In a season full of disappointments, the emergence of lefty Chuck James was certainly a bright spot. The high number of injuries gave James a chance to show that his minor league numbers were not a fluke.
James had perhaps the best minor league stats of any pitcher in Atlanta Braves' history. In his 66 games (62 starts) in the minors, James was 25-13 with a 2.04 ERA. He allowed only 221 hits in 343.2 innings, with 103 walks, and 417 strikeouts. If he was taller and threw harder, he would have been the number one prospect in the game with those numbers. But instead, a six-foot pitcher that topped out at 91 had more questions than the normal top pitching prospect entering the season.
With the rotation already full, James started the season in the Atlanta bullpen. He was the long reliever in April and pitched well, but on May 5th James strained his right hamstring. He was healthy in about ten days, but with John Thomson struggling and then the injury to Kyle Davies on May 15th, the Braves decided to stretch James out by sending him to Richmond so he could come back to the big leagues as a starter.
James finally got that chance on June 25th in Tampa. It was a Sunday afternoon that many Braves' fans will never forget. James shut down the Devil Rays, pitching eight innings and allowing only one unearned run on two hits, with four walks, and eight strikeouts.
After that impressive debut, the rotation would be his home for the rest of the season. James started 18 games for the Braves and was 11-4 with a 3.93 ERA. He allowed 95 hits in 107.2 innings, with 42 walks, and 85 strikeouts. In James' final eight starts, he was 7-1 with a 2.86 ERA, with 59 strikeouts in 69.1 innings pitched.
The performance has all but cemented James into the rotation for next year and possibly for many years to come. Bobby Cox fell in love with James' easy going approach, and to simply see someone show some productivity on a consistent basis was refreshing.
It's funny, really. If a player that had just put up James' numbers was six-foot-five and threw in the mid-90s, there would be no question about his potential. However, ask fans and scouts who they'd take between James and Francisco Liriano and the choice would be overwhelmingly in Liriano's favor. James is almost discriminated against because he's not a hard-throwing, tall, intimidating pitcher.
Instead, he simply throws a fastball that is usually in the 88-91 range, along with a devastating changeup. That's it. Yeah, he'll throw a slider once in a while. But for the most part he's a two-pitch pitcher. And that's where the skepticism comes into play.
Most observers would prefer for James to use that third pitch. It's not a bad pitch, but James just doesn't feel comfortable enough to use it consistently yet in the big leagues. Coaches have urged him to throw it more, but as he keeps getting people out with his fastball and changeup, James just keeps on utilizing those two pitches.
Can he keep it up? Will the league figure him out? Most believe James will have to incorporate his slider more to offset the hitters. But James is so good at changing the speed of his fastball that he might be able to get away with it. The development of his slider can only make him better, however. And you can bet that's what he'll be working on next spring.
There is one thing that was known in the minor leagues and was quickly found out by Bobby Cox: Chuck James is one tough cookie. Yeah, he's barely six-feet tall, but he has the guts of a mountain lion. With the exception of Mr. Smoltz, there is no tougher pitcher on the Braves' roster than Chuck James. His late-season starts against veterans Jamie Moyer and Roger Clemens, both 44 years old, were incredible. James faced the veterans like he belonged without much hesitation.
And even within a game, the Braves have been able to see how tough he can get. When James gets into a bit of trouble, you can see him stay aggressive in his approach. Most pitchers back down, walk around the mound and struggle with their control. But James just gets more aggressive with the more trouble he gets into. The Braves love that. He's just fearless on the mound, and you would think he was six-foot-six with that attitude.
James' last two months of the season made him a slam dunk for next year's rotation. There may have been doubt before that, thinking that the return next year of Kyle Davies, Horacio Ramirez, and Mike Hampton might put James' spot in jeopardy. But now the Braves will have to figure out what to do with Davies and Ramirez, since James has pretty much locked up a rotation spot.
But how good can he be? Well, considering his success in the minor leagues, and his early success as a big league rookie, you almost have to ride the Chuck James bandwagon for as long as you can. Sure, you'd love it if he were taller, threw harder, and had more pitches. But the one thing he does do is get people out, and that's something that some people who are taller, throw harder, and have more pitches struggle to do sometimes.
The guy has been a winner his entire pro career, and while we should perhaps temper our enthusiasm that he's going to be this successful, it's obvious this kid knows how to pitch. And for a team that hasn't developed a consistent homegrown winner since Kevin Millwood, Chuck James has a chance to be a very important part of Atlanta's rotation for many years to come.
Sunday: 7. Can Mike Hampton return next season?
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. How good is Chuck James?
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