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Josh James is the final ingredient to one of the greatest bullpens ever

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The big-framed righty with a triple-digit fastball brings exciting potential just in time for October.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In about a week or so from now, when the Astros are putting the final touches on their playoff roster, assembling a lethal bullpen won’t be too hard. With about two weeks to go in regular season, their relievers have combined to form the 14th highest fWAR ever accumulated by a bullpen. They group is pacing to post the second highest K-rate by a relief staff, trailing only the 2018 Yankees. They’re going to crush the previous K/BB ratio record of the 2016 Astros. Anyway you spin it, it’s one of the greater bullpens in the history of the game.

The top high-leverage middle relievers on this team figure to have already written their names on this Astros playoff roster; closer Roberto Osuna, setup men in Hector Rondon and the newly acquired Ryan Pressly, along with a situational lefty in Tony Sipp. You’d also figure there are easy spots for the likes of Colin McHugh, Brad Peacock, Joe Smith, and Will Harris.

With the seemingly ever-increasing usage of bullpens come postseason time, along with the fact that the Astros also house quite possibly one of the best four-man playoff rotations we’ve seen in a long time, a 13-man pitching staff seems quite feasible. Rounding out this roster for the most part shouldn’t be hard, but there are last minute spots still up for grab, including on the pitching staff. This is where my opinion comes in, as I will now vouch for Joshua James to pitching come October.

The major league experience for James doesn’t go past the 10.2 innings he’s gotten as a September call up. Looking for a bigger sample size, we have to go down to the minors and look at the 114.1 innings he got between double-A and triple-A as a starter this year. The success was there, as James showed off a breakout season, dominating Texas League (Double-A) hitters across six appearances before getting the bump to the highest level of the minors, where he continued to over-match. Among 57 pitchers with 80 innings at the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A), he was first in K-rate, K-BB-rate, xFIP, and swinging strike-rate.

Minimum 110 innings
FanGraphs

A classic Astros player development story, James was a former Division II pitcher that found himself pitching at the JUCO level at the age of 21. Between three years, two seasons, and a mere 20 total appearances, the results were underwhelming (3.78 ERA, 7.8 K/9, 4.1 BB/9), not even having raw talent going for him, as his fastball was sitting in the low-90s. Nevertheless, he wounded up getting plucked in the 34th round of the 2014 draft by the Astros. Giving the organization a projectable frame and a potentially plus-offering in his slider, they built him up from a low-90s contact pitcher (6.9 K/9 in his first full minor league season), to an enticing starter that could hit triple digits with the ability to strike you out with either his heater or slider.

Now in the majors, the potential that James brings to the table out of the bullpen is intriguing. His future as a starter may still be up in the air (below-average command/control, lack of a consistent third pitch), but the possibilities for him as a reliever are enough to make me forget about that for a second. He’s only appeared in three games (one start) this September, all of them resembling long relief outings. All of them entertaining.

  • 9/1/18 vs LAA: 5 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 9 SO
  • 9/8/18 vs BOS: 2.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 SO
  • 9/12/18 vs DET: 3 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO

He sat 97 mph with the fastball in his only start (though he did touch 101), while sitting closer to 98 in his two relief outings. Working in his four-seamer, slider, changeup combo, the usual suspects in the fastball and slider have been doing all the work for him, striking out 11 of 28 possible batters with the fastball and punching out four of seven with the slider.

Only three relievers (minimum 50 four-seamers thrown) have a higher average four-seam fastball velocity than the mark posted by James in his two relief outings.

Highest Average FA Velocity as RP

Rk. Player Results Avg Pitch Velocity
Rk. Player Results Avg Pitch Velocity
1 Jordan Hicks 50 100.8 MPH
2 Tayron Guerrero 813 98.8 MPH
3 Ryne Stanek 220 98.3 MPH
4 Josh James 48 98.1 MPH
5 Joe Kelly 497 98.1 MPH
6 Seranthony Dominguez 526 98.0 MPH
7 Nathan Eovaldi 34 98.0 MPH
8 Ray Black 215 97.9 MPH
9 Jimmy Cordero 93 97.9 MPH
10 Dellin Betances 507 97.8 MPH
Minimum 50 FA thrown as a reliever Baseball Savant

Seeing quick September impressions make a difference in October is nothing normal, yet nothing completely new. We saw Brandon Finnegan make his rise from the College World Series to the World Series in a matter of months in 2014. Though not put to use, Rob Zastryny was on the 2016 Cubs NLCS roster. Hunter Strickland made his postseason debut with only ten regular season appearances under his belt.

The risk is little for the Astros to stick James at the bottom of their postseason roster, with possibility of striking gold sitting there. Pairing James in one to two inning outings with the rest of that pitching staff could prove to nearly unstoppable. With or without him, they’ll still have one of the better pitching staffs in the recent history, but we need to see their most exciting option get a serious look.


Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.