Last year was an interesting year from Josh James. After a shocking break-out year that not only brought him to the majors but led to an impressive debut of 2.35 ERA in the 23 innings he pitched.
Josh James tossing in his @MLB debut!— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 1, 2018
The @Astros' No. 6 prospect struck out the first big league batter he faced on a 100-mph pitch, after throwing a 101.1 mph fastball in the same at-bat
Watch live: https://t.co/NhnYPVu9bF pic.twitter.com/RWaaCKtgTo
James’ 2019 could be viewed as a disappointment. 2019 started out rough when a minor injury knocked him out of the rotation and into the bullpen. It’s easy to look at Josh James’ season and think a 4.70 ERA across 60 IP and think of it as a failed season, but that’s not a fair assessment. A quick glance at the advanced stats show a better story with a 3.77 xFIP and 3.33 SIERA pointing to some very poor luck. Statcast not only supports this, showing an xwOBA .041 points lower than his wOBA, but even showing an improvement over last years strong performance. +
Josh James was throwing tonight.— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) May 9, 2019
The #Astros' No. 4/#MLB's No. 57 prospect pitched two hitless innings with 5 strikeouts to close things out against the Royals.
Keep up with all the @astros top prospects: https://t.co/9C1DApJNnx pic.twitter.com/0YRkueHqif
James’ velocity held consistent with last year, although that was somewhat disappointing as he was full time in the bullpen instead of mixed usage and still averaged the identical 97.1 mph on his heater. What James did do was continue to improve his spin rates on every single one of the pitches in his arsenal.
His fastball now not only rests in the 97th percentile in velocity, it is in the 84th percentile for spin.
The difference in movement is extremely impressive (given we have pretty small sample sizes to judge off of), but the improvement in the spin rates and movement of his pitches actually lean towards 2019 being a significant step forward despite the ugly old school results.
One area that could have brought some of the poor results was tip pitching. Rob Friedman from Pitching Ninja pointed this out in a tweet showing Brent Strom coaching James’ through it once it was identified:
Josh James, Fastball vs Changeup. pic.twitter.com/9LF7Kztm0P— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 20, 2019
With higher spin, came reduced control - James’ K/9 jumped up over 3 tickets going from a strong 11.35 to an elite 14.67 per 9. Unfortunately his BB/9 experienced a similar uptick jumping from 2.74 to 5.14. Looking at Quality of Pitch it supports this notion that James had an uptick in movement which correlated to some challenges in control.
The good news is I don’t think 2019 was quite as much of a lost year as I originally figured it to be. His peripherals still looked excellent. At 26 years old, it’s not surprising to see him face some adversity in his sophomore season. Both the spin rates and movement went in a positive direction while holding onto the significant jump in velocity compared to when he was drafted.
I would not be surprised to see James earn another shot at the rotation with the current roster structure. It may not be what people want to hear, but in many ways the Astros replaced Cole with their trade for Greinke. I am sure the Astros will target a bargain bin / lightning in the bottle type of starter but honestly believe their in house options are more than strong enough for another season on top of the AL West.