Sunday Notes: Josh James is More Than a Fringe Five Favorite

Josh James has been a Fringe Five favorite this season. He’s also been a shooting star. The 25-year-old hurler began the year in Double-A, and he’s finishing it with aplomb in Houston. Since debuting with the Astros on September 1, James has punched out 27 batters, and allowed just 14 hits and six runs, in 21 innings of work.

His ascent has come as a surprise. A 34th-round pick out of Western Oklahoma State University in 2014, James went unmentioned in our preseason Astros Top Prospects list (ergo his eligibility to take up residence in the aforementioned Carson Cistulli column).

Every bit as surprising was the righty’s response when I asked him how he goes about attacking hitters.

“To be honest, I’m still trying to figure that out,” James told me on the heels of his rock-solid MLB debut. “A couple of years ago I was a low-90s guy and mixed up pitches. I’d throw curveballs in 0-0 counts, work backwards. All that stuff. Now the velo is up a little higher, so I can throw more fastballs and attack the zone a little more.”

The velocity jump is real. James’ four-seam heater has averaged a tick over 97 MPH since his call up, and he’s been told that he touched 101 earlier this summer. Getting a good night’s sleep has helped breathe more life into his arsenal.

“I had some apnea, and I’m using a CPAP every day,” explained James. “I feel like a different person now, being able to wake up and feel refreshed. I’m stronger. It was harder to stay healthy with poor sleep.”

Staying in sync with his delivery had also been a challenge. To a certain extent, it still is.

“That’s kind of been my little thing,” James admitted. “My little asterisk has been not being able to repeat my delivery, so we’ve been trying to make it more repetitive, more consistent. That’s something I’ve been fighting with my whole career. But I’m getting better with it. I think I’ll get there.”

As recently as this spring, a lot of people didn’t think James would get to the big leagues. Multiple Fringe Five appearances later — and thanks in part to a well-rested fastball — that’s exactly where he is.

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Isiah Kiner-Falefa has a unique defensive profile. The 23-year-old Texas Rangers rookie has started 38 games at third base, 19 at second base, and two at shortstop. Most notably, he’s also started 35 games behind the plate. According to my FanGraphs colleague Stephen Loftus, Brandon Inge is the only other player in the modern era to have started 30-or-more games in season as both a catcher and at an infield position other than first base. Inge did so in 2004 and 2008 for the Detroit Tigers.

Russell Martin feels he could have done something similar, and perhaps still could. Any why not? The 13-year-veteran has caught over 1,500 games, and his athleticism has always made him an option elsewhere on the field. Martin’s resume includes 50 career appearances at the hot corner, and this season alone he’s taken the field as a backstop, a third baseman, a shortstop, and an outfielder.

I asked Martin, who is wrapping up his fourth season with the Toronto Blue Jays, about Kiner-Falefa’s atypical catcher/infielder role. More specifically, just how difficult of a challenge is it to move back and forth between those positions?

“It depends on the player,” Martin responded. “But if you’ve caught for much of your life, or even learned how to catch, and your other natural position is an infielder, I don’t see why it would be too challenging. If you catch one day, and then play second or third… nothing should be keeping you from doing that. Catching every day is what’s hard. When you’re a catcher, any day you’re not behind the plate is kind of like a treat, physically.”

I brought up the mental part of the equation with Jeff Banister, whom the Rangers have since replaced as manager. Unlike Martin, Kiner-Falefa is new to the league, so not only does he need to get used to bouncing back and forth, he has to familiarize himself with his pitchers and the hitters they’re facing.

“Russell’s been in the league for quite awhile,” acknowledged Banister. “I’m sure when he was at the same stage he didn’t know the league very well either. Nor did he know his staff as well. That’s a learned trait. With Kiner, it’s about the education and preparation he goes through as a catcher. We can sit him down to watch video, we can sit him down with our pitching coaches and our pitchers, but every time he goes out there it’s a learning experience. He’ll have to catch a number of games to catch up to Russell Martin.”

Experience level aside, the Blue Jays backstop doesn’t consider the mental grind especially grueling. While his body often takes a beating — blocking balls, foul tips, and the like — his mind typically escapes a game unscathed.

“You don’t feel the same way you would coming out of your SAT, or ACT,” related Martin, who is viewed by many as a future big-league manager. “You’re not drained mentally. There are certain games, maybe late in the season, where they’re more intense and you’re using more brain juice. But overall, baseball is pretty simple. If you’ve got a solid understanding of what your pitcher likes to do, you trust your instincts and you go for it.

