After a big breakout year in Triple-A in 2018, the Astros called up their 25-year-old flame-throwing right handed pitching prospect to serve as a potential weapon out of the bullpen for the upcoming postseason. James looked good across six appearances in September (23 IP, 2.35 ERA, 3.51 FIP) and ultimately got the nod for a postseason roster spot, in which he subsequently made two pitching appearances.
I wrote about this exact subject last September, making my case for James.
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.
James had earned himself a spot in the Astros’ bullpen for 2019, where he spent a string majority of the season (61 1⁄3 IP, 4.70 ERA, 3.98 FIP). It probably wasn’t the performance himself and the Astros were quite looking for, but the encouraging signs persisted as he posted 37.2 percent strikeout-rate, 16.2 percent swinging-strike rate, and an average fastball velocity of 97.4 miles per hour.
James hit the disabled list on July 23rd with right arm fatigue, sidelining him until September 1st. With the added rest, he had one month to secure a postseason roster spot for the Astros in a second consecutive year. He did just that, pitching 10 innings spanned over 10 appearances, striking out 43.5 percent of the batters he’s faced, compared to only walking 8.7 percent.
His strikeout-rate stood among the best of qualified relievers in September:
Top 10 reliever K% in September
|1||Drew Pomeranz||Brewers||52.1 %|
|2||Tyler Duffey||Twins||51.2 %|
|3||Josh Hader||Brewers||50.9 %|
|4||Brad Wieck||Cubs||47.4 %|
|5||Joshua James||Astros||43.5 %|
|6||Brandon Workman||Red Sox||42.9 %|
|7||Liam Hendriks||Athletics||42.3 %|
|8||Raisel Iglesias||Reds||41.7 %|
|9||Oliver Drake||Rays||40.7 %|
|10||Hansel Robles||Angels||37.5 %|
Statcast data confirmed his dominance, showing James was one of the more impressive pitchers in all of baseball this season. His average fastball velocity was in the 97th percentile, his fastball spin in the 84th percentile, his xwOBA in the 93rd percentile, his strikeout-rate in the 98th percentile, and his xSLG in the 99th percentile. He had all three of his pitches working well, as the results on his four-seamer, slider, and changeup were all above-average.
The main catalyst to his performance may have been his slider. Hitters slashed .164/.220/.400 off the pitch with a .211 xwOBA. He induced a third of his total strikeouts with that offering while only throwing it 20.5 percent of the time. He increased the usage of it in September, throwing it 25.5 percent of the time. The results were promising, with 56.3 percent swings of the swings against it being whiffs and out of 13 plate appearances ending with the pitch resulting in a strikeout.
James has handled his work in the postseason well so far, striking out six and walking none over three scoreless innings. A.J. Hinch has not shied-away from using him in high-leverage situations, so there’s a chance that James will play a big role throughout the rest of the postseason. He’s pitching as well as ever right now and his current stride couldn’t have come at a better time for Houston.