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Is Josh James a Not Quite Ready For Prime Time Player?

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After surprising success last year in his brief late season call-up, so far in 2019 Josh James has been a disappointment. Can he work it our here or does he need a little more seasoning in the minors?

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone loves a rags to riches story. The story of the high school nerd who always got a kicked around, but who grew up to become the CEO. The story of the under-rated, under-appreciated, Cinderella type under-dog who overcame all odds to achieve surprising and amazing success.

Josh James is

He was the 1006th person drafted in the 2014 amateur draft, 34th round. Guys like that aren’t supposed to actually play in the major leagues. They are just supposed to fill spaces in the minors so that the real players have someone to play against.

James did nothing in his first few years in the minors to indicate that he would rise above his low pedigree, mainly because he snored too much. Really, it killed his performance. But when they figured out how to make James stop snoring, his fastball velo shot up, and before you knew it, the former baseball untouchable was blowing strike three hundos past major league batters.

Here’s his line from last season:

23 IP, 29 SO, 9 BB, 2.35 ERA, 3.51 FIP.

On that basis he became a Top 100 Prospect, and was a presumptive fifth starter for the 2019 Astros.

What Happened?

So far, it hasn’t gone as planned. The line for 2019:

13.2 IP, 20 SO, 9 BB, 7.90 ERA, 6.18 FIP.

So what happened? Which Josh James is the real Josh James? Did Underdog lose his super powers? Or did he never have any? Maybe Josh James just needs a little more fine tuning in the minor leagues. Maybe he’s just not quite ready for Prime Time.

Let’s look.

To start with his stellar ERA of 2.35 in 23 innings pitched was not sustainable, so anyone expecting anything close to that kind of performance was bound to be disappointed. His BABIP in 2018 was .240, and his left on base percentage was 90.9%. His FIP, xFIP and SIERA all indicated that he would not remain a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher. And Statcast gave him an xWOBA of .275, a bit higher than his actual WOBA of .268.

This year his BABIP has normalized to .298, and his left on base percentage is a pitiful 54.9%.

But what has happened to James so far this year is not just regression, or bad luck getting its revenge on last year’s good luck. Although it’s only thirteen innings, and any pitcher can have a bad stretch for 13 innings, so far this season James is pitching fundamentally worse than he was last year.

Let’s start with the peripherals. In 2018 his FIP, xFIP, SIERA and xWOBA were:

3.51, 3.46, 3.00, .275. Remember, his ERA was far lower at 2.35. This year those statistics are:

6.18, 4.33, 3.79, .290. These numbers show declining performance, although except for FIP, they also give cause for optimism, because they are far better than his current ERA or WOBA, and therefore predict improvement in runs allowed even if James does nothing differently. Furthermore, Statcast says his 2019 expected batting average against is .178, top 9% in the league, compared to an actual BAA of .235. So there IS an element of bad luck involved in James’ performance early in this 2019 season.

But I don’t believe we can just ignore that FIP number. FIP measures only true, pitcher only, fielding independent outcomes; home runs, walks and strikeouts. It is high in this case because in 13 innings James has four home runs. The other measures would not weigh the home runs as heavily in their algorithm, and although bad luck may be a factor (James’ 2.63 home runs per nine innings is 18th worst in MLB out of 304 pitchers) a look at the heat maps will show there may be a reason for this bad “home run luck.”

But before we get to the heat maps and the home runs, let’s look at some other fundamental differences in this year’s performance. Let’s start with walks. This year James’ BB% is almost double what it was last year, 14.8% to 7.7%. He is only throwing 61.62% of his pitches for strikes this year, compared to 66.18% last year. His first strike rate is even worse, 59.0% compared to 65.9% last year. His average at bat this year is 4.22 pitches compared to 3.83 last year

Perhaps one reason for James’ lower strike rate is that there are far fewer swings on balls outside the zone. O-swing % is down from 34.8% in 2018 to 22.8% in 2019. At the same time hitters are swinging at more pitches inside the zone. The Z-swing percentage is up from 58.5% in 2018 to 71.1% this year. So James doesn’t just have a problem with control this year compared to last, but he’s not deceiving batters as well for whatever reason. They are laying off bad pitches they used to swing at, and swinging at strikes they used to watch.

On the bright side, when batters do swing James is actually avoiding contact slightly better this year. His contact% is down from 68.5% last year to 64.5% this year. His swinging strike rate is up about 3 points as well, to 17.1%. Perhaps this explains his Statcast top 9% xBA.

But when batters do make contact they are hitting the ball harder. Exit velocity is up slightly to 87.7 MPH, although James has actually been helped by a lower launch angle, down two degrees to 14.2. (mostly due to a much lower infield fly rate.) According to Fangraphs the hard hit rate is 32.3%, up from 26.4% in 2018, and the soft contact rate is down from 28.3% to 19.4%. He’s giving up more line drives, more fly balls, and fewer ground balls. When we look at the heat maps I think you will be able to see why. And of course, his home run/fly ball rate has more than doubled, from 13.0% to 28.6%. Before you claim this is entirely a small sample size phenomenon, let’s look at the charts and graphs. They show some interesting patterns.

What’s Wrong

Before we hit the charts and graphs, I’ll just start with the executive summary so you know where I am going. Unlike last year, all three of James’ pitches are being thrown in the strike zone in a noticeably more concentrated manner to the inside part of the plate to a right hander. Pitches in this zone account for almost all of the hits against James, even to left-handed batters.

