Right-hander has come out of nowhere to dominate high minors
In yesterday’s Morning Report discussion thread, Minor League Ball community member HebrewHammah asked this question:
Is it possible for you guys to do a write up on Josh James of the Astros? I know you’re not suppose to scout the stat line but across AA/AAA but 91K in 56 IP with a sub 2.5 ERA from a relatively unknown prospect (rightfully wasnt in top 20 or notable/other mentions) seems noteworthy enough
Yes, indeed, extremely noteworthy. Between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Fresno this year, James has thrown 56 innings with a 91/21 K/BB, allowing just 39 hits with a 2.41 ERA. He’s had a large number of high strikeout games, 13 in seven innings on June 5th and 11 more in six innings on June 11th.
And you’re right, he was pretty obscure four months ago, following a mediocre season in Double-A in 2017 (4.38 ERA in 76 innings, 72/32 K/BB, 79 hits).
So who is this guy? How did he go from generic minor league arm to dominant Triple-A starter so quickly?
James was a 34th round pick in 2014 from Western Oklahoma State College. He was drafted for his size (6-3, 205), fresh arm, and low-90s fastball. He performed reasonably in the lower minors including a 2.63 ERA in 116 innings in Low-A in 2015 but he didn’t stand out as an exceptional prospect in the deep Astros system. His ERA rose to 4.81 in the Lancaster/California League pinball machine in 2016 and as noted he was rather mediocre last season.
Now he’s unhittable. Over the last year his fastball has improved dramatically, going from a pedestrian 90-92 MPH up to 95-97 with higher peaks. His slider was rather flat when drafted but it has sharpened up and is now at least average, flashing plus. His change-up has also improved although it isn’t as good as the harder pitches.
There are three intertwined threads that have resulted in this improvement:
****James was diagnosed with sleep apnea and now uses a CPAP machine. He credits it with improving his physical stamina and energy.
****He was a fresh arm to begin with, having been primarily an infielder during his amateur career. That gave him more development potential than the typical college pitcher.
Looking at the video below, my initial thinking was that the arm angle added deception and would improve his abilities against right-handed hitters, but checking the numbers he actually has a persistent reverse platoon split, not that anyone hits him well.
I think James has been seen mainly as a relief prospect but he’s done so well as a starter, it would be a shame not to give him a chance in that role. Overall I think he’s a completely legitimate prospect.