After striking out more than a third of opposing batters he faced during his time at Double-A and Triple-A this season, Astros prospect Joshua James finally got the call to make his Major League debut on Saturday. Given the stacked Astros rotation, it wasn’t that much of a surprise that it took until rosters expanded for James to get his chance. It turned out to be a mixed bag of a start, which is to be expected during a pitcher’s first career Major League start. But let’s rewind for a moment and learn how James got to this point.
It’s late February and Eric Longenhagen releases the top 27 Houston Astros prospects list. Unsurprisingly, starting pitcher Forrest Whitley and outfielder Kyle Tucker ranked as the top two. Following were a plethora of names, of which the vast majority I had never heard of, owing to the fact that I’ve never been a prospect guy.
So where was James ranked? Given his dominance this year, he was likely a top 10 guy, right? Wrong. He failed to make the list at all. This is pretty obvious when reviewing his previous career before 2018. He posted ERA marks well above 4.00 in 2016 and 2017 at High-A and Double-A, respectively, and they were paired with low-to-mid 20% strikeout rates. Not terrible, sure, but not the mark of a future strikeout machine. The dip in both strikeout rate and SwStk% at Double-A in 2017 suggested that James had to improve his performance to get onto the prospect radar.
And boy, did he ever get onto that prospect radar. Over the two levels noted in the introductory sentence, James struck out 36.3% of the batters he faced, supported by an absurd 19.4% SwStk% at Double-A, followed by a still elite 14.3% mark at Triple-A. He finished with the minor leagues’ fourth highest strikeout total and accomplished this feat while facing significantly fewer batters. How did James go from middling Astros farmhand to absolutely dominant strikeout machine?
In late July, Eric Longenhagen told us the following:
James’ velocity has ticked up each of the last three years, and he now sits comfortably in the mid-90s with a slider that is plus when it’s located properly.
Of course, velocity isn’t everything, but assuming all else is equal, one would prefer higher velocity to lower velocity. And James has found extra velocity each of the past few years.
So now that we are caught up, let’s get back to his first start on Saturday against the Angels, breaking it down to the good and the bad:
Holy hell, Longenhagen was wrong. Turns out, James’ velocity doesn’t merely sit in the mid-90s, he actually averaged 97.4 mph with his fastball! Not only that, but he touched 101.2 mph and I know he threw a number of pitches above 100 mph. Was this velocity even better than expected, or was this simply the result of the adrenaline of a first start and he’ll return to sitting mid-90s now? Whatever it is, me likey. You certainly feel like a minor league strikeout rate above 35% is more sustainable when the pitcher is throwing bullets.
The strikeouts — nine in five innings, opposing 21 batters, equates to a 42.9% strikeout rate. James had no problem translating his strikeout stuff from the minors to the Majors…at least for his first ever MLB start. The strikeouts are what we paid for and strikeouts are what we got. Impressively, the Angels aren’t particularly strikeout prone against right-handed pitchers, as they rank just 21st in the metric in baseball.
His control was a bit suspect in the minors this season, as he walked over 10% of the batters he faced at both levels. It seemed nitpicky to point it out, as when you’re striking out more than 35% of the batters you face, a walk rate between 10% and 11% isn’t that big a deal. But he’s unlikely to strikeout that many hitters in the Majors, so poor control is going to hamper his results much more.
He threw just 61.5% of his pitches for strikes versus a league average of 63.8%, and he walked 14.3% of the batters he faced. Of course, it’s such a tiny sample size that if he walked just one less batter, his walk rate would have been a much more acceptable 9.5%. That’s not great, but it’s not alarming like a mid-teen mark is! That’s why it’s better to look at the low strike percentage, since the denominator, and therefore sample size, is larger. What’s very interesting is that he never went to a 3-0 count. Last year, I incorporated 3-0 count percentage into my pitcher xBB% equation, as there is a high correlation between the two. So you would have expected at least a couple of 3-0 counts from James, but the lack of any is a positive sign.
Despite throwing gas, averaging over 97 mph with his four-seamer and touching 100 several times, the pitch generated a SwStk% of just 8.1%. That’s still above the benchmark Eno Sarris published back in 2014 (I’m guessing all these benchmarks are higher now), but I would have expected/hoped such a high octane fastball would lead to more whiffs.
Since his fastball wasn’t particularly great at inducing swings and misses, perhaps his two secondary offerings, the slider and changeup, were. But that wasn’t the case. The slider generated a below average 11.8% SwStk% and changeup 8.3% mark. It’s pretty shocking that a guy could strike out nearly 43% of the hitters he faced in his debut start with no pitch generating a SwStk% above 11.8%.
So how did he manage to strike out nine batters without making batters swing and miss very frequently? Lots and lots of called strikes. While I don’t have a breakdown of called strike rate by pitch type, I do see that his looking strike rate was an amazing 42.9%, well above the 26.5% league average. In addition, four of his nine strikeouts were of the called variety, a rate that was double the league average.
Obviously called strikes aren’t a bad thing. You would prefer a called strike instead of a called ball. But when analyzing a pitcher’s strike type distribution with the intention of forecasting a future strikeout rate, you want to see a high rate driven by a high swinging strike rate, not called strike rate. The latter is less repeatable than the former.
So overall, James’ debut was clearly a mixed bag. He showed the fantastic velocity that was hinted at and did manage to strike out nine Astros hitters. But the control wasn’t there and none of his pitches generated the swinging strikes we would want to see in order to believe the strikeouts will continue.
Control isn’t that much of a concern for me as it’s a skill that could be improved upon. Right now, I want to see his fastball and secondary pitches generated more whiffs, as I’m cautiously optimistic a high 90s fastball will ultimately result in whifftastic performances. Remember, we only have one start and 21 opposing batter interactions to analyze, so let’s bet on the velocity and minor league strikeout rates and cross our fingers. He might not get another start this year, but he must be added in keeper leagues.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.