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