Josh James was a lad,
That K’d many a man,
He was robbed of a starter’s gig last year,
The Astros stole signs since ’17,
So Hinch was soon fired,
Dusty then hired, and the Toothpick says he’s near…
That’s just the intro, but it’s a special song near and dear to my heart. So with A.J. Hinch gone from Houston, Dusty Baker rides into town. There’s 2 things we know about Dusty Baker’s managerial style. 1) Young position players often become waterboys for extended periods of time, and 2) he is not afraid to give young pitches a long leash and give them enough rope to hang themselves or succeed. Hold that thought. Losses to the Astros rotation: Gerrit Cole signed a $324 million contract to makeover his closet so he can pitch in pinstripes this year, and Aaron Sanchez went down with a shoulder injury and then subsequently not tendered a contract in offseason (those jerks!). The rotation left behind is now Verlander, Greinke, McCullers, Urquidy… with a 3-man spring battle for the 5th spot. The competition: Josh James, Framber Valdez, and Austin Pruitt. We have ourselves a Mexican (racist?) standoff. Central American standoff? Astro standoff? Astroff?
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Pruitt has 199.2 MLB innings to the tune of a shiny 4.87 ERA and 7.47 K/9 via a 92 mph fastball; survey says? meh. Valdez showed some promise at times last year but flamed out to a 5.86 ERA and 8.66 K/9 via a 93 mph fastball (better) but saddled with a 5.60 BB/9 (barf); double meh. Enter our boy, Josh James. What does he bring to the table and what makes him a sleeper?
WUT. Hello there my friend. That K-rate should be on a poster I hang above my bunk bed and stare at longingly listening to The Cure. His taste of the majors so far has produced a higher walk-rate than any stop in the minors; so there’s reasonable room for improvement there. What’s more, his HR/9 last year was absurdly high for him at 1.47 (HR/FB of 16.9%), whereas it was below 1.00 throughout the minors. James knows how to miss bats and it shows with a 16.2% SwStr (swinging-strike) rate. Let’s look at his pitches.
Mmmm. He comes to the party with a 97 heater that grades as a 70. His slider and changeup are nearly unhittable logging at .156 and .170 BAA respectively. The former being his outpitch sweeping out and away from righties, and the change falling out against lefties. All that he needs to succeed is to locate his fastball better to reduce walks and keep guys from squaring it up (even though he already gets high amount of misses with it).
I know its early, and we shouldn’t get too excited about Spring Training stats. Sure he’s thrown a clean 5 innings, but what’s important is that he’s registered 5 Ks, only 1 hit, and zero walks. What makes that even more appetizing is that he’s been efficient. He’s completed those 15 outs with only 39 pitches, 3 of which were groundouts. We could be seeing Josh James graduate from a mere flamethrower into a calculating pitcher. Pitch command and efficiency will be his keys to success.
“I was just trying to be in the zone with my heater early and get strike one and try to induce soft contact,” James told Brian McTaggart of MLB.com. “I don’t want to be a guy that comes in and tries to let it eat for however many innings. I want to be able to pitch and go deep into games.” Clearly he’s been working hard at it and motivated, especially after being robbed of a chance at a rotation spot last spring due to a quad injury. Now with a retooled delivery over the offseason, he’s finding more command of his pitches. And the new skipper has taken notice: “I’m telling you, he’s focused,” Baker said. “He wants to take a job. We’re giving him every opportunity. He’s looking good, he’s looking real good,” per the Houston Chronicle.
Boys and girls, I’m all in on Josh James. I think he’s most likely to get the job out of camp. Baker loves to throw young guys that can get Ks, I’m just hoping he doesn’t break this one. Steamer has him projected for an 11.23 K/9, 4.22 BB/9, and 4.04 ERA through 18 starts. Given what I’ve seen, and Dusty Baker I think everything except for the Ks is a bit conservative. I believe he can get that walk-rate down past his AAA mark before of 3.79 to the 3.50 range and that could lead to a sub-4 ERA, maybe in the 3.75 range, especially if he can normalize his HR/9 rate with a chance for more (better?). That is a nice bargain on a winning* team where he could be carried to some cheap wins. And that’s not just a sweet song.