J.P. France

J.P. France winds up to throw a pitch Aug. 21 against the Oklahoma City Dodgers at Constellation Field. (Photo by Landan Kuhlmann) 

If it seems like we’ve been profiling a lot of pitchers – well, you’d be right. Because finding young pitchers and molding them into contributors has been an Astros specialty over the last decade or so.

This week’s Skeeters Spotlight is an exciting one, because it’s one of those players who is not on any Top 30 or Top 100 prospect – proving thus far in his minor league career that it is always best to take those lists with a grain of salt, because they don’t take into account the human element of this whole journey.

The 26-year-old J.P. France was promoted to Sugar Land from Double-A Corpus Christi on June 22, and has been nothing short of impressive. He was named the Triple-A West Pitcher of the Month for July after posting a 2.65 ERA and allowing opponents just a .622 OPS against him. Overall, he has a 3.33 ERA in 51.1 innings for Sugar Land.

So without further ado, let’s get it to it.

General overview

The Astros originally drafted France in the 14th round of the 2018 MLB Draft out of Mississippi State. France had posted a 4.01 ERA in three seasons at Tulane before transferring to the Bulldogs for his senior year in 2018, where he posted a 3.77 ERA in 59.2 innings.

France immediately made waves in short-season ball in 2018, allowing just two earned runs in 18 innings between short-season Tri City and Class-A Quad Cities while striking out 28 hitters.

It was a bit more of a struggle in 2019 at High-A Fayetteville, when he posted a 4.31 ERA in 100.1 innings, before he and others lost all of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between Corpus and Sugar Land this season, France has a 3.71 ERA in 85 innings. So what does it all mean for the right hander? Let’s take a look.

Landan’s Lowdown

Unlike many highly-touted prospects, France does not necessarily have an overpowering arsenal of pitches – his fastball will usually sit in the 88-89 MPH range. Nor does he project a particularly imposing physical presence on the mound peering through his glasses, standing at just six feet and 216 pounds.

So how has his strikeout rate jumped from a modest 9.7 K/9 in 2018-2019 to 12.1 K/9 this season, which has played a significant role in his success? It could be for any number of reasons.

On a simple note, it could be that the league is getting its first look at France, which can often help any new promotion, as the league does not have a book on them that first time around. It could be worth checking back in a few weeks after he has a second turn through most of the Triple-A West teams.

But there are also signs that his success is legitimate and not just a fluke because of hitters not having a previous scouting report. With someone like France, his relatively low-velocity means that he must rely more on deception, movement and command of his arsenal more than his high-velocity counterparts.

His changeup and slider have been most effective for France in generating swings and misses and weak contact so far this season. France’s ground ball rate – the types of batted balls less conducive to hits – of 29.5 percent so far with Sugar Land would be the lowest mark of his career, while his fly ball rate of 53 percent in an offensive-friendly league and 12.3 percent walk rate might be potential warning signs. But these things all tend to bare themselves out, so I would be hesitant to draw too many conclusions from a small sample.

Prediction: France has all the makings of another under-the-radar type prospect – like Jose Urquidy and Framber Valdez in years past – who could make an impact sooner than some might think. If his performance continues at Sugar Land for the rest of 2021, it is very easy to see him having a chance to break camp in the Astros bullpen beginning in 2022.

Quick hits

Dawson’s Creek: Outfielder Ronnie Dawson was 10 for 25 in six games last week, reaching base in 12 of his 27 plate appearances. Dawson also homered and drove in a team-high nine runs.

Bermudez Triangle: In the Skeeters’ 12-11 comeback win over Oklahoma City on Aug. 21, Jonathan Bermudez threw four shutout innings, allowing just two runners while striking out seven Dodgers.

Costes’ Craze: Outfielder Marty Costes was another strong offensive performer for Sugar Land, going 7 for 18 with three extra-base hits and reaching base 10 times in 21 plate appearances.

Last Week’s Scores

August 16: Albuquerque 2, Sugar Land 1 (7 innings)

August 16: Sugar Land 6, Albuquerque 5 (7 innings)

August 17: Sugar Land 5, Albuquerque 1

August 19: Sugar Land 9, Oklahoma City 8

August 20: Sugar Land 12, Oklahoma City 7

August 21: Sugar Land 12, Oklahoma City 11

August 22: Oklahoma City 8, Sugar Land 4

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