“Again, if you’re catching every other day, you’re going to stay fresher. I see no reason (Kiner-Falefa) can’t continue to do it. And having someone who can do that is a huge advantage.You don’t see it too often — someone who can play the infield and catch — and it’s a nice tool for a manager to have.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCUPS

Bubber Jonnard went 1 for 4 against Jumbo Elliott.

Andy High went 1 for 5 against Dutch Stryker.

Fats Dantonio went 1 for 6 against Fritz Ostermueller.

Carson Bigbee went 1 for 7 against Skinny Graham.

Bobby Sturgeon went 1 for 9 against Preacher Roe.

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Brian Snitker will shuffle his batting order from time to time — most every manager does — but given his druthers, he’s going to stick to the same script. The Atlanta Braves skipper is a believer in lineup continuity.

“A lot of guys move lineups around, and I guess if people are raised in that type of situation it’s not big a deal,” Snitker told me earlier this season. “But we’ve never really had that structure. Since I’ve been here, we haven’t maneuvered lineups all that much. I think guys get comfortable hitting in a certain spot.”

When he does tweak the order, he tries to makes sure the hitters in question get a heads up. Thirty-plus years of coaching and managing experience has taught him a lot about the psyches of the players who play the game.

“There’s a mental component to it,” explained the 62-year-old baseball lifer. “I don’t ever want to spring a lineup on somebody, because I respect how hard this game is. That’s the thing — a lot of people don’t realize just how tough this game is to play. These guys are really good. They make it look easy, but it’s not. As a manager you have to be keenly aware of that.”

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Don Mattingly was a line-drive machine during his borderline Hall of Fame career as a player. He wasn’t without power — he homered 222 times in his 13-plus years as a Yankee — but base hits were his bread-and-butter. Particularly doubles. The 442 two-baggers “Donnie Baseball” stroked from 1983-1995 were second-most in the game behind Wade Boggs’s 475.

Mattingly didn’t possess what is now known as a “launch angle swing,” but he certainly sees a lot of them in today’s game. But as prevalent as they’ve become, he won’t be surprised if the trend begins to reverse itself in the not-too-distant future.

“Swing planes have changed,” acknowledged Mattingly, who has managed the Miami Marlins for each of the past three seasons. “And the guys who are telling us to hit the ball in the air are the same guys who saying we need to pitch up because guys are trying to hit the ball in the air. Sinker-ball guys have kind of left the game a little bit. You see more guys now who ride the fastball up. I think we’re looking for (hitters) who are more flat paths now — swing paths that can hit the ball that’s up. That’s really the next step — guys going back to being able to hit the high ball.”

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NEWSY STUFF

Dick Bosman, a minor-league coach and pitching coordinator with the Tampa Bay Rays since 2001, has decided to retire. The 74-year-old native of Kenosha, Wisconsin pitched for three teams from 1966-1976. His best season came in 1969 when he went 14-4, 2.19 ERA with the Washington Senators.

On Tuesday, Madison Bumgarner’s became the first pitcher to record a walk-off, extra-inning pinch hit since Mitch Williams turned the trick in July 1993. (per Jayson Stark).

The New York Yankees had a multiple-milestone day on Saturday. They reached the 100-win mark for the 20th time in franchise history, and set a new single-season record with their 265th home run (the Seattle Mariners had 264 in 1997).

Kirsten Karbach, the play-by-play voice of the Clearwater Threshers, has been named the Florida State League’s broadcaster of the year. Karbach was featured in this column last December.

Baseball Digest has named Tim Heiman, the voice of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, as their minor league broadcaster of the year. The Rumble Ponies are the Double-A affiliate of the New York Mets.

———

The Baltimore Orioles have suffered through a train wreck of a season, with their 115 losses ignominiously qualifying as the most in franchise history. Pity poor Buck Showalter. Not only has he had to manage a woebegone club, he’s had to repeatedly address the situation with the media. Just this past week I dared to ask the veteran of 20 managerial seasons how this one compares to the worst he’d experienced previously.

“They’re a little different situations, each one,” answered Showalter, who was clearly not enthused about answering the question. “One of them was expansion baseball. We responded very well to that the next season. I hope we respond that way. They’re all tough. There are challenges in every season, even when you win 100 games. When you’re in the playoffs. There are periods you go through. Obviously this has been tough on everybody.”

I volunteered that he’s probably grown tired of being asked about what he’s had to endure.

“If you’re tired of being asked, don’t lose 100 games,” was the chagrinned skipper’s response — to which I countered that much of what has transpired has been out of his control. “Don’t get me started” were his parting words.

It’s hard to imagine Showalter wanting to return to Baltimore next season. Even if he somehow does, a parting of the ways is almost assured. Good luck to his successor.

