The Royals’ starting rotation has been “underwhelming” in 2019 to put it nicely. According to Fangraphs, the Royals rotation ranks 26th in in starting pitching WAR, 23rd in ERA, and 25th in FIP. Considering the Royals from 2013-2016 seemed to rely on their pitching to regular season and postseason (2014 and 2015) success, the fall from grace for this Royals rotation is a bit of a concern for Royals fans who are hoping the boys in blue can take a step in the right direction in 2020.
Brad Keller, the top of the rotation arm who was shut down for the year in late August, seems to be a building block for the rotation in 2020. Furthermore, it’s plausible that one of the Royals’ young arms in the system, whether it’s Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar or Kris Bubic, will get a shot to show their stuff in Kansas City, whether it’s Opening Day or later. Lastly, Danny Duffy also will likely be back in the Royals’ rotation due to the financial commitment of his contract, though he has struggled again with injuries this year (he has only pitched 112 innings in 2019), and is also showing signs of decline (his FIP has increased from 3.46 in 2017 to 4.70 to 2018 to 4.94 this year).
However, the biggest question mark for the Royals rotation will be Jakob Junis, the 26-year-old right-hander who is the Royals’ second-most valuable pitcher, according to WAR (his 1.6 WAR only trails Keller’s 2.2). While under still team-control, Junis pretty much has plateaued, or perhaps declined when one looks at his numbers at face value. In 2018, he pitched 177 innings, went 9-12 and posted a 4.37 ERA. This year, has has pitched 172 innings, is 9-13, and is posting a 5.06 ERA.
It would be easy to say the Royals should cut ties with Junis, and write him off as a mediocre starter who won’t amount to much in the Royals blue and white for the foreseeable future, especially with so many young arms impressing in the Minor Leagues.
That being said, Junis should be a mainstay in the Royals rotation in 2020, and it would be foolish for Dayton Moore and the Royals organization to give up on him after this season.
Junis will not be the Ace of the Royals staff in 2020 or ever. In fact, it’s hard to see him ever be an ace of a staff in his career. But, Junis has the potential to be a very solid 3 or 4 starter for the Royals as long as he is under team control, which according to Cot’s Contracts, which will be until 2023.
For starters, Junis will surpass his innings total from last year, and most likely will be around the 180 inning mark in terms of innings pitched this year. That kind of durability is crucial for the Royals, who have struggled to find that kind of consistency from their staff in the recent past. Though Duffy is making over $15 million per year, he has only pitched over 170 innings in a year once in his career (2016). Keller’s season high was 165 innings this year, which was due to cautionary reasons, but is also concerning since he is projected to be the Royals’ Opening Day starter again in 2020. The key to a good rotation is having guys who can eat innings and give the bullpen some rest every once in a while. While Junis is no Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander, he eats innings better than any other starter on this Royals staff, and to do that from a 3 or 4 spot in the rotation is a strength that could be helpful for Ned Yost in 2020.
Another case for Junis being a key part of this rotation in 2020 is that his advanced numbers are actually better than what his standard numbers suggest. He still is posting a solid K/BB ratio (2.89) and his FIP is a little more respectable than his ERA (4.75). Furthermore, hitters are making less contact against Junis this year, as his contact percentage has gone from 79.6 to 78.2 percent, according to PitchInfo data. Add that with an increase in swinging strike percentage (from 9.5 to 10 percent from 2018 to 2019), and there are signs that Junis is actually improving, but has been the beneficiary of some bad luck and the newer “home run” friendly environment of baseball today.
Junis has also shown capability in two areas when one looks at his season splits in 2019: he’s a much better pitcher at home and he’s been better in the second half. In terms of the first point, he is posting a 3.11 K/BB ratio at home (in comparison to 2.68 on the road) and a 4.07 FIP at the K (in comparison to 5.58 FIP away from KC). His strand rate is also much lower at Kauffman (62.7 percent) compared to away from the K (82.4 percent), which makes one wonder if that strand rate regresses toward average (around 70 percent or so) next year, what his numbers could look like next year when he pitches at Kauffman.
In terms of the second point, Junis has been a much better pitcher in the second half of the season, as he has demonstrated better command (his K/BB ratio rose almost a whole point from 2.58 to 3.56 in the second half), and managing innings with runners on (strand rate rose from 68.9 to 74.4 percent). Thus, it’s no coincidence that Junis is posting a much stronger 4.28 FIP in the second half than the 5.05 mark in the first half. Therefore, it is plausible to think that if Junis continues to finish the season strong, he can take this momentum into Spring Training and be a valuable member of the Royals rotation in 2020.
Junis is far from a perfect pitcher, and again, he should not be viewed as an ace, but rather an innings-eating 3 or 4 starter. While valuable, the 26-year-old still has his share of flaws that makes it difficult for Royals fans to go too crazy over him in terms of leading this Royals rotation in the future. Junis still has home run issues, as his HR/FB% has risen from 16.2 percent in 2018 to 16.6 percent in 2019. And that is also evident in his spray charts, as you can see below.
Now look where the home runs are going in 2019.
Hitters are hitting the long ball harder and deeper against Junis this year. Yes, some of that may be credited to the “juiced ball”. However, Junis’ hard hit percentage has risen from 35.6 percent to 41.1 percent, according to Baseball Savant. Junis will have to stabilize this glaring issue in some way if he wants to be more productive in the Royals rotation in 2020.
Despite the flaws though, Junis should be part of this Kansas City rotation for at least the next couple of years. It is easy to get distracted by what Singer and Bubic are doing in the Minors, but Junis has been a dependable innings eater who is capable of keeping the Royals competitive on a consistent basis, which cannot be said of many of the arms in the Royals rotation the past couple of years.
It will be interesting to see if Moore feels the same way, and give another spot in the rotation to Junis this Spring. But considering how the Royals have failed with free agent starting pitching signings more often than not in the last couple of years (yes, Homer Bailey was a nice surprise, but don’t forget Jason Hammel or Ian Kennedy…or at least starting Ian Kennedy), the Royals would be better served avoiding free agency to fill a rotation spot and instead keep Junis at least another year, hoping that his second half and numbers at home may be a sign of potential growth in 2020.