My contention is that batters are sitting on the inside pitch, (outside to left handers) and since they are ready for it, that is a pitch they can drive. Or an alternative explanation; that the same thing that is making James throw more inside pitches is making his pitches more hittable.

Below are pitch outcome charts for James’ three pitches for 2018 and 2019.

In comparing these two charts the most relevant difference between 2018 and 2019 in pitch outcomes relates to the slider. In 2018 only 7% of sliders resulted in balls in play, but in 2019 that number is almost 23%. Almost all of those are line drives and fly balls, not one ground ball. Four percent of the sliders have resulted in home runs (2).

Now let’s look at the averages on each type of pitch 2018 and 2019.

As one would expect given the overall statistics, every one of James’ pitches is being hit for more bases than the same pitches were last year. For every pitch the slugging percentage is over .500 and ISO over .250. He appears to have some bad BABIP luck on the fastball and change, but some good luck on the slider.

This is Fangraph’s pitch values for each pitch in 2018 and 2019.

2018: Fastball, 1.51. Slider, 0.49. Change, 2.56

2019: Fastball, -1.4. Slider, -3.09. Change, -1.74

Now let’s look at the heat maps. What I am going to show is the different distribution of pitches from 2018 to 2019 for each of James’ three pitches, and then show the the slugging percentage in each portion of the zone. What I believe these charts will show is that James is failing to use the whole strike zone, and that is making it easier for batters to make contact in the area where they expect the pitch to be. And that is the inside half of the zone (from the right handed perspective)

Fastball

I think these charts make it clear that in 2018 James’ fastball, although found more in the high inside corner than elsewhere, was distributed throughout the zone. In 2019 the concentration in the top left quadrant is quite distinct.

Now let’s look at where hitters made their hits in the respective years.

In 2018, even though James wasn’t throwing a preponderant number of pitches in the lower middle part of the plate, in the era of drop and lift these were the ones getting hit the hardest, as one might expect. Note that even though the zones are colored red, the numbers are not nearly as high as the red zones in the 2019 heat map.

In 2019 James seems to be aiming for the inside high corner, and when he hits it he is very successful. For some reason hitters are having their best luck with the low inside corner, which James has mostly avoided, which tells me there may be something defective about the pitch thrown in that location. Or maybe most batters just don’t have the bat speed to catch up with the high inside heater of James, but when they find a low one, they take advantage. Both left and right-handers are feasting there, whereas only right-handers are getting the hits in the top right hand corner. But let’s look at the rest of the heat maps before deciding if there is a defect in the low inside fastball.

Now let’s look at the slider. Here is his location in 2018 and 2019.

The Slider

Even more so than the fastball, the slider in 2019 is coming in in the low, inside corner (to the right handed batter) Here is how batters reacted in the respective years.

In 2018 James was getting the slider more on the low outside part of the plate to the right hander, as one would expect. and that is where it is being hit, but with much less success than in 2019. In 2019 the slider is coming in more inside, and it is being crushed there, in much the same part of the plate that the fastball is being hit. And again, it doesn’t matter whether the hitter is lefty or righty, they have the same crush zone, although the right-handed hitters prefer the ones a little higher in the zone.

Is it possible that one reason for the success against low inside fastballs is that batters may sometimes be already expecting low inside sliders. For whatever reason hitters are having success in the low inside corner, even though the fastball isn’t found there that often.

Change

Once again, if you draw a line from northwest to southeast, in 2018 the change up was mostly northeast of that line, and in 2019 it is mostly southwest of that line.

Whereas the change up in 2018 was scarcely touched, look where the killing fields on the 2019 change up is. On the inside part of the plate...again. It should be noted that this pitch is mostly used against left handers, and no right handed hitter has hit the change up. In 2018 the change would appear to be inside on the left-handed batter, and then break over the inside part of the plate. This year it starts over the plate and breaks over the outside part (to left handers).

I have checked the charts for anomalies in James’ velocity, trajectory, movement and release point. There are not unusual variations in these parameters from 2018-2019 except perhaps about a one half mile an hour drop in velocity, which could make some difference, but not as dramatic a difference as we have seen from 2018 to 2019.

James’ pitches are clearly trending towards the inside part of the plate to right handers, and the slugging is almost entirely from that side in 2019. Are hitters sitting on inside pitches, (outside to left handers) and if you’re sitting on an inside pitch isn’t that one easier to drive if you know it’s coming? Perhaps this explains the decrease in O swing %, and the increase in Z swing %. Way too often, James is only using half the plate, and the batters are waiting for the pitch to go there.

An aside note: James’ splits between left and right handers are are very close.

Here’s an inside slider to Luke Voit.

Here’s an outside slider to left hander Nomar Mazara. (same part of the plate)

Here’s an inside fastball to Josh Phegley

That seems to be where James is throwing too many pitches, and it seems that that’s where the hitters are sitting, waiting to pounce. Notice that on the pitches to right handers, the catcher wanted the ball outside, but it came inside. And to the lefty, the catcher wanted the ball lower than where it came in.

Or maybe, when James throws a ball there, it’s because it was badly thrown in the first place, and that’s why it gets knocked around. Clearly, some of the sliders aren’t sliding enough.

I’ll let the Nerd Cave take it from here. (Yeah right)

So does Josh James need to go back to the minors or can he work it out here? Is he a not quite ready for time prime player?