———

NON-MLB NOTABLES

Derek Norris batted .256 with 12 home runs in 410 at bats this year for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League. The Skeeters and Long Island Ducks are currently playing in the Atlantic League Championship Series.

Yuki Yanagita, a 29-year-old outfielder with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. leads NPB’s Pacific League in batting average (.357), OBP (.437), and SLG (.670). Hotaka Yamakawa, a 26-year-old infielder with the Seibu Lions, leads in home runs, with 45.

On Saturday, Seibu’s Sosuke Genda broke NPB’s record for single-season assists by a shortstop. Chunichi’s Takeshi Sugiura held the old record, with 502, which he set in 1948.

Matt Holliday, who turned 38 in January, was the oldest position player to see action in a minor league game this season. J.D. Martin, who turned 35 in January, was the oldest pitcher.

Addison Russ, a 23-year-old right-hander in the Phillies organization, had 27 saves, a 9-2 won-lost record, and a 1.96 ERA between low-A Lakewood and high-A Clearwater. A 19th-round pick last year out of Houston Baptist fanned 79 batters in 64 innings.

———

Myriad MLB players make an effort to help those in need. Dan Straily is among them. The Miami Marlins righty inked a $3.375M contract over the offseason, and he subsequently began spreading the wealth in an underdeveloped nation with a baseball-rich history.

“I got involved with Adam Wainwright’s foundation,” explained Straily. “It’s called Big League Impact, and we’ve built a baseball field in a community of about 900 people in the Dominican Republic. (El Cercadillo) is kind of out in the middle of nowhere, north of the capital, and we’ve also built a water well, which is a resource they need.”

The reason for Straily’s generosity is straightforward.

“To be quite frank, as baseball players we’re blessed with great salaries,” the 29-year-old hurler told me. “There’s a point in life when you realize that there’s something greater than yourself going on, and my wife (Amanda) and I were looking for a way to give back. More specifically, we wanted to to give back to baseball, because baseball has given us so much.”

———

LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Sporting News, Jenn Smith wrote about how Danny Jansen is the catcher of the future in Toronto.

The Mariners drafted David Hesslink of out MIT last year, and he’s now working in Seattle’s front office. Gerard Gilberto has the story at MiLB.com.

Is billionaire Dan Gilbert looking to buy the Detroit Tigers? John Gallagher explored that question at The Detroit Free Press.

At The San Francisco Chronicle, Henry Schulman wrote about the Giants’ decision to fire Bobby Evans, and retain Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean.

Over at October.com, Eno Sarris has a conversation with Kevin Youkilis, a.k.a. The Greek God of Hops, about the relationship between beer and baseball.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Going into the final day of the season, MLB teams have combined to record 40,771 hits and 40,898 strikeouts. Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman and Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield lead all players with 191 hits apiece, while Chicago’s Yoan Moncada has the most strikeouts, 218.

Joey Gallo has 38 singles and 40 home runs. Last season the Texas Rangers slugger had 32 singles and 41 home runs.

Colorado Rockies right-hander German Marquez went 18 for 60 at the plate this season. His .300 batting average was the highest among pitchers with 10-or-more at bats.

In 1945, Snuffy Stirnweiss of the New York Yankees won the American League batting title by a nose, hitting .30854 to Chicago’s Tony Cuccinello’s .30845. The White Sox released Cuccinello that winter.

Justin Verlander had a record of 7-6 in each of this three seasons at Old Dominion University. His walk totals were 43, 43, and 43.

On September 28, 1999, Red Sox outfielder Jeff Stone recorded his only hit of the season — and the last of his big-league career — against Toronto’s Tom Henke. It was a ninth-inning walk-off single that gave Boston a one-game lead over the Blue Jays on top of the American League East standings.

Lady Baldwin played the first game of his big league career with the Detroit Wolverines on this date in 1884.

Piggy Ward played the final game of his big league career with the Washington Senators on this date in 1894.

Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker played their final game as Detroit Tigers teammates on October 1, 1995. The double-play duo was together for 19 seasons and 1,918 games.

Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot” occurred on October 1, 1932 in Game 3 of the World Series. The pitch was delivered by Charlie Root, who played his entire 17-year career with the Chicago Cubs. Root is the franchise’s all-time leader in wins (201) appearances (605) and innings pitched (3,137).

In 1927 — the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs — the Yankees had a .714 winning percentage.

On the last day of the 1971 season, the Washington Senators were one out away from a 7-5 win when fans stormed the field, resulting in a forfeit win for the visiting New York Yankees.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Josh James is More Than a Fringe Five Favorite by David Laurila!

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