Astros heat hurler channels Cole in quest to start

February 20th, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- wants to be a starter. He wants to take the baseball every fifth day and let his 100-mph heat fly. He wants to throw 160 innings -- or more -- and become the kind of starter a contending team like the Astros can count on.

James puts it a little more succinctly.

“I’m hungrier to try to win the spot this year,” he said.

James, 26, and newcomer Austin Pruitt are battling with lefty Framber Valdez for the final spot in the Houston rotation behind Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr. and Jose Urquidy. James suffered a right quad injury a year ago that kept him out of the mix for the 2019 rotation, and he suffered a right shoulder injury that temporarily derailed his summer.

“This year, I really want to try to do the starting thing,” he said. “I think I can do any role. It doesn’t matter what it is, but this year I want it a little bit more, just to prove that I can do it, you know, give the team what they need, 160-plus [innings]. Whatever they ask me to do this year, I want to be able to prove I can do it.”

He wound up spending the entire 2019 season in the Astros’ bullpen and appeared in 49 games, posting a 4.70 ERA while striking out 100 batters in 61 1/3 innings. He averaged 14.77 strikeouts per nine innings but struggled with control at times because of his mechanics, averaging 5.1 walks per nine.

Earlier this week, pitching coach Brent Strom said James had been impressive at the start of camp. Since he went on the injured list last June with a shoulder issue, James has worked on staying more directional to the plate and shortening his arm stroke.

“We utilize [Gerrit] Cole as kind of a model to help with control and direction, and he's taking to it quite well,” Strom said.

James, of course, has a larger build than Cole. While Cole generated more power with his hips, James still needs at least a little bit of body rotation to create power. James clocked six pitches of at least 100 mph in six games in 2018, his first Major League season. The more he can hit his spots with his fastball and pound the zone with breaking pitches while keeping his changeup around the zone, the more he’ll succeed.

“I saw it in my delivery work when I came back from my sore shoulder when I got linear in my arm path. I was able to throw more strikes and be in the zone more,” James said. “My stuff was a little bit sharper. I’m thinking the same thing with my lower half. If I can be a little bit more linear to the plate, maybe I’ll be able to be in the zone a little bit more.”

Through it all, command is going to be the key. James can be electric when he’s throwing strikes but too often gets himself in trouble with walks.

“If you’re going to miss away or if you’re going to miss in, miss in,” he said. “So that’s it. That’s all they really told me to work on.”

Now that he’s healthy and has a clearer focus on his mechanics, James says the rest is up to him.

“This is the best I've felt in my four years or whatever that I’ve played,” he said. “It’s the strongest I’ve felt coming into camp, the most energy I’ve had coming into camp. I’m really excited to see how this turns out.”