Although the Astros have lost some talented starters during the offseason to free agency and injury, the future is still bright, thanks in part to a few up-and-coming pitchers.
When injuries hampered the Astros‘ rotation as the season’s second half commenced, the club had to rely upon its internal depth. Enter Josh James and Framber Valdez, who both performed well down the stretch. And while I am still high on Valdez’s potential, this post is specifically about James, who could also be an important pitcher for Houston in 2019.
Thanks to a CPAP machine to help with his sleep apnea, James went from a pitcher who threw a fastball in the lower nineties to a hurler who can top triple digits. The increase in pitch velocity then translated into actual, on-the-field results as evidenced by his 3.23 ERA and 171 strikeouts across 114 1/3 minor league innings.
As history will now show, the Astros called up James to eat some important innings down the stretch following the injuries to Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. The right-hander not only did that, but he also 29 batters in only 23 innings while limiting opposing lineups to a .289 wOBA as a starter and a .222 wOBA as a reliever. Small sample, sure, but the results were encouraging, especially for a pitcher who wasn’t high on many prospect boards a year ago. The ALCS against the Red Sox put James on the national stage, and he flashed some of that triple digit heat against Boston’s vaunted lineup.
The question is whether James can carry that momentum from 2018 into 2019. To succeed in baseball, players have to learn to adjust, and for James, teams have had an entire offseason to dissect his pitching skills. I’d like to think he will, because the type of velocity he has is not always easy to find. For example, the Astros’ rotation had an average fastball velocity of 91.9 MPH (only four- and two-seamers) in 2017. In 2018, the average fastball velocity spiked to 94.1 MPH, which was partially due to the addition of Gerrit Cole. Of course, Justin Verlander, Morton, and McCullers Jr. played a major role in this department, however, James could help keep that average fastball velocity among the league’s best in 2019.
There is a lot to like about the 25-year old pitcher as the Astros look to retool their rotation. With Morton now in Tampa with McCullers Jr. taking up a year-long residence on the DL, James’ continued progress might be key to Houston’s success in 2019. If he continues to improve, then the rotation’s future starting in 2020 looks more stable than it did just nine months ago.