Tuesday, June 21, 2016

An Interview with Astros/JetHawks RHP Josh James

Lancaster JetHawks RHP Josh James has been consistent since he was first drafted by the Astros in the 34th round in 2014 ... consistently good. And that has not changed since coming to pitch in the two extreme hitter's parks of the California League: Lancaster and High Desert. Although he has been somewhat better on the road than at home this season, his home stats would still be the envy of many a California League pitcher. James is just shy of having enough innings to qualify as a league leader, but his 3.02 ERA and 1.184 WHIP would both rank in the top 10 in the league with just a handful more innings under his belt.

Josh James - June 2016
Photo by Jayne Hansen

And, according to Lancaster Manager Ramon Vazquez, James has improved over the season and is still improving, really learning how to pitch. Pitching Coach Mike Burns weighed in on James's upside and his challenges, "His upside is he throws four pitches, all for strikes. He's got a good fastball. He's developed a really good changeup. He's got a good curveball/slider. So he's got a good mixture of pitches. The one thing he needs to really work on is having confidence in himself and understanding that he has good stuff. Just learning the game and learning the routine and once he gets that down, the sky's the limit for him." Burns noted that James has pitched well in the California League, something that's not a given, and that is helping James establish more confidence in himself and his pitches.

It may sound somewhat unusual to hear about a pitcher in his third professional season who, despite his success, is still learning the nuances of pitching and working to build his confidence. But when you consider that James hardly pitched at all until 2014, the year that he was drafted, the picture becomes much clearer.

When I sat down to talk with James earlier this month, his lack of experience pitching was the first thing we discussed. James said, "I didn't start pitching until I was like 16. I pitched a little bit in high school, but I was more of an infielder. Then I went to Barry (University) my freshman year and they made me an exclusive pitcher but I only threw five innings so I didn't get that much work as a pitcher. Then I went to Western Oklahoma and tried to be an infielder there. My coach told me I was better off as a pitcher so I stuck to pitching again for that year and didn't pitch at all, red-shirted, and came back the following year (2014) and actually got a full season in. So that was my first year and I was probably 20 years old when I got my first season as a pitcher." Given that pedigree, what James has accomplished since being drafted is nothing short of remarkable.

I commented on James's relatively decent home split given The Hangar's reputation and asked him if that reputation was intimidating. "At first it's kind of tough, but you just try to be better as a pitcher and not to mentally let the wind affect me. If I give up a home run, just keep pitching through it. I know it's part of my development. I know I have to come here and I have to go through it," said James.

James throws a fastball that sits around 89-92 with "a little run," a sinking changeup and slider with good velocity differential and a slow curve. He's also been working on addng a splitter to the mix. When asked who in the system has a pitch that James would like to steal, he picked Corpus Christi Hooks RHP Francis Martes's fastball, "I'd like to see that. God's really blessed him with a great arm."

James picked out Fresno 1B A.J. Reed as the system hitter he'd least like to face, "It would probably be A.J. Reed just because he's a super smart hitter, intelligent and he also has a lot of power."

Asked to give a scouting report on himself, James said, "Improvements would be commanding my fastball a little better. I need to do a better job doing that. And my pluses would probably be that I don't really give up that easy when it comes to pitching in tough spots. I think that's probably my best quality."

What does James feel that he's accomplished this season? "I've gotten a lot better at just understanding my mechanics and understanding how to pitch and I'm growing as a pitcher. As long as I can just keep it going, I think I'll become a lot better. I think that's what I've accomplished so far as becoming a better pitcher," said James

In James's mind, the key to his development is fastball command. "I've been doing an OK job, but I've looked at my Trackman stuff and I'm still kind of everywhere. I really need to be able to (tighten up) my command. I'm just trying to be consistent and just trying to maintain throughout the season because every season is long. I'm just trying to be as best as I can be."

James is an interesting player to watch, both as a person and as a developing pitcher. When he's on the field, even for early work, his physicality and athleticism are the first things one notices. Whether it was running the steps at The Hangar, participating in pitcher's fielding practice, squatting to catch another pitcher's bullpen or going long and fending off a tackle in football drills conducted by the strength and conditioning coach, James stands out.

His energy on the field has its counterpoint off the field where he is quiet, softspoken and relaxed as he enjoys listening to blues and jazz and pretty much every other type of music, and enjoys the quiet of a place like Lancaster. You can almost feel the calmness in him. The yin/yang of calmness and energy seems to work for James as he works through the process of becoming a major league ready pitcher while never getting too high or too low.

I, for one, am incredibly impressed by what James has managed to accomplish despite being so new to pitching. And I can't wait to see how good he can be once he really learns all of the nuances of his craft. And one more thing ... those dimples, though!

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Thank you for your time, Josh, and best of luck as the season continues.

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